His early death meant that he had no real opportunity to form and shape an organization to continue the more Calvinist part of the revival. Yet the power of his preaching to thousands, his proclamation of the new birth, his doctrinal depth and clarity, and his passion for the poor should leave us thankful to God for calling him—one of the defining and foundational leaders of the fires of evangelical Christian revival.
George Whitefield’s first sermon after his ordination, in June 1736, prompted a complaint to the bishop! He later printed the sermon with the title On the Nature and Necessity of Our Regeneration or New Birth. Whitefield was never far from controversy, both with the established church (in England and American) and, sadly, the great John Wesley. Whitefield was a central figure in the evangelical revival of the 18th century and proved absolutely scathing about the condition of pre-revival clergy. Perhaps less organizationally gifted than Wesley, he nevertheless brought the Gospel to both the poorest of British workers as well as the English aristocracy (forming a close bond with the Countess of Huntingdon, whom we will meet later in the series), thus proving to be an extremely influential figure in the development and continuation of the evangelical tradition within the Church of England.
George Whitefield (1714–1770) was born on December 16, 1714, at the Bell Inn, in Gloucester, England. He was the youngest of seven children to Thomas and Elizabeth. His father died when he was just two years old, his mother made an unsuitable remarriage, and the prosperity of the inn declined rapidly. We know the details of Whitefield’s early life from his Journals, including his “A Short Account of God’s Dealings with the Reverend Mr George Whitefield,” although they cover the period only up to 1745 and have the benefit of hindsight.
Just before his 18th birthday, George entered Oxford as a “servitor.” This was the poor man’s way into Oxford. The student was granted free tuition, but the servitor had to serve other students, wear distinctive dress, and was not permitted to receive Holy Communion with the other students. However, it opened the door to a better, and higher, life.
George Whitefield was prime material for the Holy Club, formed at Oxford by, among others, Church of England priest and evangelist John Wesley and his brother Charles. Club members agreed to take Holy Communion every week, fast regularly, and follow the festivals of the church, as well as visit prisoners in jail. Like Wesley, Whitefield constantly experienced the inner conflict and struggle of daily temptation and the desire to live a religious life. Before arriving at Oxford, he was already reading William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Soon after his arrival he noted in his Journal that “I now began to pray and sing psalms thrice every day.” Whitefield also recorded his admiration for the “Methodists,” those who were “methodical” and disciplined in their personal piety. It was perhaps inevitable that he join them.
Whitefield’s inner struggles continued. He sought counsel from the Wesleys and, after a breakfast with Charles, was recommended Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Scougal was a 17th-century Scottish theologian and minister, and his book was instrumental in turning over Whitefield’s way of thinking. The Life of God, he recounted, introduced him to true religion as union with Christ rather than the discharge of duty. His moment of conversion was near, which he described in his Journal to have occurred around seven weeks after Easter 1735: “I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me,” an expression that reflected the classic evangelical conversion narrative.
Whitefield sought ordination—we have already noted the impact of the first sermon—and then, quite possibly under Wesley’s influence, headed for the state of Georgia in early 1738. The American colonies held some fascination for these early revival leaders. The colony of Georgia had been founded in 1732, with Savannah as the main settlement from 1733. Both Wesley and Whitefield and, indeed, others were drawn here owing to the possibility of the conversion of the indigenous population as well as the opportunity to minister to the settlers. What soon became clear was that the impact of disease left many children orphaned, and raising support for a Savannah orphanage became a focal point of ministry in the Americas for Wesley and Whitefield. In his early visits to the state, Whitefield was shocked by the brutality of slavery.