Whitefield, George

Click to enlarge

Anglican clergyman and Methodist preacher, born at the Bell Inn, Gloucester on 16 December 1714, the seventh child of Thomas and Elizabeth Whitefield. Childhood measles left him with a squint, which later earned him the nickname 'Dr. Squintum' among his detractors. He went to the Crypt School ands then to Pembroke College, Oxford as a servitor and was introduced to the Holy Club by Charles Wesley. Deeply moved by reading Scougal's Life of God in the Soul of Man, he found personal assurance of salvation during a Lenten fast in 1735. Ordained in 1736, he began preaching in London with almost instant success and was attended everywhere by crowded congregations. It was the same when he commenced preaching in Bristol in January 1737. Returning to Bristol after his first visit to America, he began to preach out-of-doors in February 1739. He encouraged both John and Charles Wesley to this 'field preaching' that same year. On April 29 1739, now excluded from the London churches that had formerly welcomed him, he took his stand in the open space of Lower Moorfields. The huge crowd that attended was a harbinger of the vast congregations that flocked to his preaching in England, Scotland and America for the next thirty years. In 1741 he married Mrs. Elizabeth James, a widow of Abergavenny, despite her engagement to Howell Harris.

Whitefield made seven visits to America, opened (but failed to maintain) an orphanage near Savannah and witnessed amazing scenes of spiritual fervour during his revival preaching in New England. There he became firm friends with Jonathan Edwards and the Tennent brothers, a friendship that greatly strengthened his Calvinistic convictions. This led to controversy and a strain in his friendship with the Wesley brothers, notably from 1741 on over their interpretation of the doctrine of 'free grace'. Eventually, after many years of uneasy tension, to Methodism dividing in the 1770s into Wesleyan (Arminian) and Calvinistic branches. Despite this, when Whitefield died at Newburyport, Mass., on 30 September 1770, John Wesley preached his funeral sermon in his Tottenham Court Road Tabernacle, London.

Whitefield was a humble and sincere Christian, totally devoted to his Lord and his calling. A flaming evangelist with an unquenchable passion to bring men and women to Christ, he possessed extraordinary gifts of oratory and dramatic power to which the great David Garrick bore testimony and which captivated and convicted congregations for three decades. Throughout his life it was he, rather than the Wesleys, who was the archetypal Methodist in the public mind, and it was he, rather than the Wesleys, who was the main target of the satirists and critics of eighteenth-century Methodism. His failure to consolidate the results of his preaching limited his long-term influence and the societies associated with him were, by comparison with Wesley's connexion, 'a rope of sand'. Philip Doddridge dismissed him as 'a very honest tho' a very weak man' who 'certainly does much good and I am afraid some harm.'


October 1756: [At Manchester] 'I rejoiced to hear of the great good Mr. Whitefield had done in our Societies. He preached as universally [i.e. 'preached universalism'] as my brother. He warned them everywhere against apostasy, and strongly insisted on the necessity of holiness after justification… He beat down the separating spirit, highly commended the prayers and services of our Church, charged the people to meet their bands and classes constantly, and never to leave the Methodists or God would leave them. In a word: hr did his utmost to strengthen our hands, and deserves the thanks of all the churches for his abundant labour of love.'

Charles Wesley's Journal

'Mention has already been made of his unparalleled Zeal, his indefatigable Activity, his Tender-heartedness to the afflicted, and Charitableness toward the poor… Should we not mention, that he had an heart susceptible of the most generous and the most tender Friendship? I have frequently thought that this, of all others, was the distinguishing part of his character. How few have we known of so kind a temper, of such large and flowing affections? Was it not principally by this, that the hearts of others were so strangely drawn and knit to him? Can any thing but love beget love? This shone in his very countenance, and continually breathed in all his words, whether in public or private. Was it not this, which, quick and penetrating as lightning, flew from heart to heart? Which gave that life to his Sermons, his Conversations, his Letters? Ye are witnesses.'

John Wesley, A Sermon on the Death of the Rev. Mr George Whitefield

'I went several times to the Tabernacle and heard Mr. George Whitefield; and of all the preachers that ever I attended, never did I meet with one that had such perfect command over the passions of his audience. In every sermon that I heard him preach, he would sometimes make them ready to burst with laughter, and the next moment drown them in tears; indeed it was scarcely possible for the most guarded to escape the effect…'

James Lackington, Memoirs (1827 edition), Letter XV

'Little can be said of him, but what every friend to vital christianity, who has sat under his ministry, will attest. In his public labours he has for many years astonished the world with his eloquence and devotion. With what divine pathos did he persuade the impenitent sinner to embrace the practice of piety and virtue! Filled with the spirit of grace, he spoke from the heart, and with a fervency of zeal, perhaps unequalled since the days of the apostles,adorned the truths he delivered with the most graceful charms of rhetoric and oratory. From the pulpit he was unrivalled in the command of an ever-crowded auditory. Nor was he less agreeable and instructive in his private conversation: happy in a remarkable ease of address, willing to communicate, studious to edify.'

The Boston Gazette, quoted byJohn Wesley in his memorial sermon (1770)

  • Charles Atmore, Methodist Memorial (1801), pp.492-502
  • John Gillies, Memoirs of the late Reverend George Whitefield... (1811)
  • Robert Philip, The Life and Times of the Reverend George Whitefield MA (1837)
  • Luke Tyerman, The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield BA of Permbroke College, Oxford (2 vols., 1876-77)
  • James P. Gledstone, George Whitefield MA, field-preacher (1900)
  • WHS Proceedings, 10 pp.1-63
  • Bibliography of Whitefield's writings, in WHS 10 pp.169-84, 211-23
  • Albert D. Belben, 'George Whitefield: his influence on his time', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, July 1954 pp.217-22
  • H. Davies, Worship and Theology in England: From Watts and Wesley to Maurice, 1690-1850 (Princeton, 1961) pp.146-83
  • A. Dallimore, George Whitefield, 2 vols. (London & Edinburgh, 1970, 1980)
  • Frank Baker, 'Whitefield's Break with the Wesleys', in The Church Quarterly, 3:2 (October 1970) pp.103-13
  • W.B.T. Douglas, 'George Whitefield: the man and his mission', in Methodist History, 16 (1977-78) pp.46-53
  • Maldwyn L. Edwards, 'George Whitefield after Two Hundred Years' in WHS Proceedings, 37 pp.178-79
  • John Pollock, George Whitefield and the Great Awakening (1973)
  • Rupert E. Davies, 'George Whitefield, the Man', in Epworth Review, 14:1, January 1987, pp.51-58
  • John D. Walsh, 'Wesley vs. Whitefield...' in Christian History, 12:2 (1993) pp.34-37
  • George E. Clarkson, George Whitefield and Welsh Calvinistic Methodism (Lewiston, 1996)
  • Barry C. Davis, 'George Whitefield's Doctrine of Scripture in light of 18th century biblical criticism', in Methodist History, 36:1 (October 1997) pp.17-32
  • Michael A.G. Haykin (ed.), The Revived Puritan: The spirituality of George Whitefield (Dundas, 2000)
  • Ernest A. Johnston, George Whitefield: A definitive biography (Stoke-on-Trent, 2008)
  • Ian J. Maddock, Men of One Book: A comparison of two Methodist preachers, John Wesley and George Whitefield (2011)
  • David Ceri Jones, 'So much idolized by some, and railed at by others: towards understanding George Whitefield', in Wesley and Methodist Studies, vol.5, 2013, pp.3-29
  • Peter J. Morden, ' "The nineteenth-Century Whitefield": Charles Haddon Spurgeon and George Whitefield', in WHS Proceedings, 60, pp.18-26
  • Tom Schwanda, 'Unity and Division: the changing theology and friendship between George Whitefield and John Cennick', in WHS Proceedings, vol.60, October 2015, pp.111-22
  • Eric Wright, 'John Wesley versus George Whitefield', in the Cumbria Methodist Historical Society Journal, Spring 2016 pp.3-18
  • Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones (eds.), George Whitefield: Life, Context and Legacy (2016)
  • David Ceri ,Jones, 'George Whitefied and Heart Religion' in John Coffey (ed.), Heart Religion: Evangelical Piety in England and Ireland, 1690-1850 (2016) pp. 93-112
  • Oxford DNB
  • Methodist Recorder, 2 January 2015
  • Peter Y. Choi, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire (2018)
  • David Ceri Jones, George Whitefield, John Gillies and the Shaping if the Methodist Past, in WHS Proceedings, vol.62:3 , October 2019