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George Whitefield

1714-1770. English preacher. Born at Gloucester, he was educated there and at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he associated with those who formed the “Holy Club”* and who would later be known as the first Methodists. There also he experienced an evangelical conversion. He was subsequently ordained, and his first sermon-in his native town-was of such fervor that a complaint was made to the bishop that he had driven fifteen people mad. He preached in several London churches, but quickly accepted an invitation from John and Charles Wesley* to go to Georgia where, with the exception of a notable visit home, he remained from 1737 to 1741. The visit home included his first attempt at open-air preaching, in Bristol. He was to continue the practice to the end of his life, regularly delivering up to twenty sermons a week, covering vast distances that included fourteen visits to Scotland and, in those days of long and hazardous voyages, no less than seven journeys to America, where he died shortly after preaching his last sermon.

The association with Wesley in the early years quickly gave way to differences and even to bitter feud. This arose mainly from their opposed views of the availability of salvation, Wesley adopting the Arminian* interpretation and Whitefield the Calvinistic. As a result, the latter became closely associated with the work of the countess of Huntingdon,* and in his later years he opened several of the meetinghouses of her Connexion as well as the theological college at Trevecca in 1768.

In his kind Whitefield is supreme among preachers, sharing his eminence only with Latimer.* Others might be more learned, even more stylish, but none was more eloquent or more moving. J.C. Ryle has justly claimed, “No preacher has ever retained his hold on his hearers so entirely as he did for thirty-four years.”

His theme is the basic evangelical message of man's irremediable sinfulness and Christ's effective salvation. Indeed, as we read them, there is a sameness about Whitefield's sermons that becomes rather tedious, an effect no doubt of too much preaching and too little preparation. Nevertheless this does not detract from their vividness. His vision of heaven and, more particularly, hell was too immediate for that, and his regard for the eternal welfare of the souls of each of his hearers too insistent. There is thus an intimate note in all his work, displaying itself in his earnestness and importunity. “My brethren, I beseech you” is a recurrent expression. Like open-air preachers before him, like the friars and like Latimer, his work abounds with vivid colloquial phrases and apt, familiar analogies. And none knew better than he how to use question and exclamation to produce a tense, dramatic atmosphere. He added antithesis, repetition, brevity, assertion to his range. Above all, he was, as contemporary record witnesses, a supreme actor, gifted in voice and gesture to pull out all the stops.

Others-Pope, Johnson, Fielding among them-criticized him. To William Cowper,* who thought and felt as he did but who in his timidity differed so much from the sometimes strident self- confidence of Whitefield, was left the task of tribute: He followed Paul-his zeal a kindred flame, His apostolic charity the same.

See L. Tyerman, George Whitefield (1876); and Select Sermons (1958).