Our Namesake: George Whitefield
George WHitefield: A FUll Gospel Life
George Whitefield was indisputably the most popular preacher of the Evangelical Revival in Great Britain and the Great Awakening in America. His unrivaled preaching ability, evangelistic fervor, and irregular methods paved the way for the Protestant multidenominational system that developed in America as well as the American Revolution itself. In addition to his fame earned from the pulpit, Whitefield was dedicated to the the importance and witness of genuine Christian charity.
According to Jerome Mahaffey, author of The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America, “without Whitefield . . . American independence would have come much later, if at all.” Mahaffey aims to show that Whitefield developed the “logic template” in his arguments defending the religious revivals of the Great Awakening that would be employed in arguments defending the Revolution and that ultimately “one’s identity and the rules about Americanness originated from the Awakening worldview as sowed by George Whitefield”. In the end, “of all the colonial leaders and their ideas, if you remove Whitefield and his contribution, no one else had the message, popularity, and influence to shape American colonists into people who could declare independence.”
George Whitefield was born on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England, the seventh and youngest child of Elizabeth Edwards and Thomas Whitefield. Whitefield was educated first by his mother and then at St. Mary de Crypt school and Pembroke College, Oxford, which he entered on November 7, 1732. His association with Charles Wesley led to his participation with the Oxford Methodists, and he became the group’s leader in 1735, after Charles and John Wesley departed for America. In 1736, Whitefield was ordained deacon of the Anglican Church and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree. He spent the next year preaching in England and collecting funds for the colony of Georgia. The Wesleys had invited him to join them in Georgia, which he did in May 1738.
Upon arrival in Savannah Whitefield became the the Fourth Rector of Christ Church Anglican, in Savannah. Four months later Whitefield returned to England in order to raise money for the establishment of an orphanage near Savannah and to secure priest’s orders, which he received in January 1739. Because of his irregular preaching methods, he found many churches closed to him, so he turned to open-air preaching.
Whitefield returned to America for the second of his seven visits in November 1739, arriving at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From there he traveled throughout the colonies, preaching mainly in Presbyterian churches and outdoors. He became the most visible figure of the American evangelical movement known as the Great Awakening. Arriving in Savannah in January 1740, he received a hero’s welcome. Whitefield was designated minister of Savannah by the Georgia Trustees in 1738, and his extempore preaching and praying, as well as his willingness to officiate in dissenter meeting houses, was well received in the colony.
Upon his arrival in Savannah, Whitefield had provided approximately 2,500 pounds toward the cost of constructing Bethesda Orphan House in the city. Back in England by March 1741, he sought more funds for the "poor orphans” of Georgia wherever he preached. His dream was to add an academy and eventually a college to Bethesda. Although an academy was eventually built at Bethesda Orphanage, Whitefield’s plan for a college was thwarted in England, despite backing from Georgia’s governor, council, and assembly.
In November 1741, Whitefield married Elizabeth Burnell James. The couple had one child, who died in infancy.
Whitefield died on Sunday, September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and is buried there beneath the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church.
The fruits of Whitefield’s passion for evangelism and loving one’s neighbor live on today. Whitefield’s connection to Savannah and the lasting legacy of his charitable work in this area make him an ideal namesake for our Center and Foundation.