Uncommon Zeal: George Whitefield at 250 Years

On September 29th, 1770, the eminent and ailing George Whitefield entered the small New England town of Exeter. An unexpected and sizable crowd had gathered to hear him preach. The famous evangelist was unwell, and an elderly man expressed concern: “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.” Whitefield answered, “True sir.” Then he glanced heavenward and prayed: “Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.”[1]

Whitefield then stood quietly for several minutes on the newly erected outdoor platform. The silence was broken when he said, “I will wait for the gracious assistance of God; for he will, I am certain, assist me once more to speak in his name.” Shortly thereafter Whitefield proclaimed the person and redemptive work of Christ, and the eternal glory in which he himself would soon enter.

I go to a rest prepared; my sun has arisen … it is now about to set — no, it is about to rise to the zenith of immortal glory. Many may outlive me on earth, but they cannot outlive me in heaven. Oh, thought divine! I shall soon be in a world where time, age, pain, and sorrow are unknown. My body fails, my spirit expands. How willingly would I live to preach Christ! But I die to be with Him![2]

The following morning, on the Christian Sabbath, at a Presbyterian manse in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Whitefield’s faith turned to sight. The great preacher’s eternal sabbath had dawned. Aged fifty-five, Whitefield entered the unmediated presence of his Savior. This year marks the 250th anniversary of George Whitefield’s death. It’s befitting, therefore, to consider afresh his exceptional life and ministry.

George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England, on December 16th, 1714. He was baptized as an infant and raised in the Church of England. In his published journals, Whitefield dedicates only a couple of pages to his childhood. Therefore, we don’t know much about his youth, except that growing up in the context of a country inn fostered much temptation. Whitefield states, “I was so brutish as to hate instruction … lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting I was much addicted to.” He adds that he regularly stole from his widowed mother and dishonored the Sabbath. “It would be endless to recount the sins and offenses of my younger days.”[3] Whitefield was highlighting his (and everyone’s!) colossal need of the new birth.

As a young student at Pembroke College, Oxford, Whitefield entered a period of deep conviction over his sin.[4] By God’s grace, the Spirit soon raised him to new life in Christ. “God was pleased to set me free … the days of my mourning ended. After a long night of desertion and temptation … the Day Star arose in my heart.”[5]

Whitefield’s early piety was largely shaped by John and Charles Wesley. They mentored him in the spiritual disciplines and directed him to classic works in Puritan divinity.[6] On January 14, 1739, Whitefield was ordained to the Anglican priesthood. He never quite settled into a parish church, however, finding that field preaching was far more effective for gathering and winning lost souls. Indeed, in the early days of the Great Awakening, as enormous crowds gathered to hear Whitefield preach, and his critics in the Anglican establishment (on both sides of the Atlantic) continued to grow, Whitefield “began to contemplate ‘preaching without doors’ as a normal part of his ministry. Outdoor preaching would allow Whitefield to accommodate many more listeners than would fit in the limited confines of most sanctuaries. It would also allow him to preach in places where he was banned from the pulpit.”[7]

Whitefield’s warm, passionate, and biblical preaching was a welcome alternative to the cold and mechanical formalism of the Church of England. The fiery evangelist disdained the “polite preaching” of his day which neglected to trumpet forth the soul-stirring doctrines of the faith. The Holy Spirit was stirring tens of thousands of hearts through the bold preaching of Whitefield, Edwards, the Wesleys, and others.[8] These men felt deeply the truth they proclaimed. It’s the kind of courageous, apostolic, experiential preaching that we need more of today![9]

Whitefield made thirteen trips to the American colonies. His travel and preaching schedules were relentless. It is believed that, over the course of his 34-year ministry, the indefatigable evangelist preached 18,000 times to more than 10 million people. In cities such as London, Philadelphia, and Boston he would attract crowds upwards of 20,000 people. Thousands came to Christ under his preaching.

Whitefield’s popularity in the early 1740’s was unparalleled. One recent biographer states that “he was the first internationally famous itinerant preacher and the first modern transatlantic celebrity of any kind.” He playfully adds, “With apologies to the Beatles, Whitefield was the first ‘British sensation.’”[10] Though never himself becoming a believer, Benjamin Franklin fostered a long personal friendship with Whitefield, eagerly attending his sermons in Philadelphia and putting scores of them into print.[11]

The attention was not all positive, however, and controversy was his constant companion at the height of the Revival.[12]Between 1739–1740, there appeared 154 anti-Whitefield pamphlets. Widespread criticism was directed at his open-air preaching. He was also reproved for his “secret impulses,” dreams, and direct revelations, his public indictments against the clergy, and his Calvinistic soteriology. The fiery evangelist’s public exchange with John Wesley over the doctrine of election was heated and divisive, but underscored Whitefield’s doctrinal erudition.

Whitefield’s unenlightened views on chattel slavery did not come under scrutiny in his lifetime. Indeed, it wasn’t until the American Revolution and the British abolitionist movement (led by William Wilberforce) that white anti-slavery sentiment emerged on both sides of the Atlantic, all after Whitefield’s death in 1770. Nevertheless, Whitefield wrote passionate salvos against the “diabolical cruelty” of slave masters in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. In addition, he was a strong advocate for the “evangelization and baptism” of slaves, unlike many in his day. Even so, Whitefield was a man of his times in this regard, sinfully blind to the contemptible common practice of buying and selling slaves. Kidd explains:

Today, this seems an insufferable contradiction, but early evangelicals often maintained at tension without any obvious ethical reservations. Whitefield lived in a world of all kinds of hierarchies and inequalities … he was left to interpret for himself passages that, on one hand, told slaves to obey their masters, and, on the other, proclaimed that in Christ there was neither slave nor free, “for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).[13]

While space does not permit a more comprehensive survey, it must be mentioned that Whitefield established the Bethesda orphanage in Savannah, Georgia, mended his friendship with John Wesley, and expressed sincere regret about his former conduct throughout his lifetime and ministry. In his later years he humbly wrote: “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged and acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in giving characters, both of places and of persons. Being fond of scripture language, I have often used a style too apostolical, and at the same time I have been too bitter in my zeal … and I find that I frequently wrote and spoke in my town spirit, when I thought I was writing and speaking by the assistance of the Spirit of God.”[14] Whitefield was a man of sincere Christian humility.

The most faithful preachers are devoted Christians. In remembering Whitefield on the semiquincentennial of his death, what strikes me most is not his grand eloquence, the massive crowds he attracted, or his valiant defense of Calvinism. No, it’s his earnest and consistent walk with God over the course of an intense 34-year ministry. His public ministry was undergirded by his personal piety. He prayerfully relied upon the Holy Spirit and the means of grace. Shouldn’t this be the aim of every minister?

In his funeral sermon, John Wesley affectionately and rightly referred to Whitefield as a “blessed instrument in the hand of God.” On this anniversary of his death, may we all take time to give thanks for Whitefield’s extraordinary life and ministry, and the valuable lessons—both good and bad—that may be taken from them.


* This article is a slightly edited and expanded version of that which first appeared in the October 2020 edition of The Banner of Truth Magazine.


[1] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1980), vol. 2, 503.

[2] Ibid., 503–504. The sermon lasted for two hours.

[3] George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Journals (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), 37–38.

[4] Ibid., 50–58.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] In his early years, Whitefield was profoundly impacted by Henry Scougal’s, The Life of God in the Soul of Man (1677); Joseph Alleine’s, An Alarm to Unconverted Sinners (1672); Richard Baxter’s, A Call to the Unconverted (1658); and Thomas Boston’s, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State (1720). He also prized the works of Bunyan and Owen.

[7] Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: American’s Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 65.

[8] For an excellent 19th-century account of the preaching of this period, see Jospeh Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Whitefield and Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2019; first published 1842).

[9] Packer writes: “What troubles us, I think, is a sense that the old Evangelical tradition of power preaching – the tradition, in England, of Whitfield and Wesley … Simeon and Ryle – has petered out, and we do not know how to revive it.  We feel that, despite all our efforts, we as preachers are failing to speak adequately to men’s souls.” Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson, Eds., Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2001), 142.

[10] Kidd, Whitefield, 260.

[11] Dallymore, Whitefield, vol. 2, 441–453. After Whitefield’s death, Franklin expressed: “I knew him intimately upwards of 30 years: His integrity, disinterestedness, and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work, I have never seen equaled, I shall never see excelled.” (p.453)

[12] An excellent book on revival is Iain Murray’s Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750–1858 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994).

[13] Kidd, Whitefield, 111.

[14] Kidd writes: “By the late 1740’s, Whitefield had become convinced that focusing on dreams, impressions, and quick spiritual judgments had caused many of his movement’s early problems (seen most obviously in the career of James Davenport), and that he should no longer place them at the center of exemplary piety.” Kidd, Whitefield, 206U