If I asked you to name the fathers or founders of the United States, you might say George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. If you considered the Constitution as one of the founding documents, you might add James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
What about George Whitefield?
George Whitefield (1714-1770) is associated with John and Charles Wesley as one of the key figures in what is known as the Great Awakening, the religious revival in both Britain and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. Whitefield initiated the practice of open-air preaching – out of necessity, when this Church of England minister was banned from preaching in British churches (he aroused “enthusiasm” and attracted “lowlife” like coal miners, who had never attended church before).
John Pollock, in George Whitefield: The Evangelist, tells the man’s story, but he does it in an unusual way. First, this isn’t a standard biography; it reads more like a novel. Yet it’s based on reports, writings, papers, sermons, and contemporary accounts, so that it is “biographical.”
Second, Pollock starts the story with Whitefield at Oxford as a young man, just beginning his ministry. His earlier life is slightly referred to throughout the book but not described in any detail. For example, we only know of Whitefield’s birthplace of Gloucester, England, because of his visits home and ministry in the area.
And third, it is Whitefield the evangelist who is the focus, as opposed to Whitefield the man. This is not a full account of his life but it is a detailed account of his evangelistic outreach in England and America.
Whitefield made some 13 trips to America, starting in the colony of Georgia but eventually including all of the colonies. Benjamin Franklin knew him well. Franklin didn’t embrace Whitefield’s message of salvation but the two men were good friends and Franklin became his American publisher.
In his younger days, Whitefield was slender and not terribly impressive physically. Many friends and critics alike cited his “squinting,” a result of being cross-eyed. But his voice was captivating; listeners often compared it to music. And it could carry – Franklin estimated that up to 30,000 people could actually hear him clearly in Philadelphia.
His first open-air sermon was near Bristol, England. Denied the use of the churches’ pulpits (despite his being an ordained Church of England minister), he stood in an open field and preached to miners leaving their work in the coal mines. He had no idea of whether they were listening or not until he saw the white streaks on their coal-dust faces; the men had been moved to tears. A gathering of a few hundred soon became a gathering of thousands.
Pollock points how the close relationship Whitefield has with the Wesley brothers, but they became estranged for a time. The Wesleys would break with the Church of England to found Methodism, while Whitefield remained within the C of E even if it often banned him from speaking.
Whitefield had a phenomenal impact in America; millions would eventually hear his message from both himself and the evangelists he inspired. And he kindled an American awareness of the idea that all men were equal in the sight of God, a belief that became common throughout the colonies and would set the stage for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.
Pollock (1924-2012) originally published George Whitefield in 1973; it was reissued in 2007 and more recently as an e-book. He was also the author of The Apostle: The Life of Paul; D.L. Moody: Moody without Sankey; Wilberforce; Hudson Taylor and Maria: A Match Made in Heaven; The Cambridge Seven: The True Story of Ordinary Men Used in No Ordinary Way; Gordon of Khartoum; and several other books. He was also an official biographer of Billy Graham.
George Whitefield is a well-told story. The Great Awakening and Whitefield had a major influence on the creation of the United States, and Pollock explains how that happened.
Painting: George Whitefield Preaching in Bolton 1750, oil on canvas by Thomas Walley; Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, United Kingdom.