George Whitefield has been called "Anglo-America's first religious celebrity." (Stout, xvi) Imbued with a profound sense of calling and personal drive, he crafted a message both transcendent and grounded in the culture of his day. Eager for attention since childhood, he was a born performer who inspired his listeners with an artful delivery that belied his less than stellar origins.
Whitefield was born December 1714 at the Bell Inn, Gloucester, England, where his parents were innkeepers. Divining parallels to another religious figure born in an inn, Whitefield learned to exploit his upbringing as he overcame it. His father died when Whitefield was two, and his mother raised him, expecting greatness from him. An average student, he focused his energy in the theater.
In 1732 Whitefield entered Pembroke College, Oxford, as servitor. There he met Charles Wesley, with whom he would correspond throughout his life. Whitefield received his bachelor's degree from Oxford and was ordained in 1736. In his personal journals, he writes of his emerging fame and following.
Whitefield preached 40-50 hours per week during his ministry, nearly 18,000 times over a 30-year transcontinental itinerancy. With a personality that consumed space indoors and out, Whitefield built his audience by crafting vivid sermons without notes in a voice Benjamin Franklin claimed could be heard by 25,000. (Marsden, 206)
At the same time, Whitfield grew his network in an expanding print media, publishing 46 sermons before age 25. During his early ministry in England he published more than 100 tracts. He wrote multi-volume journals from which he disseminated extracts to advance and pay for his work and travels. Seven volumes of the journal came out by 1741. He dominated the American publishing scene well into 1745. Philadelphia publisher Benjamin Franklin and Whitefield became business partners and mutual admirers despite Franklin's disagreements with much of Whitefield's theology.
In 1738 Whitefield left England for Georgia, following Charles and John Wesley. Outside Savannah, he established a mission and orphanage named Bethesda, intending it to serve as his base of operation for an increasingly mobile ministry. Bogged by debt, the project ceased operation after several years.
During this time, Whitefield had fallen in love with and proposed to a wealthy Englishwoman, who turned him down. He returned to England and married a widow, more out of convenience than mutual devotion. They had one son, who died at four months.
As his private life suffered, Whitefield's public persona appealed particularly to women and African slaves, both groups hearing a message of religious – if not physical – freedom. While he preached of salvation, he supported the institution of slavery. Stout writes, “The very eighteenth-century evangelicalism that had opened his eyes to the spiritual needs of the slaves also blinded him to their inhuman temporal and cultural conditions.” (Stout, 199)
Whitefield itinerated throughout America, defying Anglican clergy authorities and traditions while encouraging budding local awakenings. His Calvinist message with a populist slant antagonized church leadership as it drew followers in growing numbers. A Boston church was so crowded in 1740 that five people died trying to escape a collapsing gallery. Despite the rain, Whitefield moved the meeting outside where several thousand stayed to listen. After that, he preached mainly outdoors.
Many credit Whitfield's preaching with launching the Great Awakening in America. Like his personality, his role in the movement was both significant and controversial. Some disciples, such as Gilbert Tennent and James Davenport, built on Whitefield’s witness and formed break-away groups. Other key figures, such as Jonathan Edwards and the Wesleys, acknowledged his power as they grew increasingly wary of or rejected his methods and message.
Benjamin Franklin became Whitefield's greatest ally. Whitfield stayed in Franklin’s Philadelphia home, and they corresponded often. They challenged each other's philosophies while learning from the other's entrepreneurial talents. Franklin showed Whitefield how to exploit the popular press. Their friendship, Stout writes, was
“a testimony to the power of a changing, increasingly mobile and impersonal world to mold relationships. … Both men were most at ease in transit.”(Stout, 225)
Returning to England in 1741 with debts from the orphanage, Whitefield found himself derided by religious authorities and mocked by cultural ones. Samuel Foote wrote a comedic satire, The Minor, which included the character Dr. Squintum, the name being an allusion to a distortion in Whitefield’s left eye. Yet, even negative publicity was good publicity in Whitefield's eyes. He moved his American power base south, appealing to slave owners. In England he became personal chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon, ingratiated himself with wealthier followers, and modified earlier opposition to clerical authority. He shifted his message away from confrontation as some followers drifted toward other denominations, including the Moravians.
In 1754 Whitefield received an honorary master's degree from the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton University. He died September 1770 at age 55 in Massachusetts. John Wesley preached at his London funeral, but to the end lay blame for their split at Whitefield's feet.