George Whitefield: Lightning Rod of the Great Awakening

by Dr. Rimas J. Orentas (Baltimore UBF)

"In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy." (Acts 2:17,18)

George Whitefield lived from 1714 to 1770. In his adult life he was as famous as any man in the Englishspeaking world. From 22 years of age he was the foremost figure in a religious movement that held the attention of the entire Englishspeaking world, called the Great Awakening. Perhaps only the Reformation or even the apostolic age itself could surpass the spiritual fervor God poured out at that time. George Whitefield preached in England, Scotland, Wales, Gibraltar, Bermuda, and the American colonies. All the preachers of this era were men of doctrine, and men of fervor who strove to give their lives 100% to Christ Jesus. May Jesus raise up such leaders again.

To understand Whitefield, we must think about the spiritual and moral conditions in England before the revival. In 1730's and 1740's England was foul with corruption and crippled by spiritual decay. The ruling class were primarily deists, it they were religious at all. The church in England was the Church of England. The preaching from the pulpit at that time was quite cold, and the primary concern was that noone should show any sign of being "enthusiastic" about religion. Meanwhile, public behavior had become so outrageous in England that importing liquor was banned (1689). The result was the gin craze, where everyone made their own liquor. The effect, according to the Bishop of London, was that gin made the English people what they never were before, cruel and inhuman. In those days, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Street children and the insane were cruelly treated, the London Mafia thrived, gambling was everywhere, and stage productions were obscene even by today's standards. The point is that a Great Awakening was just as improbable then, as it may seem today. That is why we must study it. The only solace for Christians in that era was in the formation of small private societies. The Church had sanctioned and even encouraged their formation, and by 1730 nearly one hundred existed in London, and a hundred more scattered throughout England. Societies didn't actually do much. But their very existence at such a time was meaningful, for they would be the cradle of the Great Awakening.

But at the very time when revival seemed impossible, all of England was stilled by the voice of preacher barely 22 years old, George Whitefield. He began to speak from the pulpit with fervor and power. And soon, no church could hold the multitude that flocked to hear him. No one could preach or even sound like Whitefield. His voice was like a trumpet, which could be muted or played to its full power. It was excellent in melody and range, and his messages were emphasized with graceful gestures. The voice of George Whitefield also had phenomenal carrying power. One author simply concluded, he preaches like a lion.

The voice of John Whitefield was soon joined by John and Charles Wesley, and many others. Starting with Whitefield, a tremendous chorus of praise and preaching rang throughout the land, and was sustained for at least fifty years. The revival changed the entire temper of English society. The church was restored to life and activity. The people had a fresh zeal which purified their literature and their manners. A new social philosophy was born, whereby prisons were reformed and education became available to all people. Whether our UBF ministry is the equivalent of the long suffering societies which laid the groundwork, or whether God will use some of our many members to become preachers like Whitefield, Wesley, or Edwards, we cannot say. But we can say that where ever God's people earnestly meet together, God is there, and God is ready to powerful move. May God grant us hope through this Symposium that a great revival may burst out among the American people, starting with the young servants he has raised up on college campuses at any time.

I. The Boy of the Bell

Although a number of George Whitefield's relatives had gone to Oxford and become members of the clergy; his grandfather was a businessman, and his father was proprietor of the Bell Inn in Gloucester. It was the largest and finest establishment in town, and its main hall had two auditoriums, one of which was used to stage plays. But when he was only two tragedy struck this young prosperous family, George's father died. For the next few years his mom ran the business alone, with the help of her eldest son. For the first sixteen years of his life, George must have seen both the frivolous and the terrible side of life at the Bell Inn. While the other children worked, George's mother saw his ability and made sure he attended school from the age of 12 in the local parish. He was a gifted speaker, had a great memory, and often acted in the school plays. By 16 he was proficient in Latin and could read new Testament Greek.

When George was 8 years of age his mother remarried. The marriage was tragic, and the inn was almost lost due to financial difficulties. At age 15 George had to drop his studies and worked for a year and a half to help support the family. It seemed tragic, but it was a good experience for George to experience real life. He learned to associate with people from all ranks of society, as poured liquor for them and cleaned up after them. George worked by day and at night he read the Bible and dreamed of going to Oxford. In time this husband left, and his older brother took back control of the inn. But there was no longer any money to send George to college with. For a time he and his mother were heartbroken. But over time they learned that he could go to Oxford as a "servitor," and at age 17 he left for the University with great eagerness.

II. Oxford.

In America, the Puritan era had passed and religious fervor died down, some would say it had fallen asleep. But from just this time to the Revolutionary War itself came the Great Awakening. It began with Jonathan Edwards. He was a preacher in the Puritan mold from Massachusetts. He was the most learned and respected theologian America had yet produced. He was brilliant in mind, but his sermons were reserved and dry. In 1734 he began to preach against the popular notion that man by his own effort could accomplish the purposes of God. Edwards taught that all we accomplish is by God's grace. And with this simple Biblical message, a revival began that surprised even Edwards. Within a year a great revival was spreading through out the towns of Massachusetts

In 1732, two years before the Massachusetts revival began, a young English lad named George Whitefield entered Oxford University. Whitefield was extremely devout, and he busily visited prisoners and poorhouses, with a mind to earn God's approval. As a "servitor" he lived as a butler and maid to 3 or 4 highly placed students. He would wash their clothes, shine their shoes, and do their homework. A servitor lived on whatever scraps of clothing or money they gave him. He had to wear a special gown and it was forbidden for students of a high rank to speak to him. Most servitors left rather than endure the humiliation.

Initially, other students tried initially to get George to join their party life, but he resisted, and they soon left him alone. Whitefield plunged ahead in his studies, but he longed for some spiritual fellowship. His mates at Pembroke College had begun to call Whitefield a "Methodist," which was the derogatory word they used to describe members of the Holy Club. The Holy Club was a small meeting at of Oxford students led by a University fellow named John Wesley. To other students their disciplined way of life looked foolish, and the word "Methodist" implied that they lived by a mindless method, like windup robots. George actually had never met them, and being a servitor he couldn't introduce himself to them. But Charles Wesley heard of this devout and industrious student, and breaking traditional boundaries approached George and invited him to breakfast. The friendships made among the 1011 core members of the Holy Club and the 1011 casual associates were the most important friendships for all of them throughout their life. This teaches us that our college friendships, under the sovereignty of God, are indeed wonderfully used by Him to encourage us throughout our lives.

The Holy Club members rose early, had lengthy devotions, strove for selfdiscipline, insuring there was no moment left throughout the day that was wasted. At night they kept a journal to review their life and to root out sin. They celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday, fasted Wednesday and Friday, and used Saturday as a Sabbath to prepare for the Lord's feast. The Holy Club was strongly devoted to the Church of England and knew its history and rules better anyone. They also visited the prisons and poor houses, and contributed to a relief fund for the needs of inmates and especially their children. The Holy Club also took great pains to shepherd younger students, teaching them to avoid bad characters and encouraging them to live a sober and studious life, even helping them when they got stuck in their studies.

The Holy Club was great, but they had a problem, theirs was a worksbased righteousness. All their work brought them little joy because the nature of their salvation was still a distant mystery. In short they had not experienced or learned of the true grace of God present in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whitefield became aware of his inner yearning to know God more and more, but did not know where to turn. He read voraciously, and chanced upon a book written long ago by an obscure Scot, the Rev. Henry Scougal, entitled "The Life of God in the Soul of Man." From this book he learned that all his good things, which he thought earned him God's favor, were of no account at all. What he needed was to have Christ formed "within" him that is to be born again.

Scougal taught that Christianity is not about external duties to perform, nor is it an emotion or feeling one has. Scougal defined true religion as the union of the soul with God a participation in the divine nature, living according to image of God drawn upon our soul, or in the apostle's phrase, it is to have "Christ formed within us." From his teaching was learn what an amazing thing it is that God wants to dwell in our heart and do his work through us. What an amazing grace it is, that it is possible for the life of God to dwell in the soul of man.

This wonderful book, however, drove Whitefield crazy. It was because he did not know how to be born again. So he tried to do so with all his efforts. He stopped eating certain foods and gave the money saved to the poor, he wore only a patched gown and dirty shoes, he would spend all night in fervent sweaty prayer, and he would speak to noone. To deny himself he quit the only thing he enjoyed, the Holy Club. His studies faltered and he was threatened with expulsion. He became subject to strange and terrible emotions and students threw dirt at him, concluding he was mad. At Lent in 1735 Whitefield decided to eat only a little bread and sage tea. He prayed outdoors even on the iciest mornings until part of one of hands turned black. Finally he was so sick, emaciated, and weak, he could not even climb the stairs to leave his room. Finally a physician was sent for and he was confined to bed for 7 weeks.

Amazingly, it was during this time of rest and recuperation where he was finally changed. He kept simple devotions as his strength allowed. He began to pray simply, and dropped all of his own ideas and efforts and began to really listen to God. At one point he simply threw himself on the bed and cried out, "I thirst!" It was perhaps the first time he had called out to God in utter helplessness. And it was the first time in over a year that he felt happy. At this moment of total surrender to Almighty God a new thought now came to his heart, "George, you have what you asked! You ceased to struggle and simply believed and you are born again!" It was so simple, almost absurdly simple, to be saved by such a simple prayer that it made Whitefield laugh. And as soon as he laughed the floodgates of heaven burst and he felt "Joyjoy unspeakablejoy that's full of, big with glory!" He still looked like a sickly college boy, but the career of the greatest evangelist of the 18th century had begun. He returned home for 9 months to recuperate, but in his heart was one desire: to share the Good News that Jesus Christ had come for sinners, and that all a sinner needed to do was to repent, accept Jesus' atoning death, and spiritually throw himself into God's hands.

At home in Gloucester Whitefield kept to the scheduled life of the Holy Club but it now had a new meaning. Not to win God's favor or to be righteous, but to focus him and the time he spent on serving God. In recuperation he was very diligent to do his Daily Bread. He would read a passage of the Bible in English, then in Greek, and then read Matthew Henry's commentary. He would pray over each line he read out of these three books until he received it and understood it and it became a part of him. He even founded a small society which met nightly. The Bishop of Gloucester took notice of this exceptional young man and offered to ordain him as soon as the orders came. But Whitefield was afraid of being ordained too young and growing proud. So he made a Jacob's vow that he would be ordained if, by some miracle, money was supplied for him to return to Oxford and graduate. Soon money did come in drop by drop. An old vicar asked him to preach, and enjoyed the sermon so much he gave him a pound. Another of his brothers had become a seacaptain and returned to port, and gave him some money. Another gave him a horse, another some clothes. Then news came from Oxford that the Wesley's had gone to Georgia as missionaries, and someone was needed to lead the Holy Club. So Whitefield returned, graduated, and was ordained. He tried to live quietly at Oxford for a while. His one word was that each student there was indeed a legion, but that in converting one, the equivalent of a whole town was converted. But there was a problem. From the time he opened his mouth to give his first sermon, everyone wanted to hear more. The four weeks he had spent giving inaugural messages in Gloucester, Bristol, and Bath had caused a small revival already, and near the end of that short time, the churches were packed full, and the streets were mobbed with people trying to get in. He was only 22.

III. A Lion Begins To Roar

At Oxford, Whitefield studied for a Master's degree and presided over the Holy Club. But soon many former members of the Club invited him to come and speak. Then many of the religious societies began to invite him to come and speak, his hand was set to the plow, and there was no turning back. At this time Whitefield was struggling with another question, whether or not to follow the Wesley's example and be a missionary to Georgia. He had received a good offer to preach in London. He struggled to accept and live a nice life, or to suffer hardship in an American Colony. In that day going to Georgia was equal to going to the Amazon for us. As he was considering it, a letter of appeal from John Wesley. Wesley wrote of adults from the farthest parts of Europe and Asia and the inmost kingdoms of Africa; not to mention the countless native nations present, who were a vast multitude without a shepherd, begging for spiritual help. Whitefield was resolved to go, but had to wait a year until the next ship was ready to set sail for Georgia. It was during this year that Whitefield startled the nation awake.

He returned to Gloucester and preached twice each Sunday, and thousands began to flock to hear him. At Bristol he preached each day of the week, and for the 4 weeks he was there the people nearly rioted to see him. His sermons were fresh and full of spiritual joy. He spent much of his day giving advice to those who as he called it, had become "awakened souls." Whitefield also received donations and began to make a large offering for the settlers, especially the poor in Georgia. His messages were simple, direct, and taught the basic doctrines of being born again or being justified by faith. But to people who had not heard this clearly explained before, it was like a lightning shock to the heart. He was declaring not his message but God's, "Ye must be born again." On days he did not preach he was still busy for 7 a.m. to midnight with those who sought his prayer or guidance.

And as soon a his preaching became nationally recognized, some in the Church began to persecute him as an "enthusiast." The Church of England was comfortable with the message that if you are good quiet, and show up to church you are saved. Whitefield was not, and disturbed the church even more through his prayer that the preachers themselves might be born again.

Just prior to his departure for Georgia, Charles Wesley returned and declared, "the whole nation is in an uproar." Another said, "All London and the whole nation ring of the great things of God done by his ministry." But at this very time, when thousands flocked after him, George Whitefield set sail for America.

IV. A Missionary Life.

Whitefield made seven trips to America, lasting from half a year to four years. Much of Whitefield reputation rests on the sensation he created in the colonies during his second journey, where he along with Edwards and Gilbert Tennant, served the Great Awakening at its peak.

The Wesleys fared poorly in Georgia. Perhaps they were to refined to endure pioneering life. But Whitefield, who knew real life very well from his childhood at the inn, thrived. The large audiences in England allowed him to bring many provisions, medicines, and foods with him. His work to distribute them to the poor, and especially to help the orphaned children made a lasting impression on the colony. Georgia was only five years old, and many of the settlers were debtors released for prisons. They were a poor class of settler with no education, no knowledge of farming, and poor health. Many thought the colony would fail. But Whitefield believed otherwise. He brought two teachers with him to establish a school, and urged others to be raised as well. Mission life was a great blessing, but he soon he returned to England. hearing of the controversies which raged about his ministry while he was gone, he felt like Daniel heading for the lion's den.

On his Whitefield found that 5 churches in London were now closed to him. Yet, 4 churches in London kept their doors open to him, and so he returned to his demanding preaching schedule. He spoke at a number of societies each day, in addition to service throughout the week and on Sunday in churches he visited or was invited to. In England the revival he had ignited in the Bristol and Gloucester area continued, and at this time even those in the nobility invited GW to hear his messages. But whether he preached to commoners or in private audiences in the exclusive drawing rooms of England his message was the same. And at the top of society, the results were mixed. Many lords and ladies believed, while others took offense at the suggestion that they were sinners who needed to repent.

As the revival grew beyond imagination, more and more churches began to be closed to him. Whitefield then began to entertain a new idea, that of preaching in the open fields. He knew it would provoke a strong reaction against him, but he wanted to be free of depending on a church or society room being available. In Feb 1789, Whitefield deliberately set out for Kingswood, near Bristol. At Kingswood there was no parish or school. The district was home to thousands of coal miners, who existed in deplorable conditions. Men, women, and children worked long hours in the dark earth amidst death and disease. They were famous for being vicious to strangers and occasionally went pillaging and terrorizing the nearby town of Bristol, only to return to their seclusion and grime. Whitefield saw them a sheep without a shepherd. Field preaching was allowable by the church when no building was available, and another clergyman before him had indeed taught the miners in the open air. Whitefield was resolved to try. In February it was freezing cold, but when he went through he settlements and huts, he found 200 people willing to come and hear him. Whitefield spoke graphically about how much Jesus loved them and how in cruel crucifixion he died for them, just to save them from their sins. And as he preached Jesus love and salvation to them, he began to notice pale streaks on the blackened faces of a few miners. Soon all of their dark faces were streaked with white gutters formed by tears as the gospel of Jesus convicted all of them one by one. Three days later GW was summoned before the chancellor of the dioceses who forbade him to preach in Bristol again. The next day he preached at the coal mine and this time 2000 were listening. The next Sunday their were 10,000, and by this time the townspeople began to far outnumber the coal miners. And on Sunday March 25, 1739, the crowd was estimated at 23,000. The Great Awakening could now grow an exponential leap. Through the unorthodox and controversial approach of preaching in the open, there seemed no limit.

At Bristol, Whitefield began a young people's meeting. It started with 50 people in his sister's house. But within 6 weeks time, this meeting filled a nearby bowlinggreen with 5,000 people. All told there were about 30,000 people who came to hear him in open spaces around Bristol each week. Whitefield was perplexed about how to shepherd them while he prepared to leave for his second missionary journey to America. It was then that he finally was able to prevail on John Wesley to leave the society rooms and enter into the openair. Later he did the same with Charles Wesley. In this way shepherds for the thousands raised up where provided, and the Wesleys were set at the head of England's greatest revival.

Whitefield preached all over England that summer. It is estimated that he preached to over two million people that summer. His bold fieldpreaching had shaken for good the weak and timid Christianity of the times. In August 1739 he finally set sail for America. On his arrival in Philadelphia the paper proclaimed the George Whitefield had preached to more people than any other man alive, probably more than any other man in history. Yet he left his general's position in England, and came to the colonies, because he had a burden for them and a prayer, that they may not live as thirteen scattered colonies, but as one nation under God.

As Whitefield arrived in America, a number of regional revivals were under way. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania William Tennant and his four sons preached the new birth to Presbyterians. Tennant was fed up with the resistance of Yale and Harvard Administrators to the new evangelical fervor, and he founded his own school to train preachers. Derisively his school was called, "log college," but it would lead to the formation of Princeton University. In New Jersey Theodore Frelinghuysen spread revival throughout the Dutch Reformed Church. In Virginian there was the minister and hymn writer Sam Davies. In the backwoods of Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey, the missionary David Brainerd spread the word to native Americans on horseback. They all served wonderfully within geographic or denominational boundaries, but it was Whitefield that God would use to tie them all together. When revival in Jonathan Edwards congregation died down he invited George Whitefield to speak, and he himself was moved to tears. Edward's wife Sarah wrote, "It is wonderful to see how he casts a spell over the audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible..." In PhiladelphiaWilliam Tennant welcomed him warmly. Whitefield preached from the courthouse steps to streets that were packed with 78,000 people. In Philadelphia Whitefield became friends with an famous agnostic named Benjamin Franklin. Franklin loved to hear him speak, he wrote about him with glowing praise, and became his American publisher. Franklin was amazed at the carrying power of his voice, and calculating how far it traveled, estimated that in an open space, as many as 30,000 people could hear his voice. He was thus convinced of the legendary crowds who had gathered in England could indeed hear him.

GW followed a punishing schedule, and never let up for an instant. He was either traveling somewhere to preach or actually preaching. Few realized at first what God was doing through GW, but his endless travel was spiritually uniting the nation spiritually as community after community were moved by his sermons. Whitefield preached to Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Quakers, and Moravians. He was the first man to so clearly cut across all denomination barriers by preaching the simple truth of the gospel. America had been populated by numerous sect, each trying to live a purer life to the Lord, than did their parent church. GW seemed to be reversing this trend, and huge crowds gathered to hear him from Providence to Baltimore. Many people were gathering together and discovering their common joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Soon the regional mentality of Europe and the sectarian spirit that brought them to America was uniting them in a common experience of faith.

George Whitefield died in 1770, just a few months after British troops had opened fire on a mob in Boston, killing five, in what would become known as the Boston Massacre. But even as his health was failing, the crowds who came to hear him were larger than ever. His last message was preached on Exter Green in New Hampshire. Whitefield preached about the incomparable excellencies of Christ, all the while he seemed to look straight into heaven. Finally he cried out, "I go! I go to rest prepared. My sun has arisen and by the aid of heaven has given light to many. It is now about to set... No! It is about to rise to the zenith of immortal glory.... O 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 I would ever live to preach Christ! But I die to be with Him!" Early the next morning, his words came true.

Through the universal experience of the great awakening, we began to realize that we were a nation. This national identity was rooted in the conviction that we were a people chosen by God for a specific purpose. In the earliest prayer of the Puritans was the idea that their colony could be a city on a hill. Through the experience of the Great Awakening the entire nation became a citadel of light in a darkened world. The massing of God's children in large groups to hear is word led people to be joined by the Spirit in the common cause of advancing God's kingdom. George Whitefield, the tireless itinerant preacher, was the lightning rod of this great awakening.

A lasting impression one receives of the Great Awakening was the constant action of those involved. The 13 colonies were no longer 13 scattered settlements, they were growing and expanding rapidly. Whitefield and all the others would ride and ride and preach and preach until their lungs gave out. Whitefield preached more than 18,000 sermons between 1736 and 1770. That is more than 10 sermons a week over a period of 34 years. The great Awakening is the model of all America religious revivals. What God did in the generation leading up to the Revolutionary War, he can do again. We must pray for God to raise up people who are deeply moved by the simple, yet amazing truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. May God pour out his spirit on the young people of America, and grant us a great awakenings. And may the great schools among 206 East Coast College Campuses, be the next century's equivalent of 18th century Oxford, where young people who love Jesus can begin their mission life.


1) Scougal, Henry. "The Life of God in the Soul of Man." Sprinkle Publications, Harrisonburg, Virginia. 1986. (original, ca. 1739).

2) Barker, Esther. "Lady Huntingdon, Whitefield and the Wesleys." Mrs. Esther T. Barker 2628 Sevierville Rd., Maryville, TN 37801. Library of Congress: 8391211.

3) Dallimore, Arnold A. "George Whitefield. The life and times of the great evangelist of the eighteenthcentury revival, Vol I, II." The Banner of Truth Trust, 78b Chiltern St., London, WIM IPS. Great Britain. Also, Banner of Truth Trust, PO Box 621 Carlisle, Pennsylvania 17013.

4) Davis, William V. "George Whitefield's Journals." Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, Gainesville, FLA. 1969.