This article is derived from America's Revival Heritage by Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt and is available from Amazon and from www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.
The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street. – Benjamin Franklin

George Whitefield (1714–1770) was uniquely prepared for his role as the firebrand of the Great Awakening that would bring all the individual flames of revival together into one blazing inferno of Divine Awakening. He was a graduate of Oxford University and an ordained minister with the Church of England. At Oxford he had come under the tutelage of John and Charles Wesley and had experienced a dramatic conversion that forever changed his life. His gifted preaching ability drew great crowds and quickly launched him into leadership, along with the Wesleys, of the Methodist revival in England. Having eyes that were crossed, his critics poked fun at him calling him Dr. Squintum.

Sensing a Divine call to America, he departed England in August of 1739 with a burden for the colonists and a prayer that they would not live as thirteen scattered colonies, but as “one nation under God.” As he travelled up and down the eastern seaboard, shopkeepers closed their doors, farmers left their plows, and workers threw down their tools to hurry to the place where he was to preach. Crowds of 8-10 thousand were common. At a time when the population of Boston was estimated at 25,000, Whitefield preached to an estimated crowd of 30,000 on the Boston Common. Through his incessant travels he became the best known and most recognized figure in colonial America.

The Awakening Impacts all Segments of Society

Whitefield became a friend of Benjamin Franklin and stayed in his home on at least one of his visits to America. Franklin’s testimony of the power of the revival is particularly significant since he did not profess to be a Christian. In his Autobiography, he tells of the incredible change that came over his hometown of Philadelphia when Whitefield came there on his first of seven visits to America. He writes,

In 1739 there arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitfield who made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches, but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refused him their pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was a matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.

Franklin admits that he was skeptical of reports of Whitefield’s preaching being heard by crowds of 25,000 and more. While listening to Whitefield preach form the top of the Philadelphia courthouse steps to a huge throng, Franklin, having an enquiring and scientific mind, retired backward to see how far Whitefield’s voice would reach. He then did some calculations and decided that Whitefield’s voice, which he described as “loud and clear,” could be heard by crowds of 30,000 and more.

The Awakening Touches All Sects & Denominations

Although ordained with the Anglican Church of England, there was not a denominational bone in Whitefield’s body. In one of his sermons, preached to several thousand gathered in the open air, Whitefield mimicked a conversation with Father Abraham who was looking over the banister of heaven at the gathered multitude representing many denominations. Whitefield cried out, “Father Abraham, are there any Anglicans in heaven?” The answer came back, “No, there are no Anglicans in heaven.” “Father Abraham, are there any Methodists in heaven?” “No, there are no Methodists in heaven.” Are there any Presbyterians in heaven?” “No, there are no Presbyterians here either.” “What about Baptists or Quakers?” “No, there are none of those here either.” “Father Abraham,” cried Whitefield, what kind of people are in heaven?” The answer came back, “There are only Christians in heaven; only those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb.” Whitefield then cried out, “Oh, is that the case? Then God help me, God help us all, to forget having names and to become Christians in deed and in truth!”

Everywhere he went the Holy Spirit was poured out in great power. On one occasion after preaching to a huge throng gathered outdoors, Whitfield surveyed the crowd and noted the amazing response. "Look where I would, most were drowned in tears. Some were struck pale as death, others wringing their hands, others lying on the ground, others sinking into the arms of their friends and most lifting up their eyes to heaven and crying out to God." In Delaware there was such an outpouring of God’s Spirit and grace that Whitefield himself was overcome along with many of his audience. He wrote,

Never did I see a more glorious sight. Oh what tears were shed and poured forth after the Lord Jesus. Some fainted; and when they had got a little strength, they would hear and faint again. Others cried out in a manner as if they were in the sharpest agonies of death. After I had finished my last discourse, I was so pierced, as it were, and overpowered with a sense of God’s love, that some thought, I believe, I was about to give up the ghost. How sweetly did I lie at the feet of Jesus.

Staying on Message

Although such outward manifestations were common in Whitefield’s meetings, he neither encouraged nor discouraged them. He was aware that in special times of Awakening, when the Holy Spirit is manifest in remarkable and unusual ways, there will be genuine but unusual responses from many. Nonetheless, as early as 1739, he had cautioned John Wesley to not over-emphasize these outward manifestations lest people become preoccupied with them and be led away from the truths of God’s word. He wrote,

I think it is tempting God to require such signs. That there is something of God in it, I doubt not. But the devil, I believe, does interpose. I think it will encourage the French Prophets, take people away from the written word, and make them depend on visions, convulsions, etc., more than on the promises and precepts of the gospel.

Early Preparation

A person who had been deeply dealt with by God, Whitefield had grown up in Gloucester, England in an inn operated by his mother. Being from a poor family, he did not have the means to attend college. He, therefore, entered Oxford University as a “servitor,” the lowest rank of students at Oxford. In return for free tuition, he was assigned as a servant to a number of higher ranked students. His duties included waking them in the morning, polishing their shoes, carrying their books and even assisting with required written assignments.

It was at Oxford that he met John and Charles Wesley and became a part of the Holy Club at Oxford, out which came the Methodist revival.At Oxford he became aware of the corruption in his own nature and spent many days and weeks wrestling in prayer and study before coming to a place of inner peace after trusting himself completely to Jesus Christ. He then experienced a voracious hunger for God’s word and wrote, “My mind now being more open and enlarged, I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books and praying over, if possible, every line and word." He was ordained to the ministry at the age of 21 by Dr. Benson, the bishop of Gloucester. He later recalled that when hands were laid upon him at that time, "My heart was melted down, and I offered up my whole spirit, soul and body, to the service of God's sanctuary.”

Although a native of England, Whitefield became best known for his ministry in America’s First Great Awakening. He loved America and made seven visits to this land. A tireless worker, he travelled incessantly from Georgia to Maine preaching primarily in the open air and raising money for his beloved orphanage, Bethesda, which he had founded in Georgia. He died during his final visit to America at the age of 58, probably of congestive heart failure brought on by fatigue.

Whitfield Burns Out for God

Worn from his constant labors, Whitefield had for some time been hampered by chest pains and difficulty in breathing. Seemingly moved by a sense of urgency he, nonetheless, kept up his unrelenting pace. In 1770, during his seventh and final visit to America, he preached in Boston and, in spite of pain and weariness, traveled on to Exeter in New Hampshire.

Appearing worn and haggard, someone said to him, “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed, than to preach.” “True,” gasped Whitefield, and then glancing heavenward he prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work, but not of it. If I have not finished my course, let me go and speak for Thee once more in the fields, and seal Thy truth, and come home and die.”

Whitefield then stood and began to speak to the large crowd that had gathered in the open field. His voice, however, could barely be heard and his words were rambling as if he was having trouble focusing his mind. He stopped and stood silent. Minutes passed. Then 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.”

Suddenly, according to those standing by, Whitefield seemed to be rekindled by an inner fire. His voice grew strong and clear and he preached for an hour, leading one observer to later comment, “He had such a sense of the incomparable excellences of Christ that he could never say enough of Him.” He preached on for another hour and then cried out, “I go! I go to rest prepared. My body fails, my spirit expands. How willingly I would ever live to preach Christ! But I die to be with Him.”

That night he retired at a friend’s home but had a fitful, unsettled sleep. In the early morning, with a crushing pain in his chest, he pulled himself out of bed and made his way to a nearby window. George Whitefield then died as the first rays of the morning sun burst over the horizon.

The Significance of Whitfield’s Contribution

Whitfield’s contribution to the First Great Awakening was enormous. More than any other person he, by his incessant travels, helped make the Awakening a national event. It was the first time the scattered colonists of various denominational and theological persuasions had participated together in a single event. Denominational walls were broken down and, for the first time, they began to see themselves as a single people with one Divine destiny—“one nation under God,” as Whitfield had prayed.

The preaching of Whitefield and other revivalists of the Great Awakening also helped democratize the inhabitants of the colonies by putting everyone on the same level (guilty sinners before God) with only one solution for the sin problem (faith in Jesus Christ). They also bridged the gap between clergy and laypeople by insisting that it was the responsibility of all to know God in a real and personal way and by encouraging their followers to carry out ordinances and activities that had been traditionally reserved for an ordained clergy.

The preaching of Whitefield, Edwards, Frelinghuysen, the Tennents, and others thus paved the way for nationhood. This is why Harvard professor, William Perry, said, “The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was a result of the evangelical preaching of the evangelists of the Great Awakening.”

Dr. Eddie L. Hyatt is an author, historian, Bible teacher and ordained minister. His latest book, PURSUING POWER: How the Historic Quest for Apostolic Authority & Control Has Divided and Damaged the Church, is available from Amazon and at www.eddiehyatt.com/bookstore.html.