Local revivals were a part of American culture from the earliest colonial times. But they were always isolated affairs and rarely transcended local boundaries. But in 1739, a young preacher appeared in the colonies whose spiritual zeal was so intense and whose speaking abilities were so finely tuned that he altered the conventions of preaching and religious association. It was George Whitefield (1714-1770), a mere novice of 21 years old, who went on a preaching tour of America that created a mass sensation.
Whitefield, an ordained minister of the Church of England, was a colleague of the Wesleys, who had showed the Wesley brothers in both preaching outdoors and traveling wherever he could to preach the message of salvation. He came to Georgia briefly in 1738 to establish an orphanage. He came back in 1739 and his dramatic and effective preaching soon made him a national celebration. His preaching tour of New England in the fall of 1740, where he addressed crowds of 8,000 nearly every day for over a month, was most likely the most sensational event in American religion. Wherever he went in the colonies-New England, New York, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah-he left a lively interest in the Christian faith. There were hundreds for whom the big question had become “What must I do to be saved?” and others who wondered what awakened religion would do to the social fabric. Whitefield was in short a phenomenon.
On November 23, 1740, Nathan Cole from Connecticut went to see Mr. Whitefield and he writes about the experience in his journal: “When we got to Middletown old meeting house it was said to be three or four thousand of people assembled together…I turned and looked towards the Great River and saw the ferry boats running swift backward and forward bringing over loads of people and the oars rowed nimble and quick; everything men, horses and boats seemed to be struggling for life; the land and banks over the river looked black with people and horses all along the twelve miles I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone.”
Benjamin Franklin wrote, “He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observed the most exact silence….I perceived that he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he preceded, I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver and he finished so admirably that i emptied my pocket wholly into the collection dish gold and all.”
Whitefield indeed could preach to mass crowds and could easily be heard from the furthest reaches of a crowd numbering in excess of twenty thousand people. He had a raw power of delivery, dynamic appeal, a commanding pulpit presence and a tremendous speaking endurance. Itinerant preaching was usually a young man’s profession and most seldom lasted for more than one tour. But George Whitefield, from the time he started preaching at the age of 23 until his death 33 years later, he preached several times weekly to mass audiences. In all, he made seven preaching tours of the colonies, each of which lasted for more than a year. He preached more than 15,000 sermons.
As a man who was unattached to any local church, Whitefield was free to cast his message in the language of the common man. He discovered what politicians would discover later on, that in a mass speaking engagement, you don’t speak down to the audience, but aim the message directly to their hearts and minds and that is exactly what Whitefield did. He won the hearts of the American populace but also had his critics, mainly in the Anglican church and the academics at Harvard and Yale. Nonetheless, unprecedented crowds numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands, appeared out of nowhere to hear the simple and dramatic message of spiritual rebirth and justification by faith alone.
In Newport, Rhode Island, October 5, 1770, Whitefield died suddenly as he hoped he always would, in the middle of a preaching tour. His influence would not cease with his death, but would continue to inspire generations of American revivalists attuned to the simple yet powerful message of the new birth. His simple dramatic presentations can still be read with profit. His sermons stand the test of time and read with remarkable clarity and contemporaneity. And no one in the colonies until George Washington would enjoy such widespread popularity and fame among the American populace.