Whitefield was born on 27 December 1714 (New Style dating) in Gloucester, the youngest of seven children, to an innkeeper. However, his father died when he was only two, and his mother struggled to make ends meet. Whitefield left school at 15 to earn a living, but studied hard in his spare time and was accepted at Pembroke College, Oxford. There, he joined the Holy Club with John and Charles Wesley, and became known as one of the Oxford Methodists - the three later being seen as the founders of Methodism. In 1736, he was ordained Anglican minister by the Bishop of Gloucester; and he preached his first sermon at the Crypt Church in Gloucester.
Three years after the Wesleys went to Georgia, America, Whitefield followed. He sailed in February 1738, stopping at Gibraltar, where he preached frequently and attended a Roman Catholic service, describing it is as given to idolatry. He arrived in Georgia in May, laid plans for an institution - Bethesda, just outside Savannah - similar to the Halle orphanage in Germany, and returned to England after four months, where he solicited fund and trustees’ approval for his mission. A second trip to the US followed in 1739-1741. And, in 1741, he married Elizabeth James, an older widow.
Whitefield was a powerful speaker, and, partly because of a growing estrangement with the established church, he increasingly chose outdoor venues, often attracting tens of thousands. He is credited with developing a new form of preaching - more dramatic and visual, appealing to the emotions rather than to the mind, frequently taking on the persona of a Bible character, laughing, weeping, transforming his sermon into a dramatic event. Indeed, he spent much of his life on preaching tours, in England, Scotland, and in the US to where he travelled seven times in his life, often staying years at a time. It is said that he gave more than 18,000 sermons. He died in Exeter, Massachusetts, in 1770, aged only 55. See Wikipedia, Church Society, or Enrichment Journal for more biographical information
Early on in his career, before the first trip across the Atlantic, Whitefield recognised that he could promote his work and finance his missions through writing. He first had his sermons printed, but soon moved on to publishing, through James Hutton, books of a journal he kept for the purpose, each one following on from the last. All or almost all of the original editions published in Whitefield’s lifetime can be read freely online at Internet Archive. Here’s the titles of some of them, and links to the e-texts:
- A Journal of a Voyage from London to Savannah in Georgia, In Two Parts. Part I. From London to Gibraltar. Part II. From Gibraltar to Savanna;
- A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield’s Journal, During the Time he was detained in England by the Embargo;
- A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield’s journal, From his Arrival at London, To his Departure from thence on his Way to Georgia
- A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield’s Journal, From a few Days after his Return to Georgia To his Arrival at Falmouth, on the 11th of March, 1741. Containing An Account of the Work of God at Georgia, Rhode-Island, New-England, New-York, Pennsylvania and South-Carolina.
All of Whitefield’s journals were edited by William Wales in the early part of the 20th century, and published in 1905. Later, in 1960, they were reprinted by Banner of Truth Trust, as George Whitefield’s Journals. But, since then, Quinta Press (connected to the Quinta Independent Evangelical Church) has worked on tracking down parts of the originals left out by Wale, and republishing the full journals, making them available in pdf format and on a CD. Here are a few extracts (taken from the Quinta Press edition).
9 May 1739, London
‘Waited at Noon upon the honourable Trustees fro Georgia. They received me with the utmost civility, agreed to every Thing I asked, and gave me a Grant of Five hundred Acres of Land to me and Successors for ever, for the Use of the Orphan-house.’
12 May 1739, London
‘Agreed to Day for myself, and eleven more, to go on Board the Elizabeth, Captain Allen, to Pennsylvania; where I design, God willing, to preach the Gospel in my way to Georgia, and buy Provisions for the Orphan-house. Lord, send thy Angel before me to prepare the Way.’
17 May 1739, London
‘Preached, after several Invitations thither, at Hampstead-Heath, about five miles from London. The audience was of the politer Sort, and I preached very near the Horse-course, which gave me Occasion to speak home to their Souls concerning our spiritual Race. Most were attentive, but some mocked. Thus the Word of God is either a Savour for Life unto Life, or of Death unto Death. God’s Spirit bloweth when, and where it listeth.’
11 January 1740, Savannah
‘Went this Morning, with some Friends, to view a Tract of Land, consisting of 500 Acres which Mr H. whom I left School-Master of Savannah, was directed, I hope by Providence, to make Choice of for the Orphan-House. It is situated on the Northern Part of the Colony, about 10 miles off Savannah, and has various Kinds of Soil in it; a Part of it very good. Some Acres, through the Diligence of my Friend, are cleared. Has has also stock’d it with Cattle and Poultry. He has begun the Fence, and built a Hut; all which will greatly forward the Work. I choose to have it so far off the Town, because the Children will then be more free from bad Examples, and can more conveniently go upon their Lands to work. For it is my Design to have each of the Children taught to Labour, so as to be qualified to get their own Living. Lord, do though teach and excite.’
10 May 1740, Pennypack and Philadelphia
‘Tho’ God has shown me great Things already in this Place, yet to To-day I have seen greater. I preached twice with Power, and to large Congregations than ever: And in the Evening went to settle a Society of young Women, who I hope will prove wise Virgins. As soon as I entered the Room, and heard them singing, my Soul was uncommonly delighted. When the hymn was over, I desired to pray before I began to converse: But, contrary to my Expectations, my Soul was so carried out that I had not Time to talk at all. A wonderful Power was in the Room, and with Accord, they began to cry out and weep most bitterly for the Space of half an Hour. They seemed to be under the strongest Convictions, and did indeed seek JESUS sorrowing. Their cries might be heard a great Way off. When I had done, I thought proper to leave them at their Devotions. They continued in Prayer (as I was informed by one of them afterwards) for above an Hour, confessing their most secret Faults: And at length the Agonies of some were so strong, that five of them seemed affected as those that are in Fits. The present Captain of our Sloop going near the Water-side, was called into a Company almost in the same circumstances; and at Midnight I was desired to come to one who was in strong Agonies of Body and Mind, but felt somewhat of Joy and Peace, after I had prayed with her several Times. Her Case put me in Mind of the young man whom the Devil tore, when he was coming to JESUS. Some suchlike bodily Agonies, I believe, are from the Devil; and, now the Work of GOD is going on, he will, no doubt, endeavour by these to bring an evil Report on it.’
11 May 1940, Pennypack and Philadelphia
‘Preached to about 15,000 People in the Morning, and observed a great Melting to follow the Word.’