George Whitefield: Proclaiming Holiness as the Gift of God

5 min

George Whitefield was born on December 27, 1714, in the English town of Gloucester. The venerable town already had an honorable heritage; it was the native region of William Tyndale, the man whom God used to give His people an English Bible at the dawn of the Reformation. Similar to many worthy, Christian heroes, George Whitefield was born into a poor family. His father died when he was still very young, and his mother made every effort to support the family by keeping an inn. Young George assisted her at Bell Inn on Southgate Street, but the inn failed, and the family fell into poverty.

In his youth, George Whitefield had very few religious influences. He developed a love for the theater and aspired for a time to the life of an actor. He later mourned over this period of his life, confessing that he had been “addicted to lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting.”

Through the intervention of friends, he was able to attend Oxford at the age of eighteen. He was a servitor (the lowest rank of the students at Oxford) and was required to do menial service for wealthy students, which included cleaning their rooms and carrying their baggage.

During his days at Oxford, Whitefield came into contact with brothers John and Charles Wesley. Under the influence of these brothers and after reading the small treatise The Life of God in the Soul of Man, the Holy Spirit began a work of mighty change in Whitefield’s heart. He became convicted of his sins, his need of God’s regenerating grace, and the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

For a time, his new religious convictions were manifested in fasting and self-denial as he pursued holiness in external manifestation. For example, Whitefield wore his hair unpowdered and chose the plainest of foods. His attire was a patched garment. He wore dirty, tired shoes in a conscious effort to deny the pleasure and pride of life. But gradually he realized that these efforts were merely the efforts of man; he abandoned asceticism and mysticism as hindrances to genuine piety. Whitefield began to see true holiness as the gift of God by grace alone. 

At the age of twenty-two, Whitefield was ordained to the ministry of the Gospel. Few who witnessed his ordination would have guessed that this young preacher was destined to preach 18,000 sermons to at least 10 million people on both sides of the Atlantic!

Whitefield’s first pastoral charge was in London. He then pastored for a time in the rural parish of Dummer in England. He traveled to America for the first time in 1737, and preached in the colony of Georgia. During the course of his early ministry and travels, Whitefield became convinced that the churches were in desperate need of a genuine revival of God’s Holy Spirit.

Upon his return to England, Whitefield was viewed with distrust by the established clergy of the Church of England. Following the example of his Master, Jesus Christ, George Whitefield went forth into the fields and meadows to preach the Gospel to the poor and unchurched. In February 1739, he began preaching one day to a small gathering of coal miners near Bristol. The crowd grew gradually as he preached from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapter 5. By the conclusion of his sermon, thousands of men, women, and children had assembled. Tears were coursing freely down the faces of coal miners, creating white streaks on faces blackened by coal dust. 

Two months later, Whitefield began preaching in the open fields in London. Many thousands gathered to hear the simple Gospel proclaimed by Whitefield. He preached to the idle, the poor, the profane, the Sabbath breakers, the widows and orphans. Soon, respectable church members were forsaking their comfortable pews to listen to Whitefield preach the Gospel in the outdoors. 

Naturally, Whitefield aroused the wrath of some of the established clergy. He was denounced as an “antichrist,” “sorcerer,” and “vagabond,” as well as a “vain-glorious, self-seeking, puffed-up creature.” 

Ignoring the taunts and sneers of the Church of England leadership, Whitefield continued preaching the Gospel of Christ. The poor gladly heard him. Towns and entire communities were changed forever. Taverns closed. Marriages were restored. Idleness ceased. Sinners were converted by the hundreds and thousands.

From 1739 until his death in 1770, George Whitefield’s life was intently focused on one sole purpose: to preach the Gospel of Christ. Constantly, the man was about his Master’s business. Calls for him to come preach were increasing on both sides of the Atlantic. Often, Whitefield would preach thirteen sermons in a week. Seven times he crossed the ocean to America. He would preach to small gatherings in a private home as well as to open-air congregations composed of thousands of people. Benjamin Franklin, who became a warm, personal friend of the British evangelist, estimated that Whitefield’s voice could be heard distinctly by 30,000 people in an open air meeting!

Having lost his own father as a young boy, Whitefield had a heart of compassion for orphans. He established Bethesda Orphanage near Savannah, Georgia, and pleaded everywhere for Christians to support orphans and widows in their need.

Whitefield endured much abuse for the sake of the Gospel. In addition to the slanders of the established church, he was sometimes physically attacked by mobs of sinners intent on mocking and silencing the man of God. Rotten fruit, raw eggs, and manure were often hurled at him as he preached. But Whitefield continued, regardless of the abuse. He was steadied by the Master’s promise, “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Throughout his ministry, Whitefield was supported by a generous English lady named Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. Her kind, loyal patronage funded Whitefield’s travel expenses, and she was a major supporter of his orphanage.

In 1741, Whitefield married a widow named Elizabeth James. After four miscarriages, the Whitefields finally had a son in 1743. Sadly, the baby boy lived only four months. In August 1768, Elizabeth died of a fever. Despite these sorrows, Whitefield continued preaching. Experiencing fading eyesight and poor health, still he maintained his busy schedule, week after week, month after month. His focused, heartfelt preaching was Christ-honoring. The simple truths of the Gospel of Christ often moved him to tears, and he often wept openly as he urged sinners to repent and to trust in the atonement of a crucified and risen Savior.

In September 1770, Whitefield preached his final sermon from II Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith.” After preaching for two hours to a great multitude assembled in the open fields near Newburyport, Massachusetts, he retired to his room for the night. After ascending the stairs, he turned around and delivered a few words of exhortation to a small assembly of friends. He spoke until the candle in his hand had burned down to the handle socket. Then he retired to rest, never to rise again.

One of the best tributes to the ministry of George Whitefield was given by a repentant sinner. The man approached Whitefield one day after the evangelist had finished preaching. Humbly, he confessed to the man of God, “I came to hear you with my pocket full of stones, intending to break your head; but your sermon got the better of me, and broke my heart.”

Sources and Further Reference:

Philip, Robert. The Life and Times of George Whitefield. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2007.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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