Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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WHITEFIELD, George (whit'-field), clergyman, born in Gloucester, England, 27 December, 1714; died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, 30 September, 1770. His father, an innkeeper, died, leaving the son an infant of two years in charge of the mother, who sent him to the public school. When fifteen years old he refused to attend school longer, going to work in the hotel. At this period he composed sermons and in other ways exhibited the bent of the future orator, and at the age of eighteen he embraced an opportunity to enter Pembroke college, Oxford, as a servitor. He had already entered on a life of religious zeal and self-denial, and he now sought the counsels of Charles Wesley, and adopted the rules of the Methodists. He visited the sick in the almshouse and the prisoners in the jail, and reclaimed some to a life of piety. The bishop of Gloucester, on 20 June, 1736, ordained him deacon be fore he had taken " his degree. I le returned to Oxford, was graduated and remained to continue his studies and his ministrations among the prisoners, leaving in August to officiate for two months as chaplain of the Tower of London. He preached also in Bristol and elsewhere, affecting great audiences to tears and repentance. Already certain of the clergy began to close their pulpits to him on account of his teachings of the new birth and his religious enthusiasm and association with dissenters, while his admirers offered him profitable charges in London or Bristol. At the summons of John and Charles Wesley, who were in this country, he sailed on 10 January, 1738, for Georgia, arriving in Savannah on 18 May. He saw the need of the colony for material aid, and especially for an orphan house, as many settlers had died from the effects of the climate, leaving destitute families, and to raise a fund for this purpose, as well as to receive priest's orders, on 8 September he left Savannah for England. The doctrines of regeneration and justification by faith and the ecstatic sentiments in his recently published "Journals" caused the clergy who had formerly been friendly to Whitefield to withhold their countenance. Only four pulpits in London were still open to him. His powers of eloquence drew large assemblages, and in the Countess of Huntingdon and her aristocratic friends he found influential patrons. He was ordained priest in January, 1739. The trustees of Georgia presented him with the living of Savannah and granted him 500 acres of land as a site for the orphan house. Going to Bristol, he preached in the prison, when the churches were refused to him, and on 28 February began to address congregations of colliers (which sometimes numbered 20,000 persons) in the open air, at Kingswood, where Wesley followed him and founded the first Methodist church and school. From that time most of Whitefield's sermons were delivered to out-door meetings. Every newspaper reviled him, ministers denounced him from their pulpits, and no fewer than fifty pamphlets were published in condemnation or defence of his teachings in the year 1739. Wherever he preached in England or Wales he made a collection for his orphan school On 25 August, 1739, he took passage for Philadelphia. Instead of going to Georgia, he remained in that city, preaching in the churches and from the court-house steps in a way that wonderfully revived the religious life of that place. Thence he went to New York city, where the Episcopal pulpits were denied him, but other denominations welcomed him, and for the first time he held services in dissenting meeting-houses. In a few weeks he returned to Philadelphia and set out for his parish in Georgia, preaching in every village on the way, and reaching Savannah on 20 January, 1740. His collections for the orphan house amounted to £2,530, besides many gifts in kind. He gathered about forty children in a hired house, and in March began the building of the orphanage, which he named Bethesda. He returned to Philadelphia in April, and in August, complying with a request from Benjamin Colman, William Cooper, and other Boston ministers, he made a tour into New England, where he met with a cordial reception, except from the conservative part of the clergy, who condemned his emotional methods, and began the long controversy with the Revivalists or New Lights. Churches were not large enough to hold his auditors, and he therefore spoke on the common. He preached in other towns, made large collections, returned to Savannah in December, and early in 1741 sailed for England. On 25 November, 1741, he married in Wales a widow named Elizabeth James, who proved an uncongenial wife. His influence in England was less than when he worked in harmony with the other Methodists, and was further impaired by his writings, especially an assault on the theological principles of Archbishop John Tillotson. He gathered a congregation in opposition to Charles Wesley's at Bristol, and in London preached in a large edifice that his friends built, called the Tabernacle. In August, 1744, he embarked for this country, landed in Maine, and on reaching Boston opened a series of services at 6 it. M., with 2,000 or more hearers. Afterward he went to Savannah, but finding his health failing, visited the Bermuda islands in March, 1748. Thence, in July, he went back to England, where he became chaplain to Lady Huntingdon, and preached in her chapel to the nobility and others. He revisited Scotland in 1750, spent the winter of 1750-'1 in London, made a short visit to Ireland, where he was badly used, and went to Savannah in October, 1751. He returned to England in 1752, made his fifth voyage to this country by way of Lisbon in 1754, and labored energetically, with astonishing results. He returned to England again in 1755, success attending his labors everywhere during 1755-'60. His health was much impaired for two years. Whitefield embarked for the sixth time for America in 1763, returned to England in 1765, where he spent the next four years, laboring according to his ability and state of health, in consecrating new chapels provided by Lady Huntingdon, and striving to promote peace and concord in the Methodist body. He made his seventh and last visit to this country in September, 1769, and for a time preached with his accustomed energy in Georgia and New England; but death, from an attack of asthma, came suddenly at the last. Whitefield's coffin may still be seen "Under the church on Federal street."
He was, with the aid of Lady Huntingdon, the founder of the Calvinistic Methodists. He preached about 18,000 times, yet only eighty-one of his sermons have been printed, and these are for the greater part the productions of his immature years. His voice was so clear that congregations of 25,000 people could distinctly hear his sermons in the open air, and his elocution and gestures formed the model of orators and actors in his day. His two journals of his "Voyage from London to Savannah," extending from 28 December, 1737, till 7 May, 1738, were printed without his leave by friends (London, 1738). Subsequently he published the "Journal from his Arrival at Savannah to his Return to London," and the "Journal from his Arrival at London to his Departure from thence on his Way to Georgia," which was supplemented by a "Continuation of the Journal during the Time he was detained by the Embargo" (1739). The "First Two Parts of his Life, with his Journals," appeared in a revised and abridged form (1756). His "Letters, Sermons, Controversies, and Tracts" were published (6 vols., 1771-'2). Chief among his many biographies are "Memoirs of the Life of the Reverend George Whitefield," by his friend the Reverend Dr. John Gillies (1772); "Sermons," with memoir by Samuel Drew (1833); "Life and Times of Whitefield," by the Reverend Robert Philip (1838); and a "Life," by the Reverend Luke Tyerman (2 vols., 1876). See also "The History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century, called Methodism," by the Reverend Dr. Abel Stevens (1861).Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM