Have you ever heard of George Whitefield? Would it surprise you to know that this traveling preacher was more popular than Benjamin Franklin during the middle of the 18thcentury? In fact, you could even call Whitefield the first American celebrity. While many of us today are more familiar with some of Whitefield’s friends, such as Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards, certainly that would not have been the case over 250 years ago.
When George Whitefield, the itinerant preacher from England, came to America, thousands flocked to hear him preach. It is recorded that Whitefield preached to more than 20,000 people outdoors, and Benjamin Franklin estimated that Whitefield’s robust voice could be heard by 30,000 people at one time. (And this was before the days of microphones and sound systems!)
Whitefield preached with passion and emotion, moving Christians and non-Christians alike. He oversaw an orphanage in Savannah, Georgia, and during his preaching tours he’d often ask for donations to help fund the orphanage. Benjamin Franklin attended one of Whitefield’s sermons and, recounting the experience, he wrote: “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 in gold. As he proceeded 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 collector’s dish, gold and all.”
While Whitefield desired to raise money to help the boys and girls in his orphanage, without doubt witnessing lost souls converted to Christ was his primary motivation for preaching. He preached repeatedly on the new birth, and God used him to unashamedly call men and women to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. He is a wonderful example of a man who used his gifts to further the kingdom of God.
If you want to learn more about George Whitefield, the itinerant preacher who blended Calvinistic doctrine and evangelistic zeal, check out Thomas Kidd’s book, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. For more information on Kidd’s book, and for a lengthier summary of Whitefield’s life and work, read my book review by clicking the following link:
Thomas S. Kidd. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2014, 177.