George Whitefield: Evangelist of the Great Awakening

George Whitefield was a traveling evangelist during the Great Awakening who used an innovative preaching style and expressed the need for people to be “born again.”  He changed preaching in America as well as helped to unify the colonies prior to the American Revolution.

The Great Awakening was a period of religious revival that took place in the American colonies during the mid-1700s. It was led by prominent preachers such as George Whitefield, who had an immense influence on the people of the time. Through his sermons and writings, Whitefield spread his message of hope and redemption to thousands of people across the colonies. His message was so powerful that it sparked a spiritual revolution in colonial America and helped to lay the foundation for modern Christianity in America. In this article, we will explore how George Whitefield contributed to The Great Awakening and how his legacy has carried on through history.

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was a notable evangelist of the Great Awakening in 1700s America who turned the Christian evangelical revival into an inter-colonial or “national” movement. Whitefield was a Calvinist Anglican minister in the Church of England who studied at Oxford University with Methodism founders John and Charles Wesley. Known as the “Grant Itinerant,” he was the first man to travel up and down the east coast in North America, reaching and preaching in all thirteen colonies. He made his first, most famous continental tour in 1740, from Boston, Massachusetts, to Savannah, Georgia.

George Whitefield, vintage engraved illustration

Disregarding parish boundaries, Whitefield preached wherever possible. He spoke in church halls, streets, and marketplaces. Whitefield possessed rhetorical and dramatic skills and spoke with great power. He also had a loud, clear voice that miraculously could be heard among hundreds or even thousands of people. Appealing to all denominations, this “Divine Dramatist,” as he was called, attracted huge crowds. 

During his 1740 tour, he addressed large groups daily for over a month. His 1740 tour, says historian Mark Noll in A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, was “one of the most remarkable episodes in the whole of American Christianity” and “the key event of the Great Awakening.” Whitefield made seven continental tours between 1739 and 1770. His “trafficking for the Lord,” as he called it, spread revival throughout the colonies. He became one of the first public figures known throughout the colonies and, Noll says, “the single best-known religious leader in America of that century.” All churches were influenced by his efforts.

Though an Anglican, Whitefield was not interested in church hierarchy. He believed that every person — regardless of class, wealth, education, or prestige — could freely choose Jesus Christ. Whitefield’s preaching centered on inner conversion and the need for New Birth or to be “born again.” People needed to recognize their sin, repent, and receive salvation by faith in Christ. The real, “heartfelt conversions Whitefield facilitated, even more than the changes he brought to the practice of religion,” observes Noll, “are why he was such an important figure in his age and why his legacy has remained at the heart of the history of Christianity in America.”

Benjamin Franklin Partnered with Whitefield

American Founder Benjamin Franklin, also a well-known figure in the colonies, played a key role in helping Whitefield gain publicity in America. Franklin was intrigued by Whitefield’s message and integrity, and the two men maintained a friendship. When Whitefield had no place to speak, Franklin helped to build a hall in Philadelphia for the minister and other clergy. 

In addition, Franklin, a printer, notably gave Whitefield important coverage in his newspaper, Pennsylvania Gazette, and connections to other publishers. The two men also created a subscription of the preacher’s messages, with Franklin printing the preacher’s sermons and journals. Franklin describes the evangelist’s widespread influence during the Awakening: 

It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.

Whitefield Used Innovative Techniques to Preach

Whitefield practiced an innovative approach to evangelism using rhetorical techniques, media, and the marketplace. While previously ministers read sermons for long periods, Whitefield often memorized his sermons, preached extemporaneously, and spoke with charisma. He varied his voice and gestured, and he appealed to emotions and the heart.

In addition, he used media like the new colonial newspapers and market advertising to spread the Christian Gospel and to raise publicity for his tours. His practices changed expectations and demands for church leaders. Previously church congregations sought leaders with formal training and traditional orthodoxy. Now they looked for leaders with emotion, enthusiasm, and charisma.

Whitefield’s innovative style and democratic view of evangelism led to a new, modern kind of preaching and a more democratic soul in American life, religion, and politics. His traveling efforts also helped to make the colonies more interconnected and unified in their beliefs and values. Due to his tours, Whitefield played a significant role, say scholars, in advancing inter-colonial communication as well as spiritual/religious, geographic, and political unity among the colonies prior to the American Revolution.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related posts/videos:
1.  An Introduction to Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Religious Landscape of the Original Thirteen Colonies in America
3.  The Great Awakening Emerges in Early America – Impacting Religion, Society, Politics
4.  Jonathan Edwards:  Theologian of the Great Awakening
5.  George Whitefield:  Evangelist of the Great Awakening
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Value and Dignity of the Human Being
7.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Are Equal Before God
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  “Born Again” Conversion and Individual Rights
9.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
10.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
11.  Great Awakening Principle:  Eternal Happiness Found in God
12. Great Awakening Principle:  A Godly Purpose for Just Civil Government
13. A New Church Landscape:  How the Great Awakening Changed American Religion
14. How the Great Awakening Affected Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, & the Gospel
15.  The Great Awakening Affected American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 5, Part 1, Activity 7:  Whitefield and Revival Go to All the Colonies, p. 180.  MS-HS.

Whitefield and Revival Go to All the Colonies

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn about George Whitefield and his evangelistic preaching and tours throughout the colonies in mid-1700s America, which played an important role in converting many colonists to Christianity during the Great Awakening.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 5 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections Introduction and 5.1, 5.3, and p. 146.
2)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Research and Visual Charting Activity:
Have students read and research (online and/or in the library) on George Whitefield’s itinerant preaching and travels through the colonies.  Where did he go and when?  His most notable tour took place in 1740.  Have students visually chart, draw, or map Whitefield’s 1740 preaching tour throughout the 13 colonies (and perhaps other tours and the years they took place).  Students may color-code Whitefield’s preaching route(s) and provide some details at each stopping point if desired.  Students may use an existing map provided by the teacher, their original 13 colonies maps which they created in earlier units, or a new revival map they create.  After students have completed their visual chart of the routes, discuss how Whitefield made such a strong impact on the colonies.  What were the effects of his and other revivalists’ itinerant preaching, in homes, churches, and colonies?

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