Often referred to as the most venerated preacher of the 18th-century, Reverend George Whitefield helped spread the “Great Awakening” in both Britain and the North American colonies. As an Anglican Protestant minister, he is also credited with founding the evangelical movement that would lead to the establishment of Methodism. Rev. Whitefield’s reputation as a fiery preacher drew great crowds throughout the colonies to include both non-believers and devout followers. The largest churches in these towns could not hold the 8,000+ citizens who came to see him, so Whitefield began delivering his sermons outdoors in order to accommodate the masses. Sometimes the audience would swell to outnumber the town’s population. As a result Whitefield became one of the most widely recognized public figures in colonial America.
Coming from a poor background, Whitefield managed to get free tuition from Oxford University by acting as a servant for a number of high-ranked upperclassmen. While there he joined an organization known as the “Holy Club” along with the brothers John and Charles Wesley. It was during this time that he became fervently religious and began preaching incessantly about his new-found faith. Impressed with Whitefield’s passion for prayer, the Bishop of Gloucester recruited and ordained him before the canonical age. After preaching in his home of Gloucester, Whitefield departed for the colonies where he was made the parish priest of the church in Savannah Georgia. After a one-year stay, he returned home in order to resume his evangelistic activities. Whitefield openly accepted the Church of England’s official doctrine supporting predestination, but disagreed with their views on slavery. As a result, he left the mainstream movement to form the first Methodist Conference where he served as president before turning the position over in favor of his evangelical work.As a testament to Whitefield’s skills as an orator, Benjamin Franklin once attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia and was greatly impressed with the reverend’s ability to deliver his message to such a large crowd. Surprised by the mass of humanity surrounding the speaker, Franklin no longer assumed the reports of Whitefield preaching to thousands in England to be greatly exaggerated. Despite his own lack of religious practice, Franklin came to greatly admire Whitefield both for his passion for the Gospel, as well as his ability to reach people of all faiths and denominations. He later recalled that the revival was, “wonderful...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.”
Revered by many, Whitefield defined a unique style of preaching that would elicit emotional responses from the audience. He also granted permission for the publishing of his sermons igniting criticisms accusing him of being over-exuberant in his language. These censures had little effect on the shepherd or his flock. Perhaps his most controversial stance was that slavery had been ordained by God. In 1749, Whitefield campaigned for the legislation of slavery, which was outlawed in 18th-century Georgia. His argument was that no territory could prosper or grow without the support of slave labor. In 1751 he returned to America for a fourth time, viewing the re-legalization of slavery in Georgia as necessary to make agriculture profitable. Whitefield proceeded to purchase slaves himself to work at the Bethesda Orphanage and at Providence Plantation. In an open-letter to his friend Benjamin Franklin, Whitefield presented his conflicting thoughts on those held in bondage. He wrote:I must inform you in the meekness and gentleness of Christ, that God has a quarrel with you for your cruelty to the poor negroes. Whether it be lawful for Christians to buy slaves, I shall not take it upon me to determine, but sure I am that it is sinful…to use them worse than brutes. …,Although I pray God the slaves would not be permitted to get the upper hand [ie, in revolution against the white slave owners], yet should such a thing be permitted by [God], all good men must acknowledge, the judgement would be just.
Whitefield is also credited with being one of the first white preachers to introduce Christianity to African-Americans. He was said to have treated his slaves well (under the circumstances) and upon his death, he bequeathed them to the Countess of Huntingdon.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I found the lack of attention paid to Whitefield’s practice as a slaveholder to be very interesting. Several of the more notable Christian-based publications including Christianity Today and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library either briefly mentioned or completely ignored this fact. It pains me to say anything positive about Glenn Beck, but this is one instance when I found his take to be historically accurate. During his May 14, 2010 broadcast Beck introduced the Reverend George Whitefield to his audience:I think George Whitefield is a man for today. He's complicated and controversial. We'll get to his views on slavery, which were bizarre, but a man of his time, I guess. He was a man who was years before the revolution, was teaching colonists they could have a relationship with God, they could stand up to authority, he's the man that laid the groundwork for the revolution. He was also strangely for slavery, but when he got to Maryland, when he made his first trek to Georgia from New York, he's coming down through Maryland and he first sees plantations and he is horrified at slavery. He is for slavery, but horrified because he thinks they're being treated terribly, he said you be kind to slaves, they have souls. He didn't make that final leap. I found it so bizarre that he was for slavery, but couldn't get his arms around the way you were treating them, like there is a good way to treat your slave.
This contradiction comes up again and again when examining the Founding Fathers: the idea that by treating one’s slaves in a more humane manner, they lessen their sins as slaveholders. Whitefield is a special case as not only did he practice the institution himself, he also campaigned for it. So here we have a man who is celebrated to this very day for his piousness, venerated with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church on November 15, yet guilty of helping to reinstate slavery in 1751 Georgia. Whitefield’s legacy is a perfect illustration of the complexity that exists in the lives of influential whites in colonial America and how we sometimes struggle to remember them today.