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Morton: Evangelist Whitefield had gift for oratory

Published: Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

On this day (Sept. 30) in 1770, Anglican evangelist George Whitefield died at age 55 in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Mass.

Renowned as a popular itinerant, open-air preacher in 18th-century Great Britain and the American colonies, Whitefield was, in England, one of the founders, along with John and Charles Wesley, of the Methodist Movement, which was originally a reform movement within the Anglican church.

In America, he, along with Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies and Gilbert Tennent, became one of the busiest and most celebrated Protestant preachers during “The Great Awakening” (1726-1756), which was a series of religious revivals that stressed emotionalism and the need to experience “a religious conversion.”

Born on Dec. 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England, Whitefield was the fifth son and seventh child of innkeepers Thomas and Elizabeth Whitefield. He was educated at the Crypt School in Gloucester and at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. While at Oxford, the precocious Whitefield experienced a religious conversion and became friends with fellow students John and Charles Wesley.

Early on, Whitefield discovered that he had an enviable talent for acting and oratory. After his religious conversion, he was ordained by the Bishop of Gloucester and became a passionate preacher of his newfound religious beliefs, often preaching to increasingly large crowds (reported to have been in a one case more than 20,000) in open-air venues because many English Anglican churches had closed their doors to what they considered that “ranting enthusiast” – i.e. the silver-tongued Whitefield.

In 1738, the 23-year-old Whitefield made his first of seven trips to America, where he quickly became the most celebrated, well-known Great Awakening preacher. Although not a profound theologian, Whitefield did persuasively preach a form of Methodist/Calvinism, which meant support for John Calvin’s concept of predestination, the doctrine of a calling, and the need for a religious conversion.

During most of his trips to America, he preached almost every day to large outdoor crowds, traveling hundreds of miles by horseback from New England to Georgia. He invariably ended his sermons with the admonition, “Come poor, lost undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ,” which resulted in the conversion over the years of thousands of “sinners.”

Of interest, Whitefield was an advocate of slavery, which set especially well with his southern audiences, claiming that it was sanctioned in the Holy Bible. Also of interest was his ecumenicalism. He often prayed the following prayer: “Father Abraham: Who have you in heaven? Any Anglicans? No! Any Lutherans? No! Any Presbyterians? No! Any Independents or Methodists? No! No! No! We do not know those names here. All who are here are Christians. Help us to forget party names and to become Christians in deed and truth.”

The evangelist apparently had an unhappy private life. He had few close friends and even with one of those, John Wesley, he had a breakup over doctrinal issues. That makes his 20-year-plus friendship with the Deist Dr. Benjamin Franklin an obvious aberration to his usual “indifferent unfriendliness” to acquaintances and colleagues. These two 18th-century celebrities maintained a friendship that lasted from their first meeting in the 1740s to Whitefield’s death in 1770.

Whitefield’s marriage in 1741 to a Welsh widow appeared not to be a happy one, caused, in part, one suspects, by their many long separations.

On the day before he died, he was reported to have said, “My sun has arisen and by aid from heaven has given light to many. It is now about to set.”

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution and Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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