America’s First Great Awakening

By Karen Thompson
Third in a Five-Part Series

George Whitefield

We’re done with the Measure for Measure series, and that means it’s time for a palate cleanser to get you ready for the next end time subject. I’ve been using America’s Great Awakenings as palate cleansers, which is a fascinating subject, indeed. This is the third post in a five-part series on America’s First Great Awakening. In our last post, we learned that the Great Awakening began in Northampton, Massachusetts at the Congregational Church, pastored by Jonathan Edwards. It began with the youth and became what is known as America’s first youth movement. The awakening spread to the communities around Northampton and then into places farther away. In this post, we’re going to talk about George Whitefield (pronounced WlT-field) and how he was responsible for the Great Awakening spreading throughout the 13 colonies. The influence and popularity of Whitefield in America was so great that he became America’s first celebrity. In all, he made seven trips from England to America. On his last trip to America, he died in the parsonage of the Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts in September 1770. At his request, he was buried in a crypt under the pulpit of this church. He was truly beloved and revered by Americans, and it was this love that was the motive for desecrating his grave!

Whitefield’s Grave Desecrated!

You heard me right! His crypt was opened by officers of the Revolutionary War. I read about it in a book entitled, “Benedict Arnold, Patriot and Traitor” by Willard Sterne Randall. What I read shocked me. Before the troops went to battle against Britain, Colonel Benedict Arnold had his troops march in column to the Presbyterian Church where Chaplain Spring preached a message to the army and to the citizens who crowded the galleries. He preached from the text, “If thy spirit go not with us, carry us not up hence.” Everyone praised Chaplain Spring on the eloquence of his message. About the event, Spring said what thrilled him most (and what everyone was aware of) was that “I preached over the grave of Whitefield.”

After the message was over, the officers gathered together to talk. Someone in the group requested to visit Whitefield’s tomb. They contacted a church official to get the key and then all the officers made their way down the stairs to Whitefield’s vault. Benedict Arnold and his officers gathered in the dark vault around the coffin. Then, unbelievably, they requested the church official to take the lid off of the coffin!

And he did it!

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. As bad as that was, it got worse. The men observed that Whitefield’s “body had nearly all returned to dust.” There were portions of his clothing that were still intact. Here’s the shocker. They took his collar and wristbands and carefully cut them into pieces and divided them among them! What?! Even though their motive was out of reverence, in truth, they desecrated a man’s grave! I always say reading nonfiction is better than fiction because there are things about history that are simply shocking. And this is one of them. I shared that story not to shock you but to show how beloved and venerated Whitefield was in the colonies.

Preaching to Large Crowds

George Whitefield was born December 16, 1714 in Gloucester, England. He went to Oxford University where he met John and Charles Wesley. He joined the Wesley brothers’ “Holy Club” where its members met for prayer, fasting, and Bible study. They were called “Methodists” because of the methods they used to perfect a lifestyle of holiness. Eventually, he and the Wesley brothers became the founders of the Methodist Church.

To say that Whitefield devoted his life to the preaching of God’s Word would be an understatement. The statistics on his life are almost hard to believe. One of those statistics is that he spoke 1,000 times every year for 30 years. It was not a rare thing when he spoke more hours than he slept in a week. He never took vacations. The only time he slowed down was when he was on a voyage back and forth from England to the colonies. After the Anglican Church ordained him, he began preaching around London at age 21. Immediately, Whitefield began attracting large crowds.

Wherever he preached, the crowds were in the thousands. For instance, in New England in 1740, he preached almost every day for a month to crowds up to 8,000 people. In Philadelphia, also in 1740, he preached on Society Hill twice in the morning to a crowd of 6,000 and in the evening to a crowd of 8,000. Though he was a slender man, his voice was large and powerful. It was reported that when he spoke the words “He opened His mouth and taught them saying,” they were distinctly heard at Gloucester Point, which was two miles away!

Benjamin Franklin (who was only eight years older than Whitefield) had heard about the crowds that came to hear Whitefield preach. He thought it was an exaggeration that a crowd of thousands could hear what he was saying. He attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia and was impressed with Whitefield’s ability to deliver a message to such a large crowd. As Whitefield preached, he decided to do an experiment. He walked away until he could no longer hear Whitefield’s voice distinctly. He estimated that Whitefield could be heard from over 500 feet. He considered that distance from Whitefield and then calculated a semicircle around Whitefield and estimated that Whitefield could be heard by over thirty thousand people in the open air!

Whitefield in America

His first trip to America was to Savannah, Georgia, to be its parish priest. He discerned one of the community’s greatest needs was an orphanage. He went back to England to raise funds to build the Bethesda Orphanage (presently Bethesda Academy). It was America’s first charity, and amazingly, it is the oldest still existing charity in North America.

Whitefield returned to America for a preaching tour of the colonies in 1739–1740 during the Great Awakening. He was only 25 years old at the time, and it was said he took America by storm. His first stop was Philadelphia, and a crowd of 8,000 came to hear him speak. There wasn’t a building large enough to accommodate the crowd so he preached outdoors. In every place he stopped, he was met with record attendance audiences. It was said the crowds that came to hear him very often exceeded the population of the towns where he preached.

When people were making their way to hear Whitefield preach, they were described as aggressive. They shoved, trampled, and elbowed their way through the crowd to get the best seat. One described it as loud, frenzied mobs. But once Whitefield began preaching, they became “profoundly silent,” not wanting to miss hearing a single word of Whitefield.

The last stop on his preaching tour was Boston Common where he drew a record crowd of 25,000 people, more than the population of Boston at the time. They said it was the largest crowd that ever gathered in the colonies. At the end of his preaching tour, it was estimated that 80 percent of the population of the colonies had heard Whitefield preach at least once. There was no one in the colonies who was more famous than Whitefield.

His Preaching Style

Whitefield was greatly criticized by the clergy of the day because he didn’t fit the mold of what people thought a minister should be; the clergy were controlled, dignified, and stuffy. It was the usual practice of preachers at that time to read their sermons. They even read their prayers! They stood in one place behind their pulpits while giving their messages, never raising their voices or making any hand gestures. They were expressionless. Emotionless.

This was the complete opposite to Whitefield. Whitefield didn’t read his sermons. He memorized them and spoke without notes. Whitefield took stories from the Bible and acted them out. He became the different characters in the story, acting “with a realism no one had seen before.” He gestured wildly with his arms, raised his voice, cried, danced, screamed, and laughed. Very often, he would be overcome with emotion, shedding tears. Many wondered, at times, whether he would be able to recover himself to continue preaching. He was dramatic. They say he didn’t preach… he acted. Indeed, a famous actor in Britain, David Garrick, said about Whitefield, “I would give a hundred guineas, if I could say ‘Oh’ like Mr. Whitefield.”

 Whitefield Was an Evangelist and His Message Was the New Birth

It wasn’t just his preaching style that was different. Many Anglican churches wouldn’t let him preach in their churches because they opposed the Methodists and their message of the new birth, which was one had to be born again to enter the kingdom of God. One author said, “Where other Anglican ministers emphasized religious ritual or moral living, Whitefield preached conversion. His hearers must be inwardly changed through faith in Jesus Christ for a personal salvation from sin, to experience a new birth through the Holy Spirit.” Whitefield said about the people that opposed the new birth message, “I am fully convinced there is a fundamental difference between us and them. They believe only an outward Christ, we further believe that He must be inwardly formed in our hearts also.” At the end of every meeting, Whitefield gave the invitation to receive Christ by saying, “Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.”

There was a reason Whitefield wasn’t like the other ministers of his day. It was because Whitefield stood in the five-fold office of evangelist. Whitefield was an evangelist before anybody knew what an evangelist was. The typical present-day evangelists are much like Whitefield—charismatic, passionate, dramatic, and are on fire with the zeal of God. They have big personalities. Part of the anointing of the evangelist is to draw large crowds. And when they give the salvation invitation, people respond. The clergy of his day didn’t appreciate Whitefield because they were unfamiliar with the office of evangelist and all its identifying characteristics. He was, indeed, America’s first mass evangelist!

But not everyone was a fan. Jesus said that the disciple is not above his master (Matt. 10:24). If they hated Jesus, they would hate His followers. Wherever Jesus went, He was followed by adoring multitudes wanting to get near Him. But He also had His detractors as well, people that hated Him and wanted to kill Him.

It was the same with Whitefield. Though multitudes came to hear him preach, there were mobs that tried to shut him down. Mobs that set upon him and his followers with violence, beating them up and even going so far as to rip the clothing off the women. During his ministry, he received three death-threat letters; indeed, one time Whitefield was stoned nearly to death.

Epilogue

The Great Awakening brought forth many changes in the colonies. For one, the Puritans’ fire and devotion to God had died down, but the Great Awakening revived the colonists’ love for God. Also, it changed the way they identified themselves. They no longer saw themselves as 13 individual colonies. Through the shared experience of the Great Awakening, they began to identify as one group. It brought them together. They became united.

There were other significant changes that God brought forth in the Church community. There were many things about their culture, traditions, and doctrine that literally prevented God from moving among them, that blocked His ability to bring forth change in their lives. In this time of revival, He began to bring forth change that would challenge their culture and traditions.

Jesus said, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2 NKJV). Like a tree, the Lord began to prune things that needed to be pruned in the Church in the following decades. When things that were detrimental to the Church were trimmed away, the Church began to flourish in spiritual things. He brought forth new revelations, new ways of doing things… all for the purpose of making the Church stronger, mightier.

In my studies of the Great Awakenings and the moves of God down through the years in America, I realized what God was doing. Through the decades, the Lord has been molding and shaping the Church by changing things that needed to be changed and bringing forth revelations of truth from His Word that the Church did not have. The revelations He brought forth in one generation didn’t die out with that generation. His truths were passed to the next generation, resulting in the Church being shaped into what He needed her to be. What I realized is that from the very beginning God was raising up a Church in America that He could use as a mighty vessel to pour out His glory on the earth. She was being prepared to bring forth the great end time harvest of souls!

There’s one other thing I noticed. The Great Awakenings and the moves of God could be likened to a mighty river that flowed through the nation. People had a choice whether or not to jump into the river. In every move of God, multitudes of people chose to jump into the river and flow with it. But also in every move of God, there were portions of the Church that chose not to make that jump. Those parts that did not jump into the river were left unchanged, left behind of what God was doing. But those that jumped into the river were mightily used of God, bringing God’s light and truth to the people!

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2 thoughts on “America’s First Great Awakening

  1. I just started reading your new blog post of George Whitefield. It sure was strange that the people would want to see his dead body deteriorated in the grave and cut pieces of clothing off to save for themselves! It reminded me of how the people took Jesus’ clothing for themselves when he was put on the cross.

    Gail

    Like

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