Childhood & Early Life
George Whitefield was born on December 27, 1714, at the Bell Inn, Southgate Street, Gloucester, in England to innkeepers Thomas Whitefield and Elizabeth Edwards.
His father died when he was only two years old, following which the inn was run by his mother, who later married an iron seller named Longden in 1724.
George Whitefield’s mother sent him to The Crypt School in Gloucester, where he was better in drama than in studies, and leaving school at 15, worked at their inn as 'common drawer' (bartender). After his brother took over the charges of the inn, he left the inn following an altercation with his brother's wife and applied at Pembroke College, Oxford, at his mother's suggestion.
With the inn business dwindling, he was unable to pay his tuition fees and entered university as a servitor, working menial jobs for Fellows and Fellow-commoners, and later received financial assistance from Lady Elizabeth Hastings.
In 1735, he became a part of the 'Holy Club', an early Methodist group formed by brothers John and Charles Wesley.
Continue Reading Below
While studying at Oxford, George Whitefield was influenced by Henry Scougal's 'The Life of God in the Soul of Man', and after a severe illness, experienced a true religious conversion. He began frequenting churches and preaching his newfound faith passionately upon his return to Gloucester, where he was ordained a deacon by the Bishop in July 1736.
Despite initially being mocked for his age, he captivated the gathering with extraordinary oratory skills at his first sermon at St Mary de Crypt Church in his hometown a week after his ordination. He formed his own society and, deviating from the Anglican doctrine, preached Methodist ideas which became very popular.
After preaching in Gloucestershire for a few months, he embarked on his first trans-Atlantic journey in late 1737 to help the Wesleys in setting up an Orphan House near Savannah, Georgia. Once there, he decided to fully invest in the orphanage, and after the Wesleys left America due to issues with Georgia administration, he began raising money to build the Bethesda Orphanage at the trustee-allotted 500-acre land.
George Whitefield returned to England in late 1738 to obtain priest's orders and to raise funds for the orphanage, but was not allowed to preach in Anglican churches because he often criticized the religious establishment. While he supported the Church of England's doctrine of predestination over the Methodist doctrine of the atonement, most of the clergy was scandalized by his preaching of the doctrine of regeneration or the 'new birth'.
As several pulpits closed doors on him, he decided to reach common people at outdoor locations and held his first open-air preaching at the colliers in Kingswood, near Bristol. Thanks to his far-reaching voice and dramatic gestures, he always managed to attract huge crowds, and as his fame grew, also preached open air at Blackheath, London two months later in April 1739.
He received priest's orders from his old friend Bishop Benson and raised money from his preaching, as well as from influential friends amongst the upper class in London. He went back to Georgia in 1740 and began the construction of the Bethesda Orphanage (now the Bethesda Academy) on March 25 that year.
Raising the funds all by himself, he "insisted on sole control of the orphanage" and did not give financial accounting to the Trustees, who opposed his attempt to severely control the children. Apart from providing shelter, he also wanted the orphanage to influence the children with constant Gospel preaching and strong discipline.
During 1739-40, he travelled extensively across America and preached regularly in front of large crowds gathered to experience the emphatic speeches of the "boy preacher" attacking the established clergy. He would eventually travel to America seven times and also preach in Scotland, Ireland, Bermuda, Gibraltar, and the Netherlands.
He built an orphanage for African-American children in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, currently known as Whitefield House, and during a revival meeting in Philadelphia, hugely impressed Benjamin Franklin, forming a lifelong friendship with him. Even when he settled in one location for months, he made sure to have his sermons published and distributed to his followers in other colonies, and put up advance notices for his sermons.
George Whitefield not only defended slavery as a necessity, but also campaigned for slavery's legalization after it was outlawed in the Georgia colony. While he owned many slaves, he also instructed planters to better treat slaves and was one of the first to preach to slaves, which prompted Phillis Wheatley to write a poem in his memory.
Family & Personal Life
George Whitefield wrote to a friend in 1740 that he believed that God wanted him to marry, and yet wanted to continue his work as if he had no wife. This conflict later reflected in his unhappy marriage to a widow named Elizabeth James, née Gwynne, on November 14, 1741.
His wife suffered four miscarriages before giving birth to their only son in 1743, but the child died four months later. She accompanied him to his third journey to America in 1744-48, but later stayed back believing herself to be a burden on him.
Two years after her death in 1768, he went on his seventh and last voyage to America in 1770, and died on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Following his wishes, he was buried in a crypt under the pulpit of Old South Presbyterian Church and John Wesley preached his funeral sermon in London.