Clergyman. Whitefield was born on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England, the son of Thomas Whitefield and Elizabeth Edwards, innkeepers. After studying at the local grammar school, he worked in the inn with his widowed mother. Enrolling at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1732, he worked as a servant and came under the influence of the Holy Club led by John and Charles Wesley. The following year he had a deeply moving religious experience. Attracting the attention of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, a leader in the evangelical revival, he was ordained deacon in the Church of England in June 1736, shortly before receiving a B.A. degree. Personally winsome and spellbinding as a preacher, he began to attract large crowds. David Garrick, the London actor, once commented that Whitefield could make his hearers weep by pronouncing the word “Mesopotamia.”
Whitefield succeeded John Wesley as chaplain to Georgia in 1738 and made plans to establish Bethesda Orphan House, patterned after the one built in Halle by the German pietist August Francke. He sailed to England from Charleston to collect money for Bethesda and to be ordained a priest in the Church of England (January 1739). On this first visit to Charleston, Whitefield was received hospitably by Alexander Garden, the rector of St. Philip’s and commissary of the Bishop of London. In England, where many pulpits were closed to him because of his criticism of the clergy and accusations against him of enthusiasm, Whitefield preached outdoors to large crowds in both London and Bristol. Before returning to Georgia, he persuaded Wesley to take up his field preaching appointments. Whitefield’s increasing commitment to the doctrine of predestination, however, led to a break with Wesley, and although the two were personally reconciled, they never again worked together.
Whitefield sailed to America again in 1739, the second of seven trips, landing in Philadelphia in November. He attracted the support of Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania and Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts. Returning to Georgia to oversee the construction of Bethesda, he stopped in South Carolina at a tavern near Little River on New Year’s Day, 1740, and preached against the dancing that went on through the night. In Savannah he recognized the need for slave labor to build his orphan house and joined the campaign to legalize slavery. He eventually purchased a plantation he named Providence in St. Paul’s Parish, South Carolina, for support.
Whitefield encountered his strongest opposition in America in South Carolina. On March 14, 1740, Commissary Garden summoned Whitefield to Charleston and charged him with enthusiasm and defamation of other clergy and suspended him from preaching. The following Sunday, Garden preached against Whitefield on the text “Those who have turned the world upside down have come hither also.” Whitefield retaliated with a sermon in the Congregational church on the text “Alexander the coppersmith hath done me much evil; the Lord reward him according to his works.” Garden subsequently published a pamphlet attacking the revivalist. When Whitefield returned to Charleston on July 6, Garden preached against Whitefield and denied him the Sacrament. The next day Garden summoned Whitefield to appear before a church court, but Whitefield appealed to the Bishop of London. A year later Garden again summoned Whitefield. When Whitefield failed to appear, Garden suspended him from his ministerial functions. Whitefield ignored the suspension.
On January 4, 1741, Whitefield arrived in Charleston to sail to England. He was served a warrant for revising for publication a letter written by one of his followers, the Beaufort planter Hugh Bryan. Bryan was jailed, and Whitefield was cited with “false, malicious, scandalous, and infamous libel against the clergy.” Whitefield appeared in court, paid a fine, and sailed to London with the good wishes of his adherents. Beyond the controversy he incited, Whitefield had little lasting impact on South Carolina.
Back in England on November 14, 1741, Whitefield married a widow, Elizabeth James. Their one child, John, lived only four months. On his final trip to America in 1770 Whitefield became ill in Boston and died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on September 30. He was buried beneath the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church.
Henry, Stuart C. George Whitefield: Wayfaring Witness. New York: Abingdon, 1957.
Huff, A.V., Jr. “A History of South Carolina United Methodism.” In United Methodist Ministers in South Carolina. Columbia: South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, 1984.
Jackson, Harvey H. “Hugh Bryan and the Evangelical Movement in South Carolina.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 43 (October 1986): 594–614.
Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991.