This month marks the tricentennial of the birth of the most famous man in America before the Revolution. George Whitefield, born on Dec. 16, 1714, was a Church of England minister who led the Great Awakening, a series of Christian revivals that swept through Britain and America in the mid-1700s. Whitefield drew enormous audiences wherever he went on both sides of the Atlantic, and his publications alone doubled the output of the American colonial presses between 1739 and 1742. If there is a modern figure comparable to Whitefield, it is Billy Graham. But even Mr. Graham has followed a path first cut by Whitefield.
What made Whitefield and his gospel message so famous? First, he mastered the period’s new media. Cultivating a vast network of newspaper publicity, printers and letter-writing correspondents, Whitefield used all means available to get the word out.
Most important, he joined with Benjamin Franklin, who became Whitefield’s main printer in America, even though Franklin was no evangelical. Their business relationship transformed into a close friendship, although Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin, unsuccessfully, about his need for Jesus.
“As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity,” Whitefield wrote to Franklin in 1752, “I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new-birth.”
Whitefield’s print campaign helped spread his message and his fame, but his preaching is what galvanized his followers. It’s too bad there was no YouTube in Whitefield’s day, but the testimonies of those who heard him are compelling. David Garrick, one of England’s most famous actors at the time, noted with what must have been a touch of envy that Whitefield could “make men weep or tremble by his varied utterances of the word ‘Mesopotamia.’ ”
The preacher had trained as an actor when he was young, and he adapted theater techniques for use in the pulpit. Taking on the character of biblical figures during his sermons, which were often delivered outdoors to accommodate the crowds, Whitefield would weave dramatic, emotional stories rather than recite dry doctrine from a written text. His voice would boom across the fields—Franklin estimated that as many as 30,000 people could hear Whitefield speaking at one time.
Whitefield’s talent for media and public performance has raised questions about his sincerity. Was he just an evangelical salesman, more concerned with his own fame and fortune than with bringing people to God? Whitefield confessed to his struggles with the “fiery trial of popularity” and the temptations of arrogance and self-indulgence.
But he seems to have weathered that trial as well as any famous pastor has. He did not personally profit much from his ministry, and indeed Benjamin Franklin attested to his integrity. Most of the money that Whitefield got from donations went into his charitable projects, namely an orphanage in Georgia. The rest covered the costs of traveling throughout Britain and America.
His greatest personal failing was one shared by many prominent whites in America: The Englishman—who was first sent overseas in 1738, to be a parish priest in Savannah, Ga.—was a slave owner. He also criticized masters who abused slaves in the South, and believed that Christian masters should evangelize and educate enslaved people. Yet the idea of “benevolent” enslavement strikes modern observers as an inexcusable contradiction. Whitefield, along with other slave-owners of the era, compounded the glaring incongruity of holding people in bondage while trumpeting the value of freedom.
Despite that moral blemish, Whitefield was a gospel minister of great seriousness. The Bible, he proclaimed, showed that people’s sins separated them from God, but that Jesus offered them forgiveness and freedom through his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.
That message drove Whitefield to risk health and safety in his relentless schedule. It is impossible to know exactly how many sermons Whitefield delivered, but 18,000 is probably a safe estimate, as he routinely preached twice or more daily. He survived multiple assassination attempts by people who hated him and his fervent religious message, or who wanted to become famous themselves.
He not only traversed the length of the American colonies from Maine to Georgia, but he also made 13 trans-Atlantic voyages between Britain and America, at a time when such crossings were extremely treacherous. His strength finally ran out in 1770 on his last visit to America; he died, and was buried, in Newburyport, Mass.
Whitefield didn’t live to see the Revolution, but historians credit the Great Awakening, and its defiance of the established church, with instilling in American colonists a sense of liberty’s revolutionary possibilities.
Mr. Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University, is the author of “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father” (Yale University Press, 2014).