While we can name all the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, one extremely important founder was gone before the Revolution even began.
George Whitefield died in 1770, yet many believe there would not have been an American Revolution if not for him.
George Whitefield was born December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England. Whitefield entered the ministry at 17 looking for a prestigious profession. He attended Oxford, where classmate Charles Wesley loaned him Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. It opened Whitefield’s eyes and heart to God’s grace. He began to understand man needed a deep relationship with God at every moment, not just on Sundays.
By his ordination into the Church of England at age 22, Whitefield was already changing hearts. He and John and Charles Wesley inspired the Methodist denomination. The men eventually experienced theological disagreements as Whitefield was more “Calvinist” in his doctrine. However, Whitefield never considered himself anything other than a Christian. His teachings touched many protestant denominations, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and others.
Whitefield’s sermons on Jesus’ love and sacrifice drew in thousands. His charismatic style and messages of freedom and personal responsibility in one’s own faith appealed to the masses. His influence in churches in England and America alarmed church leaders who were concerned about losing their authority. By early 1739, church leaders did not welcome him in the pulpits anymore.
At the time, the rich and predominate occupied the pews. The church ignored the common people, the ones who really needed the Good News. Church leaders considered the villagers simpletons. They didn’t want to waste their time on such sinners. Whitefield was inspired to take his message to these souls. He humbly started a mission in the small coal-mining village of Kingswood.
On a blistering cold and wet February 17th day, Whitefield began his sermon atop a small, natural hill. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see the kingdom of heaven”. His booming voice echoed through the village streets. Coal miners and other citizens soon gathered around the preacher. Whitefield recited the story of Jesus, from birth to resurrection. Upwards of 200 villagers congregated around. They gathered out of curiosity. They stayed for the message.
Afterwards, an older man and his granddaughter approached Whitefield. He thanked Whitefield for reminding him of the Christmas story. As a child, his mother told him the story, but he had forgotten it long ago. He never told his children and they never told his grandchildren. He was so joyful to receive the gift of the Gospel again to share with his family.
When Whitefield returned the next day to a crowd of 2000. Over 10,000 men, women and children traveled by Sunday to hear the joyful preacher. Fortunately, God gifted him with the ability to project his voice so all attendees could hear him. Even though he found a church home in Bristol, his true calling was evangelizing.
By the end of 1739, Whitefield returned to America, which he considered the land of milk and honey. He started a ministry among the slaves during his first trip, which he wished to continue.
As no one is perfect except Christ, Whitefield had his faults. He advocated slavery though he insisted they should be treated humanely. He treated his own slaves with respect and dignity as well as teaching them about Christ. Whitefield severely criticized those who abused and neglected their slaves.
Regardless, Whitefield is credited for bringing the Gospel and Christianity to the slave population. Many rejected his efforts though. They were afraid his sermons about spiritual freedom and liberty through Christ would cause slaves to also want it civilly.
During the next several years, Whitefield and other ministers, such as Jonathan Edwards, sparked the movement known as “The (First) Great Awakening”. It brought thousands to the faith. These ministers became known as the “Black Robed Regiment” and was just as great a threat to the crown as any military.
Whitefield spent time in Philadelphia, where he formed a strong friendship with Benjamin Franklin. A self-proclaimed Deist, Franklin still recognized the importance of Whitefield’s sermons. Franklin published tracts and sermons of Whitefield’s, which reached over half of the colonies.
After one of Whitefield’s sermons, Franklin commented, “wonderful… change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
Whitefield’s witness eventually led Franklin to zealously read the Bible and become a member of the Presbyterian church. For decades, Americans knew and respected George Whitefield as much as they did Benjamin Franklin.
Even as a loyalist, Whitefield saw England rejecting the colonists as the church rejected the coal miners. They were nothing more than workers to the political and religious elite. In 1764, he warned the colonists of England’s “deep laid plot against your civil and religious liberties”.
Franklin and Whitefield’s understanding for man’s desire to be free from a tyrannical government deepened. England responded to the evangelical movement with the Stamp Act. Sermons from the “Black Robed Regiment” on freedom and liberty directly influenced colonists’ resistance of the Stamp Act.
Franklin traveled to England to protest the Act in front of Parliament. He took Whitefield with him to proclaim colonists’ rights.
Even though it affected his health, Whitefield continued his energetic ministry. Standing on a barrel, he preached his last sermon in a field. Commenting on the insignificance of works meriting salvation, he cried out, “Works! Works! A man gets to heaven by works! I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand.” He went to heaven the next morning, guided solely on the grace of Christ.
In his short 55 years, he preached over 18,000 sermons, which was an average of 10 a week. An estimated 12 million people heard his message. Traveling to Scotland, America and Ireland, he ignited a passion for God’s Word not seen since the apostles.
In September of 1775, Benedict Arnold and his troops stopped by Whitefield’s tomb on their way to Quebec to pay their respects. Being a Sunday, the troops worshipped God in the Old South Presbyterian Church before Arnold took the officers downstairs to Whitefield’s crypt. They opened the casket and each took a piece of Whitefield’s clerical collar or wristband to wear in battle.
Whitefield preached liberty and independence when he started touring the colonies in 1740. The “Black Robed Regiment” ministers also preached the idea of freedom from the crown and state church’s oppression. Whitefield’s ministry ingrained independence into American’s minds, which led straight to the Declaration in 1776. His message formed the principles of freedom in the hearts of the colonists and the Founders.
As with the grandfather in Kingswood, America has long forgotten the Gospel. We have fallen from the faith and failed to pass on the salvation of Jesus Christ to our children and grandchildren. This Christmas season let us take a cue from Whitefield. Go to the streets, telling of the birth and life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us seek out the lost, as Christ did, and show them the light, preaching of the grace and forgiveness given to us because of a tiny baby born 2000 years ago.
But that’s just my 2 cents.