Atlantic History George Whitefield
Jessica Parr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0199


George Whitefield (1714–1770), an English Anglican and Calvinist itinerant preacher, was one of the most recognized figures of the British Atlantic evangelical world. He is often associated with the founding of the Methodist Church, although Methodism did not officially break from the Church of England until after Whitefield’s death. Methodist leaders John and Charles Wesley were among Whitefield’s earliest mentors, from his time as a student at Pembroke College, Oxford. During his missionary career, Whitefield undertook seven transatlantic voyages from Great Britain to British North America, dying in 1770, halfway through his seventh trip to the colonies. He was known for his propagation, and defense of revivalism, and his disputes with various ecclesiastical and civic authorities. Perhaps most notable was a ten-year dispute with Carolina Commissary Alexander Garden that played out across the Atlantic in correspondence and newspapers. Whitefield preached approximately 18,000 sermons over the course of his career. Many of these sermons focus on righteousness, which is a central part of Calvinist doctrine. He also wrote and revised a journal covering his birth through his early missionary career. Other themes in Whitefield’s writings include Grace, the New Birth, and an emphasis on the conversion experience. He saw the conversion experience as essential to the authority of any minister, a position that repudiated the Church of England’s practices that required the erudition, ordination, and assignment of clergy. A number of Whitefield’s critics, including Charles Chauncy, noted incongruities between Whitefield’s preachings, the actions of his followers, and Anglican Church doctrine. For instance, both his preaching outside of a sanctioned pulpit and his public support for Presbyterian New Light minister Gilbert Tennant’s 1740 sermon, “On the Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry,” were seen to violate Articles 23 and 26 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, which barred public preaching and required clergy to be “lawfully called.” Whitefield tended to frame such criticisms as religious bigotry. As part of his desire to have his message open to the largest audience possible, Whitefield ignored denominational lines, seeing them as unnecessarily obstacles. He frequently railed back against those who argued that regeneration was inconsistent with Anglican doctrine and was quick to make accusations of hypocrisy against ecclesiastical authorities who criticized him. For instance, a bishop who criticized Whitefield’s habit of preaching outside of an assigned pulpit was declared a hypocrite for preaching in pulpits that were not his own.

General Overviews and Introductory Studies

Much of what is known about Whitefield comes from a combination of his own writings, as well as memoirs written shortly after his death such as the elegiac poem Wheatley 1770 (cited under Primary Sources) and the two-volume memoir Gillies 1772 (cited under Primary Sources), commissioned by Whitefield executrix Selina Hastings. Much emphasis was placed on Whitefield’s labors in the British North American colonies. While Whitefield undeniably did spend much of his adult life in the colonies, these writings create interpretive problems. As David Ceri Jones has noted, the geographic emphasis of these writings has had the tendency of painting Whitefield as an American figure, underplaying his missionary work in Great Britain (see Hammond and Jones 2016, cited under Legacy). The early memoirists tended to be personal acquaintances or admirers of Whitefield or (like Gillies) those who wrote on commission. Notably, Gillies’s memoir was published just eleven years before Hastings, its commissioner, formed her Connexion in the United States. Unsurprisingly, the early Connexion had strong ties to George Whitefield, whose Calvinism ran counter to the Wesleyan Arminianism that was more popular in the United States. The Arminianism-Calvinism controversy came only five years before the Connexion’s founding, so it was advantageous for Hastings and her supporters to be able to invoke Whitefield’s work in North America. More broadly, as nineteenth-century Americans grappled with religious diversity, immigration, disestablishment, and other matters, Whitefield served as a point of unity for evangelical Protestant Americans. The nineteenth century saw the publication of numerous other popular memoirs, including Tyerman 1876 and Belcher 1857. These memoirs, too, focused on Whitefield’s travels in North America. More recently, the literature has largely repositioned Whitefield within a broader transatlantic paradigm, while not ignoring his significance to religious culture in British North America. Stout 1991 emphasizes Whitefield’s skill as an orator and his charisma as central to his popularity, characterizing him as theatrical. Lambert 2002 ascribes Whitefield’s transatlantic popularity to his talents for marketing himself (and popular religion) through print. While the publication of sermons and religious pamphlets predates Whitefield, it is not a coincidence that religious print culture exploded in the late 1730s. There have been additional efforts to more closely explore his life, including his attitude toward slavery, his relationships with women, his influence outside of the British Atlantic, and his legacy.

  • Belcher, Joseph. George Whitefield: A Biography: With Special Reference to His Labors in America. New York: American Tract Society, 1857.

    Belcher was a nineteenth-century evangelical minister. His biography of Whitefield was among many that privileged Whitefield’s missionary work in the colonies, contributing to claims of him as an American figure.

  • Breen, T. H., and Timothy Breen. “Structuring the Providential Imagination: The Rhetoric of Social Change in Eighteenth-Century New England.” The American Historical Review 13.5 (December 1998): 1411–1439.

    This article, which mentions Whitefield, provides some important insights into the way religious thought spread through newspapers, broadsides, tracts, and ephemeral materials. In many ways, it complements Frank Lambert’s discussion of Whitefield’s ability to tap into the market for religious print culture.

  • Dallimore, Arnold A. George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Sermon in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Crossroads, 2002.

    Dallimore (1911–1998) was a Baptist preacher and biographer of a number evangelical figures. His biography is arguably the most-cited of all of the biographical treatments of George Whitefield.

  • Hoffer, Peter Charles. When Benjamin Franklin Met the Reverend Whitefield: Enlightenment, Revival, and the Power of the Written World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

    Hoffer’s brief book discusses the unlikely friendship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield. While Franklin never subscribed to evangelicalism, he admired Whitefield’s oratory skills and published a number of Whitefield’s letters, sermons, and pamphlets.

  • Kidd, Thomas S. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300181623.001.0001

    A biography of George Whitefield that contextualizes Whitefield within larger Anglo-Atlantic debates about religious tolerance, the role of religion in the American Revolution, and other issues in eighteenth-century British religious culture. Kidd acknowledges that Whitefield was a figure of Anglo-American revivalism but is particularly interested in the effect Whitefield had on the North American religious landscape.

  • Lambert, Frank. “Pedlar in Divinity”: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1730–1770. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

    Lambert discusses Whitefield’s use of print culture in advancing his religious message.

  • Morgan, David T., Jr. “The Consequences of George Whitefield’s Ministry in the Carolinas and Georgia, 1739–1740.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 55 (1971): 62–82.

    Whitefield’s visits to the Carolinas and Georgia had almost immediate consequences for the three colonies. It produced anxiety among the ecclesiastical hierarchy on both sides of the Atlantic and launched some of the biggest controversies of Whitefield’s career.

  • Noll, Mark A., David Bebbington, and George W. Rawlyk, eds. Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700–1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    This collection of essays provides essential background on evangelicalism across the British Atlantic world.

  • O’Connell, Neil J. “George Whitefield and Bethesda Orphan House.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 54.1 (Spring 1970): 41–62.

    Charity was a part of Whitefield’s mission, and one of his charities was the Bethesda Orphan House, which remained in operation in some form through the 1970s. His preaching tours frequently involved the solicitation of donations in support of Bethesda.

  • Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

    Stout’s study focuses on Whitefield’s skills as an orator, arguing that Whitefield drew on his theatrical background. Although he later rejected theater as “sinful,” Stout sees the youthful talent Whitefield displayed for performance as tantamount to his success.

  • Tyerman, Luke. The Life of George Whitefield, BA of Pembroke College, Oxford, in 2 Volumes. London: Hodder, 1876.

    A biography of Whitefield written by a British Wesleyan minister and frequent biographer of religious figures.

  • Valeri, Mark. Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400834990

    Valeri’s book provides some additional context into the print marketplace that Whitefield used to great effect.

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