George Whitfield an Original American Celebrity

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“But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”

Luke [4:43]



During the 18th century in America, there was no NFL or Major league baseball. Hollywood didn’t exist. The great celebrities of that era were politicians and traveling preachers. Certainly, people like George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were the mega stars of that era. But traveling preachers also became celebrities. People like Johnathon Edwards and George Whitfield.

Preachers that weren’t of the Puritan or Anglican church belief where in high demand. They would move from town to town and preach at parks, under trees or in town squares. During this period, religious freedom of expression became an important concept.

In the 17th century, if you lived in New England your church was likely the off shoot of the Puritan’s, now called the Congregational church. If you lived in the south, likely your church was the Anglican church or what is now called the Episcopal church. The mid Atlantic colonies were more diverse, but still very severe in their application of religious beliefs.

If you went to the Puritan church your life was controlled by Puritan beliefs. If you didn’t show up to church on Sunday, the local constable would visit you during the week and suggest you don’t miss church next week.

Many of the pastors of these two denominations were paid directly by the government. If you were a pastor of the Congregational church in Massachusetts bay colony you received your pay from the colony and local city.

Both the Methodist and Baptist denominations were in their infancy and not approved of by the ruling bodies of the colonies. Catholicism was very small and it wouldn’t become a religious force until the late 19th century.

It was not uncommon on Sunday for Methodist or Baptist preachers to speak under trees or anywhere they could get an audience. As the people of the colonies began to desire a different church experience, crowds would form to hear these new age preachers give sermons. Men like Johnathon Edwards and George Whitfield.

This period in the American colonies was called the First Great Awakening. A period where people desired a more religious experience than the functionality of their existing church.

George Whitfield was a particularly strong preacher and would draw crowds of tens of thousands. It was always a big event, like a Bruce Springsteen or Beyoncé Concert. Whitfield preached almost any day of the week and soon became a sought after speaker. He was invited to Harvard and famous halls in Rhode Island. It is estimated that Whitfield spoke 18,000 times and had over 10 million listeners during that time.

In Philadelphia, thirty thousand people gathered to hear him speak. This would be comparable to today’s crowd at a Super Bowl game. In the audience was a skeptical Benjamin Franklin. Who became inspired by Whitfield and became a life long friend.

Later Benjamin Franklin created the original colleges that went on to form the University of Pennsylvania and installed a statue of George Whitfield in its center court.

Whitfield became popular, not just because of his strong oratory skills, but because he preached about religious experience that was personal to the listener. Not a formulaic, must do set of rules. But to the individual’s personal desire to have their own relationship with God.

Whitfield was also successful because of his unusual promotional methods. Pamphlets and newspapers had just begun in America. Similar to today’s version of social media. Whitfield hired an influential publicist, who worked with the creators of the pamphlets and newspapers to give them news stories about Whitfield. Very quickly, Whitfield went viral, using today’s vernacular.

Whitfield was way ahead of his time in preaching and publication, ignoring the traditional and tapping into the new media of his age.

As you would guess the established church was very opposed to this new way of communicating theology and the message of God. They disagreed with his message and methods of promotion. But Whitfield’s goal was not to go along to get along. His goal was to bring the message of the Gospel to the people and not to be conformed. Essentially creating a new form of preaching and using the new communication vehicles of the press.

Whitfield preached to the slaves of the south. Creating encouraging messages and speaking out against slavery.

Whitfield died young, at the age of 55. While in poor health and encouraged to take life easier, Whitfield replied, “I would rather wear out, then rust out!” After his death, both the Methodist and Baptist preachers used Whitfield’s methods and created churches that by the middle of the 19th century represented over 50 percent of the population of America.

While not well known outside of theological scholars of today, he was one of America’s first celebrities. He led not by doing what others had done, but by doing what he thought should be done. He didn’t follow the temporary values of the day, that each era contains, but he followed his responsibilities to others. A responsibility to explore a relationship with Christ and a responsibility to preach as often as he could to as many as he could.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Ben White

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