He was the “rock star” of his day. As well-known and heard by as many in America in his day as Oprah, Tim Tebow, and Lady Gaga in ours. No one today has likely heard of him.
Yet, it was reported that he was heard by everyone in America at least once, spoke to crowds of up to 23,000 in open fields without microphones, and what he said was regularly printed in full on the front page of the newspapers wherever he went. Some estimate he spoke over 18,000 times over 30 years (11 times a week). He is credited with helping shape the mindset and fueling the motivation for the coming Revolution.
The Rev. George Whitefield first came to America in 1739 from England to preach. He was a skilled orator and had experience in theater. His booming voice and emotive messages drew massive crowds. Benjamin Franklin estimated that Whitefield could be heard by up to 30,000 people at a time in an open field.
His first stop in Philadelphia drew 8,000 but no church could accommodate a crowd of that size. So began the Whitefield signature of “open air” meetings in fields and in the streets. He began his itinerant mission in America over the next 30 years. His journals and contemporary records report that he would travel by horseback from town to town, often preaching in up to three towns a day. Those of his day report that it is likely that everyone in America had heard him at least once. Such was his notoriety.
Among the Founding Fathers, Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin became very good friends. Along with the Founding Fathers, Whitefield was not embraced by the traditionalists, in his case, the established churches. He found his audience among common folk who embraced his message which challenged the status quo.
His message was that the individual mattered. The individual was responsible before God alone, not the hierarchy or clergy in the church. We as people once saved by grace, were accountable to do good works and stand before God to do what is right.
These radical thoughts were in sync with the growing political climate of the day. The right of the individual endowed by his Creator with inalienable rights, was at the heart of the message delivered by Whitefield. It allowed for a biblical basis to undergird the political writings of Locke and others that were shaping the political thought.
America in the early 1700’s was a fairly benign spiritual climate. Whitefield and joining him, Jonathan Edwards, began in the 1740’s -1760’s what is known as the Great Awakening. It awakened and energized the people to their individual standing before God and what that meant for them as free men struggling against the injustices of a monarchy.
All men were equal before God. All were subject to the same justice before God, there was no preference to title, rank or position. These were vital components to the thoughts of the Founding Fathers. An egalitarian form of government where all are equal was a revolutionary idea given credence by equality before God.
The dream of free men living under the rule of law, first, law under God who gives us rights, and then under the rule of the law of men, was beginning to gain traction. His message provided enthusiasm and energized those disposed towards seeking their political freedom as well. The impact of Whitefield and the Great Awakening was to set the stage on a personal and spiritual level for individuals to believe that God gave them rights and that freedom from tyranny was worth fighting for.
As a contemporary of the Founding Fathers, all heard his message. The seed of his message is evident in their thoughts and the principles of the founding documents. It was important that the political writings and aspirations were affirmed as well by Scripture. By the time he died in 1770, Whitefield and the Great Awakening had provided for the next “domino” of history to fall.