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1738 Two Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

May 2024
1min read

The evangelist George Whitefield of Gloucester arrived in Savannah, Georgia, on May 7. Whitefield’s fervent brand of preaching had already captivated congregations back in England; in America he was to foster the religious revival known as the Great Awakening.

Ordained in 1736, Whitefield joined John and Charles Wesley as one of the pioneers of the Methodist movement. He traveled extensively throughout the colonies, converting the masses and raising funds for his Georgia orphanage.

In Philadelphia a curious Benjamin Franklin showed up at one of Whitefield’s sermons. “I perceived he intended to finish with a collection,” wrote Franklin in his autobiography, “and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham’d of that, and determin’d me to give the silver; and he finish’d so admirably, that I empty’d my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”

Franklin described the remarkable transformative effect of the Grand Itinerant’s ministry: “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 without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

Speaking in the open air, Whitefield could enrapture thousands at a time with his clear, booming voice. The English actor David Gafrick envied the minister’s histrionic abilities. “I would give a hundred guineas,” said Garrick, “if I could only say ‘Oh!’ like Mr. Whitefield.”

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