George Whitefield, an English clergyman, born in Gloucester, Dec. 16, 1714, died in Newbury port, Mass., Sept. 30, 1770. He was the orphan of an innkeeper, and was educated first at a grammar school. While assisting his mother about the inn, he composed sermons, and fasted twice a week for 36 hours together. At the age of 18 he entered Pembroke college, Oxford, as a servitor. There he became intimate with Charles Wesley, was an enthusiastic member of the club in which the denomination of Methodists took its rise, and cultivated extreme habits of asceticism.
The bishop of Gloucester ordained him deacon, June 20, 1736, and the next Sunday he preached with such extraordinary effect that a complaint was made to the bishop that he had driven 15 persons mad. Returning to Oxford, he took his degree of B. A., and in 1737 went to London to preach at the tower chapel. He afterward filled for a few months a curacy in Hampshire, and in December, 1737, was induced by letters from John Wesley in Georgia to embark for America. In September, 1738, he returned to England to collect funds for a proposed orphan asylum near Savannah. Soon after he reached home he and Wesley entered in earnest upon the missionary career from which the origin of Methodism is dated. On Feb. 17, 1739, Whitefield set the example of preaching in the open air in a field near Bristol. From this time he travelled continually, preaching to enormous crowds with marvellous results. In 1739 he went back to his orphan house in Georgia. He afterward visited New England, preached to 20,000 persons on Boston common, and in January, 1741, returned to England. He disagreed with Wesley on predestination, and the Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists have ever since remained distinct bodies. (See Methodism, vol. xi., p. 453.) In 1744 he made a third voyage to America, landing at York, Me. He met at first with great opposition in New England, Harvard college issuing a "testimony" against him, and many of the clergy being equally hostile.
Before he set out for Georgia, however, he had converted 20 pastors. In 1748 he went to the Bermudas for his health, and thence returned to England. After successful tours in Ireland and Scotland, he was again in Georgia and South Carolina in 1751-'2, and in 1754 made a fifth voyage thither, accompanied by a number of children for his orphan house. His tour extended from Georgia to New Hampshire, and he spoke of it as the most important of all his expeditions. He returned to London in May, 1755, and soon after again visited Scotland and Ireland. In Dublin he was assaulted by a mob, and severely wounded with stones. In 1761-'2 ill health obliged him to desist in a measure from outdoor preaching, and he visited Holland. He made his sixth American tour in 1763-5. His last sojourn in England, 1765'9, was of incalculable advantage to Methodism. He consecrated new chapels provided by the countess of Huntingdon, greatly promoted the success of her training college at Travecca, influenced his associates to counsel with the Wesleyan branch of the revival movement, and strove to bring about a peaceful reconciliation of the Calvinistic and Arminian elements. In September, 1769, he started on his seventh American tour.
He preached for two hours at Exeter, N. II., the day before his death, and on his arrival at Newburyport the same evening addressed the crowd that came to meet him. He died of asthma, and was buried beneath the pulpit of the Federal street church in Newburyport. In 1741 he married a widow, whose death in 1768, according to his friend Winter, "set his mind much at rest." She bore him a son, who died an infant. - Whitefield was tall in person; his features were regular, and his eyes small, blue, and luminous; one of them had a slight cast. His voice was marvellously rich, sweet, and sonorous. His eloquence has been rarely surpassed. His style was severely simple, and in his printed sermons seems even meagre. He never fell into vulgarity, but delighted in odd illustrations, anecdotes, local allusions, colloquial phrases, and the language of the common people. A collection of his sermons, tracts, and letters was published in London in 1771 (6 vols. 8vo), and his journals were printed during his lifetime (2d ed., 1756). - See John Gillies, " Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. George Whitefield" (London, 1772); Robert Philip, "Life and Times of Whitefield" (1838); and the Rev. Abel Stevens, " History of the Religious Movement of the 18th Century called Methodism " (New York, 1859-'62).