George Whitefield was the central figure in the birth of the "Great Awakening" of Christianity that spread throughout the West during the 18th century and the 19th century. He was known as "The Great Itinerant" who brought many Protestant groups together in an extremely strong revival of basic Christian values in the middle of the 18th century, the foundation of the so-called "Great Awakening."
George Whitefield arrived in Philadelphia in 1739, a fresh graduate of Oxford University who had succeeded there in planting the seeds of a Christian revival in the greater Bristol area. He was an active member of the "Holy Club" at Oxford, but what most contributed to his success in his earliest days (and would continue throughout his life) was his absolute knack for public speaking. He had a strong but mellow voice that carried a great distance, a keen sense of the dramatic, and an ability by subtle inflection to bring deep emotion to any word he pronounced; it was said that he could merely say the word Mesopotamia and bring tears to the eyes of his listeners.
Whitefield originally wanted to start an orphanage in Georgia, so his stop in Philadelphia was originally intended to be brief. But word of his speaking ability had preceded him and he was invited to preach at the Anglican church in Philadelphia with rousing success. Word spread, and soon he was preaching at nearly every church in town, and within a month of his arrival, he was speaking outdoors to immense crowds. Benjamin Franklin, duly impressed, noted in his diaries from 1740 that Whitefield's preaching was having a profound moral effect on the community and that "it seem'd as if all the world were growing religious."
Given his huge success in Philadelphia, Whitefield conducted the first of five speaking tours throughout the New England area in 1740, preaching 130 sermons in 73 days all over the upper colonies. Of course, when anyone reaches a huge level of success in spearheading a burgeoning religious movement, there is bound to be opposition. Whitefield, during his tour, kept diaries which reflected his personal views towards what he was seeing in New England, and on many occasions he noted that there were preachers about who were preaching for the wrong reasons or weren't preaching well, even going so far as to cast blame upon the colleges of Harvard and Yale for turning out these preachers. These diaries were published in 1741 and were the foundation for many to attempt to discredit Whitefield in the years to come.
However, the seeds of change were sprung, and George Whitefield had been the Johnny Appleseed. The movement he helped to ignite spread like wildfire throughout the New England states, leading to the foundation of hundreds of new churches over the rest of the eighteenth century. People flocked to churches in huge numbers following speaking appearances by Whitefield, and this momentum carried onward for the rest of the century and throughout most of the next. His speaking inspired people to become leaders in local congregations, inspired stronger moral values, and brought about a great deal of social change.
Whitefield continued to tour New England throughout the next thirty years, speaking to countless congregations, advising countless local religious leaders, and continuing to plant the seeds of a Christian revival. He toured New England four more times on speaking tours, passing away in 1770 in the middle of his fifth tour in Newburyport, Massachusetts. To his final day, he remained an amazing speaker, able to draw massive crowds to his sermons no matter where he pitched his tent. The impact on the religious history of the United States is incalculable.
George Whitefield's legacy today is at first glance quite small, but when one considers the strong religious history of the United States and the path this nation as a whole is followed, it is easy to appreciate how much impact George Whitefield, even now, has on American life.