Church historian Mark Noll writes, “In many ways, the defining figure in the history of American evangelicalism is the eighteenth-century revivalist George Whitefield.” Prior to America’s declaration of independence from England, the Calvinist preacher from England turned the colonies upside down and led America to its knees in the First Great Awakening. Whitefield’s passionate preaching drew crowds in the tens of thousands as townspeople went to the fields.
Trusting the Lord to provide the increase of repentance and faith, Whitefield planted and watered with the seed of the outward call of the gospel, neither tickling the ears nor reconciling the impenitent, and going so far to say, “It is a poor sermon that gives no offense — that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.”
In 1739, during his first of seven trips to the colonies, Whitefield caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin, who penned the following in his memoirs: “The multitudes . . . that attended his sermons were enormous, and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admir’d and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. 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 in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
From London to Boston, Whitefield lifted up his eyes and saw the fields that were white for harvest (John 4:35). He preached the Word in season and out of season before the face of God, before the faces of his English countrymen, and before the very faces of those who fought for America’s independence from England. With liberty and mercy for all those who had ears to hear, the gospel took root in the fertile hearts of many, except, it seems, in the heart of Benjamin Franklin who admitted, Whitefield used “to pray for my conversion, but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.”