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George Whitefield: From School Dropout to Open-Air Evangelist

George Whitefield: From School Dropout to Open-Air Evangelist

Skipping School
My mother came at me with an angry look. "George, I hear you've been missing school again."

I looked away, trying not to let her see my guilt. Mother thought that getting me an education at the St. Mary de Crypt Grammar School was the answer to our money troubles. She had worked hard to keep our family's inn operating, especially since my father died when I was two. But at 15 years old, all I could think of was quitting school. Finally I told her, "Mother, I just want to quit school and work in the inn."

"But I thought you enjoyed giving presentations at school!"

"I do, Mother. I like acting and making up scenes. I love to give speeches that the other students enjoy, but you know how the teachers feel. They don't like me at all."

It was true. Mother couldn't deny what the teachers said about me. "George Whitefield is wasting his time. What good can come from all his playacting?" they asked.

Finally my mother gave in. "Alright, George. You may leave school."

A New Opportunity
For almost two years, I wore an apron, washed cups, and cleaned rooms, while enjoying lively conversations with the customers. Most of them didn't believe in God, and I joined in their discussions. No one would have guessed that late into the night, I often sat up studying my Bible. As the weeks passed, I began to sense a new calling, one that would surprise those who knew me. One night as the last customers lingered to play cards, I sat by my mother in front of the roaring fire and shared my private dream. "Mother, I'd like to become a preacher."

Her faded eyes lit up with joy. "That is wonderful, George!" But then she reminded me of the challenges I would face, "It won't be easy to finish your education since you dropped out of school."

A man interrupted our conversation. "Hey, woman! I need a room."

As my mother left to tend the counter, I felt her hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry, son. God will make a way."

And He did. Through extra hours at the inn and careful spending, I was able to work my way through Pembroke College at Oxford University. It was there that I met John and Charles Wesley and decided to live a life of sacrifice and obedience to God. I really wanted to know God and be assured of salvation, but even strict discipline didn't seem to help. Finally, I read a book called Life of God in the Soul of Man, by Henry Scougal. I learned that good works and self-discipline couldn't save my soul. Salvation is a free gift. I needed to be "born again"! Finally, I was sure of my salvation, and I couldn't wait to share the good news with the people of England.

I was disappointed with what I saw in the English churches. People's hearts had grown cold. They went to church out of obligation, not because they wanted to learn about God and worship Him. Also, many of the ministers of my Anglican Church tended to preach dry, dull sermons. When I finally became an ordained pastor, I set out to deliver the Gospel in fresh ways, using that old flair for the dramatic from school days. Sometimes this involved shouting and dancing. How could I stand still when telling people, "You must be born again"? Once in a while I wept, but it was no show. People were living hopelessly apart from Christ, and their dilemma moved me to tears. Needless to say, my style didn't always go over very well.

"Mr. Whitefield," I heard more than once, "if you are to preach in my church, you must tone it down."

"Don't be so loud."

"Don't flail about so much."

"What do you mean by all that prancing?"

How could I stop being energized about Christ and the salvation he offers to lost people? There was, however, a price to pay for my zeal. I couldn't get a job in a church, since most churches wouldn't have me. Fortunately, God had a different plan.

Open-Air Evangelist
God put within my heart a strong desire to reach the un-churched, as well as those who were tired of stale religion. Why not, then, preach to the masses in the open air, in fields outside of town? Most of the thousands who came to listen enjoyed hearing the Gospel presented with such energy. Of course, sometimes the crowds grew angry when I called them to repent. One time a mob came at me with murder on their minds, but I managed to escape. People threw fruit, vegetables, and even dead cats at me.

Maybe my unusual story-telling techniques hadn't gone over well with my teachers in school, but they helped me as a preacher. Once I gave a vivid description of a storm at sea:

"The tempest raged, the wind howled as torrential rain crashed against the ship. The captain lost control as the vessel pitched and heaved in the crushing waves while a mast split like so much kindling. The break up of the ship seemed inevitable."

My story was interrupted by a sailor in the crowd who suddenly cried out, "To the lifeboats! To the lifeboats!" I guess he got so caught up in my story that he feared for his life.

Other times people fell to the floor from conviction when I preached.

To America
In the late 1730s, God called me to America to share his love, because the churches weren't doing much better there than in England. As in my native land, Americans weren't used to my kind of preaching. Once again, I took to the open air and the freedom to be myself. In Philadelphia, a young printer named Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment while listening to me.

"I want to see how far I can go and still hear your voice," he said.

"What made you think of that?" I asked.

"I enjoy conducting experiments," he explained. And so he did. After the meeting that night, he reported, "I made it all the way to the Delaware River, a mile away!"

"But did you actually listen?"

Ben smiled and shook his head. Though Ben never accepted Christ that I know of, he did support my efforts. I lodged above his shop, and he even printed my sermons so that people could buy them. His belief in free speech led him to purchase a building so all preachers could have a place to speak. The two of us became the best of friends, although Ben always resisted my efforts to convert him. He never quite understood that how far my voice carried to people's ears didn't matter nearly as much as the reception it got in people's hearts.

Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

  1. Why did George's mother think it was important for him to get an education?
  2. What was it that George's teachers didn't like about him? How did he use this unique gift later as a preacher?
  3. Why do you think George became such a popular preacher? Do you think any of the established churches changed their minds about different styles of preaching?
  4. Being "born again" (see John 3) means accepting Jesus and becoming a part of the family of God. This is also known as becoming a Christian. Are you a Christian? How do you know?

  • Suggested reading:
    • George Whitefield: Pioneering Evangelist by Bruce Fish and Becky Durost Fish (Heroes of the Faith series, Barbour Bargain Books)
    • Great Stories in American History by Rebecca Price Janney (Horizon Books)
    • The Light and the Glory for Children by Peter Marshall and David Manuel (Revell)