The concept of the traveling, evangelical preacher under the revival tent giving simple sermons to the masses about salvation, heaven and hell originated with George Whitefield and the Great Awakening. In the middle portion of the 18th century, there was no religious man more famous than Whitefield. Ten of thousands throughout Europe and America came to hear his emotionally-charged sermons.
The English minister, George Whitefield (1714-1770), was one of the great leaders of the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s. The Great Awakening was a period of renewed evangelism and Protestant religious fervor that spread throughout Europe and America. While a student at Oxford in the early 1730s, Whitefield joined the "Holy Club" where he met and developed an important relationship with John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement. In the late 1730s, Whitefield traveled to America and quickly became the most famous of all evangelists, preaching to thousands throughout the colonies in open-air venues called revivals.
Outside the Pulpit
During his time with the Holy Club at Oxford, Whitefield began to view the religious life as one of practice and example, not staunch liturgy. The members of the club acquired the derisive term "Methodist" for their rejection of church orthodoxy and belief that religion was to be practiced continuously and methodically beyond the church. To the Holy Club members, leading a religious life was more important than participating in organized religion. Whitefield preferred his Great Awakening revivals to take place outside, in the marketplaces or anywhere he could reach the masses. Whitefield, like the Wesleys, traveled extensively preaching to any who would listen.
Although Whitefield agreed with John and Charles Wesley about reaching the masses through extensive travel and preaching in whatever venue was available, he broke with the Wesley brothers over doctrine and separated himself from the Methodist movement. Whitefield's loose doctrine aligned more with the Calvinists over the concept of predestination. He believed the God predestined the elect for salvation. Whitefield was very much in line with the Reformed movement in belief in original sin, justification through faith in Jesus and predestination.
Unlike the Wesleys who left behind an organization that became the Methodist church, Whitefield did not produce an organized church. His legacy is one of simple religious teachings about salvation, grace and living a religious life. While he did not invent the revival, Whitefield produced the template for all revivalism and evangelism that followed to the modern era. Many preachers have used his example to preach with a celebrity presence that attracts the masses, to preach simple messages about salvation and damnation and to preach emotionally-charged sermons that move the listeners. Whitefield gave more than 18,000 sermons during his 34 years of revivalism.
- Washington University Bible Fellowship: George Whitefield: Lightning Rod of the Great Awakening
- Enrichment Journal: The Innovative Awakener: George Whitefield and the Growth of the Evangelical Revival
- New Creation Teaching Ministry: George Whitefield Man of Grace
- Public Broadcasting Service: People & Ideas: George Whitefield
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