He was a sensation. He was not even strictly an American, but a traveling evangelist from Britain. Yet America was on his heart.
When George Whitefield arrived in America in 1740, he started in Georgia and traveled up the coast, preaching in all the colonies. The result was the climax of what we call the First Great Awakening.
Whitefield’s voice boomed, and he dramatized his sermons. Thousands traced their conversion to his messages. Ben Franklin became his friend, yet never gave his life to Christ. However, he was astounded by the effects of Whitefield’s efforts. Franklin records in his autobiography:
It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if the whole 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.
Whitefield’s impact was tremendous. He returned to America many times, but his final trip was in 1770. Suffering from severe asthma, his friends warned him against overexertion. His response? “I had rather wear out than rust out.”
One account of his life tells of that final trip:
He was importuned to preach at a place called Exeter, and though feeling very ill, he had not the heart to refuse. A friend remarked before he preached, “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.” Whitefield replied: “True, sir,” and then prayed: “Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.” Although scarcely able to stand when he first came before the group, he preached for two hours.
Arriving at the parsonage of the First Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, he intended to go at once to bed. However, a great number of friends gathered at the parsonage and begged him for just a short message. He paused a moment on the stairs, candle in hand, and spoke to the people as they stood listening—until the candle went out. At 2 a.m., panting to breathe, he told his traveling companion, “My asthma is returning; I must have two or three days’ rest.” His last words were, “I am dying,” and at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning he died—September 30, 1770.
When Americans heard of his death, they mourned from Georgia to New Hampshire. In one sense, he was the first American figure known and respected by all.
George Whitefield was a man who wore himself out doing what he believed the Lord had called him to do. There is no greater testimony than someone who was obedient to the call of God.