George Whitefield was the son of a widow who kept an inn at Gloucester. He was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford, and a part of the 'Holy Club' at Oxford University with the brothers, John Wesley and Charles Wesley, usually seen as the founders of the Methodist Church. His genuine piety led the Bishop of Gloucester to ordain him before the canonical age.
Whitefield preached his first sermon in the Crypt Church in his home town of Gloucester. In 1738, he went to America, becoming minister of Savannah, Georgia. Returning home in the following year, he resumed his evangelical activities, preaching in the open air when churches refused to admit him.
He parted company with Wesley over the doctrine of predestination; Whitefield was a follower of Calvin in this respect. Three churches were established in his name: one in Bristol and two others, the "Moorfields Tabernacle" and the "Tottenham Court Road Chapel", in London. Some of his followers joined the Countess of Huntingdon's "connexion", spreading a Calvinistic form of Methodism in Wales, and Whitefield became the Countess's chaplain. He continued to visit America on a regular basis to preach, and also toured the whole of Britain.
In 1738 Whitefield preached a series of revivals in Georgia. Here he established the Bethesda Orphanage, which still exists to the day. In Georgia there was originally a prohibition on slavery. However in 1749 there was amovement to introduce it there, which Whitefield supported. He owned slaves who worked at the orphanage, and these were bequeathed to the Countess of Huntingdon when he died. When he returned to America in 1740 he preached nearly every day for months to large crowds of sometimes several thousand people as he travelled throughout the colonies, especially New England.
Like his contemporary and acquaintance, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield preached with a Calvinist theology. He was known for his powerful voice and his ability to appeal to the emotions of a crowd, and unlike most preachers of his time spoke extemporaneously, rather than reading his sermon from notes. It is difficult to say wherein the effect of his preaching lay; certainly not in his language or logic, for his printed sermons contain nothing remarkable; it must have been by earnestness and charm of voice that he could attract to him the rich as well as the poor.
He first took to preaching in the open air with remarkable results at Bristol, which at that time was a center of vice in all its worst forms, and he was the first to provide spiritual privileges for the colliers who lived like heathens near that city. 20,000 of these poor workers crowded to hear him, and the white gutters caused by the tears which ran down their black cheeks showed how visibly they were affected, strong men being moved to hysterical convulsions by his wondrous power. John Wesley joining him there was not a little perplexed at these 'bodily symptoms'; he saw them as evident 'signs of grace', notwithstanding that Whitefield considered them to be 'doubtful indications'. Indeed, modern psychologists would call it symptoms of mass hysteria if there were 'persons that screamed out, and put their bodies into violent agitations and distortions' during a sermon. William Hogarth satirized such effects of Methodist preaching in his print, Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism (1762).
Whitefield's more democratic speaking style was greatly appealing to the American audience. Benjamin Franklin once attended a revival meeting in Philadelphia and was greatly impressed with his ability to deliver a message to such a large audience. He was also known to be able to use the newspaper media for beneficial publicity. His revolutionary preaching style shaped the way in which sermons were delivered. He was the father of Evangelicalism. He was certainly the best-known preacher in America in the 18th century, and because he travelled through all of the American colonies, and drew great crowds and media coverage, he was one of the most widely recognized public figures in America before George Washington.