George Whitefield was a rockstar-like preacher who commanded the attention of thousands, sparking the Great Awakening in Philadelphia, while charming a skeptical Benjamin Franklin.
Some historians argue that a unique American identity emerged in Britain’s 13 colonies in the aftermath of a spiritual phenomenon known as the Great Awakening. During the 1730s and 1740s a religious revival of continental scope swept the colonies, cementing them together with a shared religious experience that transcended denominational creeds and worship traditions. Early American culture was forged by powerful preachers urging spiritual conversion and biblical ethics on their hearers.
Many of the early American settlers were religious, and their faith commitment was a defining factor in their migration. Despite this, by the early 18th century personal piety waned, church attendance dropped off significantly, and increasing numbers of people were interested in trendy Enlightenment deism and moral philosophy. Preachers like Theodorus Frelinghuysen, William Tennent, Sr., and Jonathan Edwards spoke into the moment with powerfully suasive gifts urging their hearers to repentance, conversion, and a personal relationship with the God of the Bible.
The most influential preacher of the time was a 25 year-old missionary evangelist from the Church of England named George Whitefield (1714-1770). Arriving in Philadelphia in 1739, his celebrity status in Britain had preceded him. Thousands of Philadelphians showed up to hear him preach at Christ Church. The crowd was beyond the church’s seating capacity, so future meetings were moved to 2nd and High (now Market) Streets. Six thousand people of the city’s 12,000 inhabitants thronged to hear Whitfield urge them to personal faith and conversion. What followed in Whitefield’s wake was chaos and controversy. He challenged the religious establishments as spiritually moribund while uniting believers across denominational lines with new found faith. Bible studies, prayer meetings, and new churches emerged in the city of brotherly love.
Whitefield traversed the colonies preaching to tens of thousands at a time, yet it was Philadelphia that built a preaching house for him, the largest building in the city. Philadelphia was also home to his publisher, Benjamin Franklin. The revivalist’s sermons, biography, and personal journals, as well as Issac Watts’ hymnal became hot sellers to a market of the revived. In doing good, Franklin did very well, making a fortune.
Franklin’s relationship with Whitefield was, however, more than economic. They were fast friends until Whitefield’s untimely death in 1770, and spoke candidly with each other on matters great and small, including Franklin’s skepticism about faith.
The Great Awakening helped to create an American culture, by unifying otherwise separate individual colonies and societies with an evangelical spiritual unity that transcended geographic, political, and religious denominational boundaries. Philadelphia’s religious and civic life was greatly transformed by a religious movement that inspired common values, high ideals, and new institutions.
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…
Benjamin Franklin, after hearing Whitefield preach
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