In his Interesting Narrative, Equiano writes of seeing an immense crowd gathered at a church to see one man – George Whitefield. Considering the significant religious content of the book, it is useful to understand the history and theology of this great thinker. It provides great insight into Equiano's belief system.
Whitefield was an immensely popular and influential English Anglican priest. He was one of the founders of Methodism, and helped spur on the Great Awakening in the American colonies in the 1740s. Benjamin Franklin, an avowed Deist, was once so moved by one of Whitefield's sermons that he wrote in his autobiography, "another stroke of his oratory made me asham'd of that, and determin'd me to give the silver; and he finish'd so admirably, that I empty'd my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and all."
Whitefield was born on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England, to a wine merchant and innkeeper father. His father died when he was two, leaving his wife to raise her family of seven. As a young man, George worked at the inn and studied the Bible at night. During this time, he embraced a passion for theater and drama, re-enacting scenes from the Bible. His mother encountered a young Oxford student who encouraged George to pursue a university education; this pushed George to finish grammar school and enter Oxford. He enrolled at Pembroke College in 1732 and made influential friends in John and Charles Wesley, who loaned him a book – The Life of God in the Soul of Man – that would play a significant role in his conversion.
Even though he had to leave Oxford early due to poor health, he was first noticed by the Bishop of Gloucester, who decided to ordain him before the canonical age. He was quickly named a deacon, and later as a priest in the Church of England. He preached his first sermon at St. Mary de Crypt Church in Gloucester, and preached frequently in the open air. He was a famed orator who kept thousands of people spellbound. In 1738, he traveled to Savannah, Georgia, and became a parish priest there. While traveling and preaching, he refined his Christian views: he was a firm adherent of the doctrine of predestination, but also was a fervent evangelical.
In 1793, he returned to England and established the Bethesda Orphanage. A year later, he returned to the American colonies and began to preach in what would soon become known as the Great Awakening. His schedule was extremely busy; he preached nearly every day to massive crowds. He made his listeners aware of God's agency in salvation but encouraged people to come to God, ending his sermons with ""Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ." During his participation in the Great Awakening, he had an impact on people of many different denominations – Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and, later, the Methodists. Indeed, with John Wesley, he would help inspire and found the Methodist movement. He was known as the "Apostle of the British Empire," since he traveled back and forth across the Atlantic over a dozen times.
It is estimated that Whitefield preached more than 18,000 sermons in his lifetime, with an average of 500 a year, 10 a week. Unfortunately, only about 90 survive in some form. A collection of his journals was published by Thomas Cooper without his approval; an official one was published some time afterwards. In the centuries after his death, there were several publications of his letters, journals, and sermons. He is also famous for being one of the first ministers to preach to the enslaved; Phyllis Wheatley wrote a poem commemorating him after his death. He is honored with a feast day on November 15th on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.
George Whitefield died in the parsonage of Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts on September 30th, 1770. He is buried in a crypt under the pulpit of the church.