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George Whitefield / Library of Congress Image

Whitfield County in North Georgia is named for a forgotten forerunner of the Great American Revolution.

Although he never came to the local area, George Whitefield (the spelling of the name was changed) was the most well-known and traveled evangelist of the 18th century. Over 80% of people in the colonies could recognize the cross-eyed preacher who journeyed up and down the Atlantic seaboard from 1737 to 1770. He was the first celebrity in America. He spoke to 10 million people in 18,000 sermons in Europe and America. Whitefield spent 782 days of his life at sea, crossing the Atlantic Ocean 13 times. No one traveled more between the two continents.

Whitefield was born at his parents' Bell Inn in Gloucester, England, in 1714. His father died when he was 2 years old. He had an early passion for acting and attended the University of Oxford as a servitor, where he met John and Charles Wesley and joined their "Holy Club" to seek God's rule in his life.

Whitefield helped lay the cornerstone for the American Cause by turning the establishment of religion upside down. He attacked the Church of England for its failure to emphasize that only God's mercy kept a person from eternal damnation. He taught a sinful man must be "born again," emphasizing personal responsibility before God. This was contrary to the teachings of the Church of England prominent in the southern colonies and of the Congregational Churches in the northern colonies. Whitefield was often banned from pulpits.

He turned to the open fields and meadows to preach his gospel. Thousands of common workers came from the mines and factories to hear Whitefield. He once spoke to a crowd of 30,000 in Kennington, England. Whitefield was often pelted with rotten eggs and rocks. He once was accosted by a mob in his room.

One of the lasting legacies of his ministry is Bethesda Academy in Savannah, Georgia. Whitefield founded the Bethesda Orphanage for young men in 1740. It continues as a private day and boarding school for young men.

In 1739 He preached in America's largest city, Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin published numerous articles about the American Celebrity. In his Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin reported: "On Thursday the Rev. Mr. Whitefield began to preach from the Courthouse gallery in this city, about six at night, to nearly 6,000 people before him in the street, who stood in an awful silence to hear him." The crowds grew each night during the week. Whitefield returned to the city three more times during his year long crusade in America. Franklin reported: "Never did the people show so great a willingness to attend sermons. Religion [has] become the subject of most conversations. No books are requested but those of piety."

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Franklin published Whitefield's journals and sermons. He enlisted 11 printers throughout the colonies and created best sellers. Franklin charged five times more for Whitefield's work than for his Poor Richard's Almanac. Whitefield became famous and Franklin became wealthy.

So powerful was Whitefield in America that even after his death in 1770 he was still inspiring his followers through his journals, sermons and legacy. In 1775 Gen. Benedict Arnold was preparing to lead his troops to Quebec to either enlist them in the Colonial Cause or simply conquer them. His chaplain, the Rev. Samuel Spring, suggested the troops go to Newburyport, Massachusetts, and visit the grave of the preacher George Whitefield before they headed north to Canada. They dug up his casket, broke it open and removed Whitefield's clerical collar and wristbands from the skeleton. Rev. Spring cut them up and distributed the articles to the troops for inspiration. This was only fitting in their minds since the Great Awakening and George Whitefield were so influential in the laying the groundwork for the American Cause and the triumph of Religious Liberty.

The legacy of George Whitefield is often forgotten today. But he laid the groundwork for going against the State Church of England making it acceptable for the next generation to rise against the state government. A founder of Methodism, he inspired the common men, or "rabble" as they were known, to respond to God and government as dictated by their conscience, not by creeds. He died in 1770, several years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But our national freedom could not happen without the foundation laid by men like George Whitefield.

Dr. Greg Martin is the District 3 county commissioner for Hamilton County. He can be reached at countycommissionergregmartin@gmail.com. For more visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.

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