Benjamin Franklin on Reverend George Whitefield Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“It was wonderful to see the Change soon made in the Manners of our Inhabitants; . . . it seem’d as if all the World were growing Religious. . . .

And methinks my Testimony in his Favour ought to have the more Weight, as we had no religious Connection.”

Summary Overview

In this document, Benjamin Franklin writes about some of the public events that occurred during his friendship with Reverend George Whitefield, who was one of the principal traveling evangelists of the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening. Although focusing on Whitefield, this passage also gives information regarding Franklin’s approach to life. Franklin documents the manner in which Whitefield is able to bring people around to his way of thinking, sharing these events both to demonstrate the importance of Whitefield and to clarify Whitefield’s intrinsic honesty. The fact that Franklin and Whitefield have strongly differing ideas about religion is contrasted with their ability to remain friends and to cooperate in other areas. In addition, the common religious experiences described in this passage helped build the emerging American culture that challenged the colonial rule of Great Britain.

Defining Moment

The 1700s were a time of great change in the American colonies. Benjamin Franklin witnessed these changes not just as an observer but as a participant. This memoir is taken from the section of Franklin’s Autobiography that was written in 1788. Franklin had started writing his autobiography some seventeen years earlier, seeking to inform people regarding some of the events of his life. Initially, it was written for his son, but the latter sections were written after he and his son split over their views concerning American Revolution, and thus these were directed toward a more general audience. The section in which this passage appears deals with Franklin’s desire to instill personal values, including morality and a strong work ethic, in his readers.

Just prior to this passage Franklin discusses how his work as a printer advanced his cause, especially through the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac. He also discusses advances made through the various civic organizations with which he was associated, many of which he had started. George Whitefield entered the picture as an accomplished preacher who had many of the same ideals as Franklin. Whitefield saw these ideals as the result of a strong, personal Christian faith. While Franklin agreed that they were an integral aspect of religion, he suggested that, perhaps more importantly, they were also a necessary part of an enlightened society. Thus, Franklin’s emphasis on the change in the people who accepted Whitefield’s message was not focused on personal salvation, but rather on the utilitarian benefits of living a virtuous and moral life. Franklin’s lack of religious response to Whitefield’s view of personal salvation is why Franklin says they have no “religious connection.”

Against the background of Franklin’s writings, something greater was occurring in the colonies: An American culture was flourishing, one that would give the colonies the ability to unite in their grievances against the British government. The Great Awakening was giving new life to religion in the colonies as it was transformed from the traditional forms brought from the Old World. Denominational differences were not as strong, with people from a variety of churches gathering to experience the preaching of well-known evangelists.

Author Biography

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706. His father, Josiah, had emigrated from England, while his mother, Abiah, had been born in Massachusetts. Ben was the fourteenth of seventeen children. Raised in a Puritan home, his parents encouraged Franklin to enter the ministry, but his inclinations, as well as his limited formal education, took him in a different direction. Leaving school at age ten, Franklin worked in family businesses for the next seven years. During this time he developed a strong understanding of the need for personal moral development and social outreach, and began to try to influence others through articles on the subject. The five years he worked as a printer gave him the skills and business experience he needed to become a success.

In 1728, he and a partner set up a printing business in Philadelphia. Initially through the Pennsylvania Gazette and then through the successful Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1733, Franklin began to advocate moral development, especially through many adages that would later become very popular. During this time he took Deborah Read as his common-law wife and they had two children, with Franklin previously having had a son. In the 1740s, Franklin sold his printing business to spend his time on social, scientific, and political endeavors.

His social contributions to life in Philadelphia included the first hospital in the colonies, and what became the public library, the fire department, and the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin had wide range of scientific interests, but he principally worked in the field of physics. Electricity is the best-known area of his research, but he also worked in the areas of thermodynamics and sound, as well as the philosophical foundations of science and life in general. Through his research, Franklin invented many devices to make life more comfortable.

Politically, Franklin represented Pennsylvania, and later many of the colonies, to the British government. He played an important role in the repeal of the Stamp Act, which had enraged the colonies. Franklin represented Pennsylvania to the Second Continental Congress and served on the committee that drew up the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War he was the ambassador to France, playing a vital role in securing French support for the new nation. He negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Revolutionary War. Later, he served as a member of the Constitutional Convention and as president (now the office of governor) of Pennsylvania.

Document Analysis

Benjamin Franklin’s essay on the power of Reverend George Whitefield’s preaching illustrates the changes that occurred during the Great Awakening. Whitefield was a British preacher who epitomized this religious revolution, which was taking place both in the British Isles and in the American colonies. Franklin was never a proponent of Whitefield’s particular brand of religious enthusiasm. Yet in this essay it is evident that he was moved by the words of the reverend and identified with the social outreach advocated by Whitefield. The two men were friends for more than thirty years, despite their differences in interpretation of what would later be called the Great Awakening. The essay also demonstrates how individuals who are not in complete agreement can still share the same values and social goals. It also shows the manner in which Franklin tried to understand the world around him.

George Whitefield was an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. While at Oxford University, he helped found the Holy Club, whose members later became known as Methodists. Methodists emphasized Bible study, church attendance, spiritual exercises for personal growth, and outreach to the poor and those in prison. This included those in need in the colonies, especially the penal colony in Georgia. Early in the club’s existence Whitefield and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, were its leaders. Whitefield continued to lead the club when Wesley went to the Georgia colony to be its chaplain. During this period Whitefield was introduced to the idea of preaching in the open air, rather than only in church sanctuaries. When Wesley returned from Georgia in 1738, Whitefield went to replace him. Seeing the need for an orphanage, he returned to Britain after four months to raise the necessary funds. He returned to the American colonies in 1739 to secure the final funds and materials necessary for the orphanage and to carry the Christian message to the colonists. This is the journey described in the opening of the essay.

Whitefield represents the transformation of religion in the colonies. It would seem that he should have been welcomed into most of the Protestant churches in the colonies, the Anglican Church (Church of England) being the dominant sect in most of the colonies. In addition, Whitefield accepted Calvinist theology, as was the case for the Puritans. However, Whitefield’s beliefs and methods differed from the traditional approaches of both the Anglican and Puritan churches.

As Franklin put it, Whitefield’s preaching was based on his belief that prior to accepting the Christian faith, people were “naturally half Beasts and half Devils.” In addition, Whitefield did not exclusively invite members of the Anglican Church to his services; rather he encouraged everyone to attend. His message was one of personal responsibility and salvation and included the need to respond as an individual, not as part of a larger community. By moving outside the established order of the various churches, Whitefield challenged their authority. His teachings upset the religious leaders of colonial America. As a result, they “soon refus’d him their Pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the Fields.”

But Whitefield’s ability to raise funds quickly and construct a nondenominational assembly house underscores the widespread support he received from the community at large. Through this action, and his successes, he demonstrated his ability to draw otherwise indifferent colonists to his flock. In the first paragraph, Franklin makes it clear how impressed he is by Whitefield’s ability to move people toward religion. Despite his own tendency toward humanism, he welcomes the newfound religious fervor in the people he sees around him, illustrated by the hymns (psalms) he hears sung in private homes each evening. Franklin supported this change because he believed that religion provided a strong foundation for the moral virtues he advocated.

Reflection on Franklin’s friendship with Whitefield demonstrates Franklin’s scientific mind, as well as the many qualities that helped Franklin become a political and social leader later on. In all aspects of life, it seems as if Franklin wanted to understand everything. When Whitefield arrived in 1739, Franklin was intrigued by this new preacher. He listened to his sermons in an effort to understand how one person could have such a large impact upon so many. (Whitefield had been known to draw thousands of listeners to his outdoor sermons.)

Generally, Franklin saw the Great Awakening and Whitefield’s arrival as positive events, because he was a strong advocate of personal virtue and morality, traits that the followers of the new religious movement valued as well. Franklin’s writings usually ignored most Christian doctrine, even though he considered himself a Christian and was interested in the teachings of the various religious leaders of the time. In 1726 Franklin developed a list of thirteen virtues that he wanted to develop within himself and thought desirable in others. He recalls in this memoir how he was pleased with people accepting the personal challenges put to them by Whitefield.

Boston, the northernmost major port in the colonies, was an unusual point of arrival for Whitefield, considering his intent to reach the southernmost colony of Georgia. However, he did this so that he could preach in each colony along his journey. With the coming of the Great Awakening, there was a great demand for preachers who focused on personal salvation. Prior to the rise of Whitefield, and American preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, churches and pastors were mainly concerned with doctrinal theology. This was the result of the proliferation of denominations during the preceding two centuries and the constant disputes regarding various points of doctrine. Thus individuals who attended most church services prior to the Great Awakening would hear a long theological treatise each Sunday. Although some local pastors played a role in the Great Awakening, as a traveling preacher and evangelist, Whitefield was able to reach many more people than did local church pastors. Although challenged by traditional religious leaders, Whitefield was welcomed by many of the laypeople, who responded to his message.

The dramatic need for an orphanage in Georgia came about because of its establishment as a penal colony. Certain English citizens convicted of a crime were given the choice to serve an extended jail sentence in England, or go to Georgia and to start a new life in America. Many of those who chose the latter did not come equipped with the skills to survive in the primitive colonial frontier. In addition, the preparations settlers normally made before moving to the colonies were not possible for those who were transported to Georgia. Of the original 144 colonists, about two-thirds survived. Many children were left alone after their parents perished.

Whitefield’s power as an orator is apparent in Franklin’s response to the collection being taken for the orphanage. Although Franklin approved of the project, he initially only intended to support it financially if it was located in Philadelphia. However, Whitefield was such an eloquent and powerful speaker that Franklin was persuaded by steps to empty “my pocket wholly into the Collector’s Dish, Gold and all.” The power of Whitefield’s proclamation and his ability to get most individuals to respond was almost unheard of at that time.

It is clear that Franklin had some differences with Whitefield regarding the orphanage. Franklin desired that the orphans be brought to Philadelphia, while Whitefield wanted to help them in Georgia. With regard to religion, Franklin wrote that Whitefield “us’d, indeed, sometimes to pray for my Conversion, but never had the Satisfaction of believing that his Prayers were heard.” And so it was on a number of issues that there was disagreement. While Whitefield’s motives were always driven by his Christian faith, Franklin’s were guided by his scientific and analytical perceptions of the world around him.

Franklin’s analytical mind and scientific interests are reflected in his calculation of how many people at one time might be able to hear Whitefield preach. Happening upon Whitefield preaching at the London court house, Franklin went down the street until the noise of the city drowned out Whitefield. Calculating the area of a semicircle with a radius of the distance from Franklin to Whitefield, and assuming the number of square feet occupied by a single listener, Franklin estimated the number of people potentially within earshot of Whitefield at more than thirty thousand.

He also examined the development of Whitefield’s oratorical skills through an examination of what today would be called his “stock sermons”: “His Delivery of the latter was so improv’d by frequent Repetitions that every Accent, every Emphasis, every Modulation of Voice, was so perfectly well turn’d and well plac’d that, without being interested in the Subject, one could not help being pleas’d with the Discourse, a Pleasure of much the same kind with that receive’d from an excellent Piece of Music.” Thus, Franklin’s inquiring mind sought to understand the physical as well as the theological dynamics of Whitefield’s preaching.

Franklin used his professional and business skills to assist Whitefield’s ministry, as he had been “employ’d in printing his Sermons and Journals, &c.” Decades later, Franklin analyzed the result of Whitefield’s publications and believed them to have had a negative impact upon people’s views of Whitefield. In contrast to the spoken word, in an era prior to audio recordings, the written word was lasting. It was there for people to read, examine, and contemplate. Thus, Franklin believed that Whitefield’s opponents successfully used his printed sermons and writings against him in various disputes, causing him to lose popularity over time, whereas Franklin thought if Whitefield had concentrated on preaching rather than publishing, “his Reputation might in that case have been still growing, even after his Death.”

Throughout this essay, it is clear that individualism was growing in this period. Although most colonists personally made the decision to emigrate to America, they came to the New World as a part of a group. Rules and regulations for each colony were established by those organizing the groups. Decisions about social welfare projects were made within the small leadership circle of the colony, or by the royal governor. The leaders of the established churches (synonymous with the political leadership in some colonies) took care of other tasks. However, Franklin’s account of Whitefield’s ministry shows new approaches to social problems. Whitfield felt free to preach in any location, regardless of what the colonial religious leaders had to say. In order to facilitate the free expression of ideas by Whitefield and others, the people of Philadelphia constructed a nondenominational meeting hall. Having seen the need for an orphanage, which the colonial leaders were unable or unwilling to meet, Whitefield traveled to Britain and throughout the colonies to raise the funds needed for the project. He did this not by appealing to groups that might be interested; rather he went directly to the individual American colonists for support. He published tracts to challenge individuals to accept his understanding of the Christian faith. He also went into all types of places to appeal directly to the individual to make a personal decision regarding faith.

Through all these actions, it can be seen that the individual was becoming the foundation for social action. While there were still leaders in the various economic, social, and political organizations, individuals could no longer be taken for granted. This growth in the degree of personal choice became very important in the colonies. The freedom to have differing views on religion was an important step.

In Franklin’s writings about Whitefield, it is possible to learn a great deal about both men, as well as about conditions in the colonies. The strength of these two leaders and their ability to work with other people demonstrated the strength that would be needed in the coming decades as colonists struggled to secure their desired political and economic goals. Throughout his life, Franklin sought to assist in worthwhile civic projects. Thus, when Whitefield needed a place to stay in Philadelphia while carrying on his ministry, Franklin offered the use of his home. When Whitefield accepted this offer and spoke in theological terms of its value for the Christian mission, Franklin replied that that was not the motivation behind his hospitality: “Don’t let me be mistaken, it was not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.” His offer of housing illustrates the common-sense approach he took to most things in his life.

Because of the Great Awakening and projects such as the orphanage, the separate colonies had begun to have a common vision for their future. They began to see that it was not only possible, but beneficial, to reach across boundaries and assist each other. The fact that people in all the colonies were being exposed to this new form of Christian preaching illustrates that a common culture and experience was developing all along the Atlantic coast. A unified America was emerging from the various colonial enterprises.

Essential Themes

Although some of the American colonies were founded on a basis of religious toleration, most did not guarantee religious freedom for all people. Colonies generally had an established church with the expectation that all colonists would be members of that denomination. In the 1730s, new energy was felt by many inside and outside the various colonial churches. The Great Awakening began to demand that individuals respond to the call to demonstrate their faith; it transformed the various Protestant churches into American entities. Rather than maintaining the status quo, the churches began to revitalize society. With the disestablishment of the colonial churches in the upcoming decades, the churches that participated in the spirit of the Great Awakening were the churches that grew into the leading civic organizations of American society. The acceptance of a renewed emphasis on individual faith and salvation became the norm within many denominations. The effect of this emphasis is a major source of the difference between American and European branches of some denominations.

Social outreach, including personal responsibility to underwrite these activities, came to the forefront. The individual working with others, and yet still independent, to achieve desired ends was the manner in which American society developed. Both the personal examples of Franklin and Whitefield, as well as the projects described in the memoir, demonstrate how individuals can successfully work together. Individuals such as Franklin and Whitefield could use their skills to make major contributions and to assist others to see the possibilities of cooperation. Individuals in the crowds that Whitefield addressed, or who read what Franklin printed, understood that through uniting for a common purpose, they also could have a major effect on other’s lives.

As Franklin reflected on a few points in his relationship with George Whitefield, he brought forward several aspects of life in the middle of the eighteenth century. The most obvious aspect is the religious revival that occurred and shaped many facets of colonial life. The Great Awakening not only brought a lively version of the Christian faith into many homes, it also started to unify the culture. Although regionalism continued to exist, this step toward an American culture and identity was a factor in the ability of the various colonies to cooperate politically. The willingness of many in the colonies to help those in need in the new colony of Georgia illustrates this growing unity.

  • Cragg, G. R. The Church and the Age of Reason 1648–1789. Baltimore: Penguin, 1990. Print.
  • Drexler, Kenneth, Susan Garfinkel, Mark F. Hall, and Jurretta Jordan Heckscher. “Finding Franklin: A Resource Guide.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, Feb. 2006. Web. 27 Feb. 2012.
  • Stout, Harry S. The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism. Ed. Mark A. Noll and Nathan O. Hatch. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Print.
Additional Reading
  • “Benjamin Franklin.” PBS. Twin Cities Public Television, 2002. Web. 27 Feb. 2012
  • Brands, H. W. The First American: the Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Anchor, 2002. Print.
  • Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon, 2004. Print.
  • Kidd, Thomas S. The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford, 2008. Print.
  • Mansfield, Stephen. Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield. Nashville: Turner, 2001. Print.
  • Whitefield, George. The Revived Puritan: The Spirituality of George Whitefield. Ed. Michael A. G. Haykin. Dundas, Ontario: Joshua Press, 2000. Print. Classics of Reformed Spirituality
  • ---. Sermons of George Whitefield. Ed. Leo Gattis. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009. Print.

Categories: History