He moved the masses as no-one before him and hardly anyone since. His life is filled with instruction for Christians today." He spoke to some ten million people, and it is said his voice could be heard a mile away. It is estimated that throughout his life, he preached more than 18,000 formal sermons and if less formal occasions are included, that number might rise to more than 30,000. In addition to his ministry in Great Britain (for 24 years) and America (for 9 years), he made 15 journeys to Scotland, 2 to Ireland, and one each to Bermuda, Gibraltar, and The Netherlands (Armstrong 9, 22).
He may have been the best-known Protestant in the whole world during the eighteenth century. Certainly he was the single best-known religious leader in America of that century, and the most widely recognized figure of any sort in North America before George Washington (Noll 91).
Early years in England. George Whitefield was born in the Bell Inn where his father, Thomas, was a wine merchant and innkeeper. It was the largest and finest establishment in town, and its main hall had two auditoriums, one of which was used to stage plays. But when he was only two tragedy struck this young prosperous family, George's father died (Dallimore I 17-19; Armstrong 12).
When the lad was 8 years of age his mother remarried, but the union was tragic, and the inn was almost lost due to financial difficulties. While the other children worked, George's mother saw his ability and made sure he attended the St. Mary de Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester from the age of 12. He was a gifted speaker, had a great memory, and often acted in the school plays, he was proficient in Latin and could read new Testament Greek. However, at the age of 15 George had to drop his studies and worked for a year and a half to help support the family. It seemed tragic, but it was a good experience for George to experience real life. He learned to associate with people from all ranks of society, he worked by day and at night, he read the Bible and dreamed of going to Oxford. In time the husband left, and George's older brother took back control of the inn. But there was no longer any money to send George to college with. For a time he and his mother were heartbroken. But over time they learned that he could go to Oxford as a "servitor," and at age 17 he left for the University with great eagerness.
In 1732 he entered Pembroke College at Oxford in November. As a "servitor" he lived as a butler and maid to 3 or 4 highly placed students. He would wash their clothes, shine their shoes, and do their homework. A servitor lived on whatever scraps of clothing or money they gave him. He had to wear a special gown and it was forbidden for students of a high rank to speak to him. Most servitors left rather than endure the humiliation.
In 1733, George became a member of the Holy Club led by John and Charles Wesleys (this group of students followed certain "methods" for religion, that were centered on careful reading of the Bible). His mates at Pembroke College had begun to call Whitefield a "Methodist," which was the derogatory word they used to describe members of the Holy Club. To other students their disciplined way of life looked foolish, and the word "Methodist" implied that they lived by a mindless method, like windup robots (Dallimore I 21-49).
Charles Wesley loaned him a book, "The Life of God in the Soul of Man",