In the fall of 1740, America was abuzz. Revival was sweeping the northern states and Christian fervor was at fever pitch. George Whitefield, the great English evangelist was traveling through the colonies, and his reputation as a powerful preacher and orator had preceded him so that great crowds swelled to hear him preach. Because most churches were closed to him, he chose to preach in the open air just as he had so many times in his native England. On October 16 he stood in the center of the Quaboag Plantation in West Brookfield, Massachusetts with a crowd of at least 500 standing about him and there he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. As he preached, he stood upon a great rock, known today—appropriately—as Whitefield Rock. And this, Whitefield Rock, is the next of the twenty-five objects through which we are tracing the history of Christianity.
The Great Awakening was an unexpected revival that swept North America in the 1730s and 1740s, a sustained time in which God granted unusual response to the preaching of his Word. This awakening was closely related to similar revivals that occurred in Europe around the same time.
The Great Awakening is usually associated with two men who were to become close friends, but who did not meet one another until after the revival began: Jonathan Edwards, the preacher and theologian, and George Whitefield, the preacher and evangelist. However, the revival was carried along by many other sincere and unknown Christians. The first spark of revival glimmered forth in Edwards’ town of Northampton, Massachusetts. As Edwards preached to his church, he emphasized the importance of a vital, personal faith in Jesus Christ. People heard that word and were transformed. People heard that word and took it with them, believing it, sharing it. Collin Hansen writes, “During the First Great Awakening, God worked through men like Edwards and Whitefield to save thousands of sinners. Local awakenings connected through the itinerant ministry of Whitefield and writing of Edwards dramatically affected colonial America.”
George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England. He attended Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met John and Charles Wesley and joined their “Holy Club.” However, it was only when he read Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man and became seriously ill that he was genuinely converted. He immediately became passionate about sharing the gospel with others and was soon ordained an Anglican clergyman.
In 1738 Whitefield traveled to Savannah, Georgia to serve the parish there. While in America he became convinced of the need for an orphan house and returned to England to raise funds. While in England he was able to preach to large congregations and he soon developed a reputation as a talented, engaging, and passionate preacher. It was upon his return to America in 1740 that he preached the series of messages that would forever seal that reputation. For many months he preached nearly every day and often many times a day, sometimes to thousands or even tens of thousands of people at once. Crowds were amazed at the power of his voice, shocked that it could carry to the distant reaches of a crowd, and they were amazed at the power of his words. Where Whitefield preached, souls were saved and lives were transformed.
PBS captures the unexpected impact of Whitefield’s preaching and the Awakening that followed:
Whitefield ignited the Great Awakening, a major religious revival that became the first major mass movement in American history. At its core, the Awakening changed the way that people experienced God. Instead of receiving religious instruction from their ministers, ordinary men and women unleashed their emotions to make an immediate, intense and personal connection with the divine. From New England to Georgia, the revival was marked by a broad populist tone—small farmers, traders, artisans, servants and laborers were especially swept up by the preaching of Whitefield and his followers.
While Whitefield and other revivalists were overwhelmingly popular, they were also regarded with distrust and suspicion by many church leaders. These leaders saw that the revivalists could preach anywhere they wanted, rather than only in established church buildings. Not only that, but they could preach for a time and then go on their way. Division soon followed, with some clergy distancing themselves from Whitefield and others.
And this is why, on October 16, 1740, Whitefield found himself outdoors, on Foster Hill, outside the town of West Brookfield, Massachusetts. This was a rough, hilly, and sparsely-populated region and the crowd of nearly 500 people marked this as a major event for the area. And there Whitefield delivered just one of the 18,000 sermons he would deliver in his lifetime. And just like the others, he preached God’s Word and called for a personal response.
Whitefield Rock has nothing special to commend it and is just one of millions of similar rocks scattered through the region. In the eyes of the world, there is no reason to remember it except for the fact that a man stood upon it for a short time and spoke to a crowd of people. But perhaps in this way it aptly represents the era of revivals and awakenings. A simple man stood upon a simple rock and preached the most remarkable message in all the world. That rock stands today as firm as it did when Whitefield stood upon it, and it stands as firm as the Word Whitefield preached. So much in this life and this world is transient, here today and gone tomorrow. But God’s Word is like that rock—fixed and immovable.
Bonus: Watch Steven Lawson recite Matthew 7 while standing on Whitefield Rock.
More in The History of Christianity in 25 Objects:
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Introduction
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Augustus of Prima Porta
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Rylands Library Papyrus P52
- The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: Alexamenos Graffito