In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield,
who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher.
He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches;
but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refus'd him their pulpits,
and he was oblig'd to preach in the fields. The multitudes of all
sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous,
and it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number,
to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers,
and how much they admir'd and respected him, notwithstanding his
common abuse of them, by assuring them that they were naturally half
beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon
made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless
or indifferent about religion, it seem'd as if all the world
were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro' the town
in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of
And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air,
subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was
no sooner propos'd, and persons appointed to receive contributions,
but sufficient sums were soon receiv'd to procure the ground and erect
the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad,
about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on
with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could
have been expected. Both house and ground were vested in trustees,
expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion
who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia;
the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect,
but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of
Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us,
he would find a pulpit at his service.
Mr. Whitefield, in leaving us, went preaching all the way thro'
the colonies to Georgia. The settlement of that province
had lately been begun, but, instead of being made with hardy,
industrious husbandmen, accustomed to labor, the only people fit
for such an enterprise, it was with families of broken shop-keepers
and other insolvent debtors, many of indolent and idle habits,
taken out of the jails, who, being set down in the woods, unqualified for
clearing land, and unable to endure the hardships of a new settlement,
perished in numbers, leaving many helpless children unprovided for.
The sight of their miserable situation inspir'd the benevolent heart
of Mr. Whitefield with the idea of building an Orphan House there,
in which they might be supported and educated. Returning northward,
he preach'd up this charity, and made large collections,
for his eloquence had a wonderful power over the hearts and purses
of his hearers, of which I myself was an instance.
I did not disapprove of the design, but, as Georgia was then
destitute of materials and workmen, and it was proposed to send
them from Philadelphia at a great expense, I thought it would have
been better to have built the house here, and brought the children
to it. This I advis'd; but he was resolute in his first project,
rejected my counsel, and I therefore refus'd to contribute.
I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course
of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection,
and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me, I had in my
pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars,
and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften,
and concluded to give the coppers. 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. At this sermon there was also
one of our club, who, being of my sentiments respecting the building
in Georgia, and suspecting a collection might be intended, had,
by precaution, emptied his pockets before he came from home.
Towards the conclusion of the discourse, however, he felt a strong
desire to give, and apply'd to a neighbour, who stood near him,
to borrow some money for the purpose. The application was
unfortunately [made] to perhaps the only man in the company who had
the firmness not to be affected by the preacher. His answer was,
"At any other time, Friend Hopkinson, I would lend to thee freely;
but not now, for thee seems to be out of thy right senses."
Some of Mr. Whitefield's enemies affected to suppose that he would
apply these collections to his own private emolument; but I who was
intimately acquainted with him (being employed in printing his Sermons
and Journals, etc.), never had the least suspicion of his integrity,
but am to this day decidedly of opinion that he was in all his conduct
a perfectly honest man, and methinks my testimony in his favour
ought to have the more weight, as we had no religious connection.
He us'd, indeed, sometimes to pray for my conversion, but never
had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard.
Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted
to his death.
The following instance will show something of the terms on which
we stood. Upon one of his arrivals from England at Boston,
he wrote to me that he should come soon to Philadelphia,
but knew not where he could lodge when there, as he understood
his old friend and host, Mr. Benezet, was removed to Germantown.
My answer was, "You know my house; if you can make shift with
its scanty accommodations, you will be most heartily welcome."
He reply'd, that if I made that kind offer for Christ's sake,
I should not miss of a reward. And I returned, "Don't let me
be mistaken; it was not for Christ's sake, but for your sake."
One of our common acquaintance jocosely remark'd, that, knowing it
to be the custom of the saints, when they received any favour,
to shift the burden of the obligation from off their own shoulders,
and place it in heaven, I had contriv'd to fix it on earth.
The last time I saw Mr. Whitefield was in London, when he consulted
me about his Orphan House concern, and his purpose of appropriating
it to the establishment of a college.
He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and
sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at
a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous,
observ'd the most exact silence. He preach'd one evening from the top
of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street,
and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles.
Both streets were fill'd with his hearers to a considerable distance.
Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity
to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down
the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I
came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur'd it.
Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius,
and that it were fill'd with auditors, to each of whom I allow'd
two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more
than thirty thousand. This reconcil'd me to the newspaper accounts
of his having preach'd to twenty-five thousand people in the fields,
and to the antient histories of generals haranguing whole armies,
of which I had sometimes doubted.
By hearing him often, I came to distinguish easily between sermons
newly compos'd, and those which he had often preach'd in the course
of his travels. 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
receiv'd from an excellent piece of musick. This is an advantage
itinerant preachers have over those who are stationary, as the latter
can not well improve their delivery of a sermon by so many rehearsals.
His writing and printing from time to time gave great advantage
to his enemies; unguarded expressions, and even erroneous opinions,
delivered in preaching, might have been afterwards explain'd
or qualifi'd by supposing others that might have accompani'd them,
or they might have been deny'd; but litera scripta monet.
Critics attack'd his writings violently, and with so much appearance
of reason as to diminish the number of his votaries and prevent
their encrease; so that I am of opinion if he had never written
any thing, he would have left behind him a much more numerous
and important sect, and his reputation might in that case have been
still growing, even after his death, as there being nothing of his
writing on which to found a censure and give him a lower character,
his proselytes would be left at liberty to feign for him as great
a variety of excellence as their enthusiastic admiration might wish
him to have possessed.