Wesley's Peer George Whitefield: Celebrity Preacher

Visitors to the United Methodist Archives in Madison, New Jersey can view a small box containing the tip of George Whitefield's thumb. But who was George Whitefield and why do some say he was America's first celebrity?

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(Madison, New Jersey)

Who would guess that America's first celebrity was a Methodist preacher?

The Rev. Alfred Day, General Commission on Archives and History: "He was a rock star. There was probably not a man, woman or child, at least in the American colonies, who did not know George Whitefield."

Historian Fred Day says Whitefield may be the greatest preacher America has ever seen. In England, Whitefield was a charter member of the Holy Club with John and Charles Wesley. In the 1730's he moved sermons from the pulpit out into the streets. A trained actor, Whitefield was a talented orator who drew great crowds. John Wesley was there to help converts take the next step.

The Rev. Alfred Day: "For a while they were a dynamic pair. But there came a moment when they had a pretty serious theological disagreement."

The rift was over prevenient grace. Whitefield, a Calvinist, believed in predestination. Wesley sided with the Arminian belief that salvation is available to everyone.

The Rev. Alfred Day: "Really opposite poles of Christian faith and understanding the path to salvation led them to part ways."

Yet, Whitfield asked Wesley to preach at his funeral in 1770. It is said that the phrase "agree to disagree" first appeared in that eulogy.


Watch more stories on John Wesley and Francis Asbury and the early days of Methodism in America. 

Learn more about United Methodist history here

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Joe Iovino.

This video was first posted on May 9, 2019.