George Whitefield, A Profile

Lots of folks around here could tell you about our history. They could tell you that in 1847 the settlement of Cross Plains was absorbed into the Town of Dalton, that it was named by Edward White for his mother’s family. You could most likely find someone to explain how, because of the success of our railroad, Whitfield County was formed from Murray County and named for Rev George Whitefield, but the spelling was changed to “reflect pronunciation of the name.”

If, inexplicably, you can’t find anyone to tell you about it, I found that info on the Whitfield County history site. What about our namesake, though? Who was George Whitefield? Well I’m glad you asked.

Described in one article as, “Slender, cross-eyed, and handsome1” Whitefield was one of the most recognized religious figures of his time. And with a description like that none of us should be surprised.  A dynamic preacher, by his mid-twenties Whitefield developed a reputation in England by preaching untraditionally in outdoor venues (many churches were not about dynamic preaching) and even sniping congregants from other priests, effectively stealing congregations – good thing nobody around here does that.

Author Matthew Paul Turner says, “In 1738, God came to the Colonies from England, but no one noticed because George Whitefield was on the same boat.2” Whitefield is credited for traveling roughly 5000 miles (in the 1700’s, mind you), and preaching to an estimated 10 million. The man got around.

Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist.

*If you’re unfamiliar with Calvinism, one of its core tenants is the idea of predestination: that God has already determined who will go to heaven and who will go to hell, and there’s nothing we can do about it (as opposed to giving us free will to choose). Presumably Whitefields evangelism was intended to help the chosen “realize” they’re chosen? This author has never met a Calvinist who isn’t ‘elect’.

His message, essentially ‘How not to go to hell’, was nothing novel, but his method was. Rather than droning on and reading a previously written sermon word-for-word as was the riveting tradition at the time, George Whitefield leaning into his theatre (he was British) training and put some gusto into his sermons. He played on emotions, varying tones and pitches of his voice and even inserting his own ‘emotion’ into messages. It was commonplace for listeners to swoon, cry, shriek, or faint. Carried along with the wave of emotion and preaching, Whitefield stirred the regular folk: craftspeople and farmers – whipping up (along with John & Charles Wesley) what came to be known as the Great Awakening, and according to some, the seeds of the American Revolution.

Local ministers and priests initially welcomed Whitefield, but changed their tone when they realized his messages challenged social order and aristocratic authority. This is most likely what ‘brought’ him to the states, and eventually to Georgia, although his popularity among the masses definitely didn’t hurt.

When Whitefield’s travels brought him to Savanna, he was greeted as a conquering hero. In 1740 he contributed a considerable amount to the Bethesda Orphanage (still operating as the Bethesda Academy), and although he only stayed for three months –

*Various sources have drastically different timelines, ranging from the generally accepted 3 months, to years, as well as multiple visits over the course of several years.

– before returning to England the Georgia Trustees name Whitefield as official minister to Savannah after the Wesleys’ departure. Details tend to become more unclear after this, although Whitefield continued to travel back and forth from England to the Colonies making folks lose their minds (from his preaching, of course), which he did until the day before he died in New England in 1770.

So there you have it, our namesake. Why were we named for the vivacious, cross-eyed dynamo of a preacher who, despite never living anywhere around here almost probably traveled in our general vicinity as he traversed the nation? We may never know, but now you, dear reader, are familiar with the man who’s fame gave us ours.

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