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A Mere Civil Friendship: Franklin and Whitefield

Larry Gragg describes how Franklin wrote to Whitefield: ‘He used to pray for my conversion but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard’.

A twenty-four-year-old minister with blue eyes and a fair complexion was speaking from the court house steps. He used no notes and looked steadily at his audience, though his left eye was slightly askew. An emotional speaker, he made violent and erratic gestures, acted out the Biblical narrative he was using, laughed convulsively, and wept openly. Throughout it all the crowd remained silent; in fact, the minister had seldom seen so quite an audience. There were many people in Market Street that day listening to this man thought by some to be the ‘Angel of God.’

One of those present was a stout fellow of thirty-three, well-known in the community. He was there not because he believed what the minister was saying, but to find out if this man could really be heard by 25,000 people as the Boston newspapers had claimed. As the minister proceeded, his curious observer walked to the rear of the crowd, determined the total area that it covered, and allowing each person in the crowd two square feet of space, concluded that more than 30,000 people could hear the speaker.

The incident took place in Philadelphia in November, 1739; the evangelist addressing the crowd was George Whitefield, a native of England. An ordained minister in the Anglican Church, Whitefield was an associate of John and Charles Wesley who were then organizing the Methodist movement in England. He had quickly alienated the Anglican establishment by his vivid depictions of hell, his emphasis on the necessity of a ‘New Birth’ for salvation, and his highly emotional style.

Because he had offended so many, few ministers would allow Whitefield into their churches. Forced to preach in the fields and public halls of England, his reputation, nonetheless, grew rapidly. As had occurred at home, much of the colonial clergy rejected his style; and he was soon speaking anywhere a crowd could gather, as in Philadelphia’s Market Street.

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