An Anglican priest from Gloucester, England, George Whitefield (1714–1770) was the most influential preacher of the First Great Awakening of the 1740s in Great Britain and America. The young itinerant electrified huge crowds with his dramatic, impassioned preaching. He regularly spoke outdoors, both because he often found himself banned from local churches, and because most church buildings could not hold the thousands who attended his revival meetings. Among those influenced by Whitefield’s preaching were the enslaved African Americans of the colonies. In general, Whitefield taught that African Americans were the spiritual equals of whites, and that masters should not abuse their slaves. But he also taught that converting to Christianity would not lead to the slaves’ freedom. Instead, conversion would help them be better slaves.
Whitefield showed particular interest in slaves’ spiritual state from the beginning of his first great preaching tour of America late in 1739. During December of that year, Whitefield and his companions traveled overland through the southern colonies, stopping briefly in Williamsburg to visit with the Anglican commissary and founder of the College of William and Mary,. During his travels through the South, Whitefield could hardly fail to notice the ubiquity of slavery, and he spoke highly of African Americans’ potential for spiritual awakening and education.
In February 1740, Whitefield’s friend Benjamin Franklin published Three Letters from the Reverend Mr. G. Whitefield in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first two letters dealt with Whitefield’s concerns over unbiblical teaching in the Anglican hierarchy. The third was addressed “To the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina” and registered his concern for the enslaved and their treatment. “As I lately passed through your Provinces … I was sensibl[y] touched with a Fellow-feeling of the Miseries of the poor Negroes,” Whitefield wrote. “God has a Quarrel with you for your Abuse of and Cruelty to the poor Negroes.” He excoriated the slave masters for mercilessly beating their laborers, and for failing to provide basic food and clothing for them. He also suggested that white southerners were keeping the gospel of Christianity from the slaves for fear that salvation would make them restless for freedom. Whitefield rejected this notion, writing, “I challenge the whole World to produce a single Instance of a Negroe’s being made a thorough Christian, and thereby made a worse Servant. It cannot be.” Despite his temperate views about Christianity making better slaves, his criticisms touched a raw nerve among many white southerners.
Over time, Whitefield’s prophetic stance against the abuse of slaves dulled, and he himself became an advocate for slavery in Georgia, which had originally banned slavery. He also came to own a plantation and slaves in South Carolina by way of planters there who had converted under his preaching. Whitefield’s moderate approach to slavery became typical of white southern evangelicals: he believed that slaves needed salvation, and he argued against their maltreatment, but he would not ultimately challenge the institution of slavery itself.