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A Crusader of the Cross in Sharon

By Linus Barnes, Intern
The year was 1739 when George Whitefield, a Methodist minister from England, arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to preach his views to the local Christians. Standing in this crowd of a few thousand was a printer for the Pennsylvania Gazette. This soon-to-be patriot was young Benjamin Franklin.
“Whitefield preaching in Moorfields, A.D. 1742” by E. Crowe (1865), in the exhibition of the Royal Academy. Hand-colored woodcut print of a 19th-century illustration. New York Public Library Digital Collection.

In his autobiography, Franklin stated that Whitefield’s mannerisms were so engaging and entrancing, that when the collection dish was passed around, Franklin “empty’d [his] pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”

It seems that Whitefield had a way of winning over his ideological opponents, including men of the enlightenment, such as Benjamin Franklin. In fact, Whitefield was practically born to speak at the pulpit.

From a young age, Whitefield was a strong public speaker and developed a love for acting and holding theatrical renditions of Bible stories during sermons. Born into a family of modest means, he attended Oxford University by working as a servitor, cleaning, bathing, and assisting other students.

Portrait of George Whitefield (1769) by John Greenwood, mezzotint on paper. NPG.75.77, National Portrait Gallery Collection.

While at school, Whitefield joined the Holy Club, a student-run program led by John and Charles Wesley. Under their influence, Whitefield was introduced to Methodism, a denomination that emphasizes free will and a personal connection with God. These beliefs ran contrary to conventional religious thinking at the time.

Preaching across England and its colonies, Whitefield amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. When arriving in a new community, he would ask the local churches if he could hold sermons from their pulpits. Holding opposite beliefs, the ministers refused and prohibited him from stepping foot in their churches. Barred from these places of worship, Whitefield would preach in open fields, standing on rocks or barrels in front of thousands of people. This period of religious revival would become known as the First Great Awakening.

On June 18th, 1770, Whitefield arrived in Sharon, Connecticut, with thousands of Christians (even ones with opposing beliefs) traveling miles just to hear him preach. At that time, however, revolution was brewing in the colonies. Whitefield, an English minister with Tory sympathies and a representative of the crown, was a controversial figure in Patriot-dominated New England. Nevertheless, Cotton Mather Smith, Sharon’s Congregationalist Minister, “prevailed upon [Whitefield’s] opponents to listen to the goodness of this messenger of God.” Parson Smith also arranged for Whitefield to spend the night at the Smith household before the sermon. That evening, the 56-year-old Whitefield suffered a serious asthma attack, threatening his ability to speak the following day. Luckily, Temperance Smith, the parson’s wife, had experience with medicine. She burned herbs and provided care to Whitefield, spending the whole night at his bedside. Thankfully, Whitefield “survived the night of agony” and gave a powerful sermon to thousands of Christians, showing no sign of weakness. Parson Smith wrote that Whitefield’s voice was “as soft as a flute and piercing as a fife,” even though only hours before Whitefield could barely breathe. In remembrance of this event, a plaque on Sharon’s Green marks the site of the sermon.

Bronze plaque on the Sharon Green commemorating George Whitefield’s visit to Sharon in 1770. According to Leonard Twynham, the first line contains a slight inaccuracy: the plaque marks the site of the third edifice used by the Congregational worshippers between 1768 and 1824.

Only three months after this event, however, Whitefield suffered an uncontrollable asthma attack and passed away in Massachusetts on September 30th, 1770. But in his last hour, Whitefield wrote a letter to Cotton Mather Smith and his wife, thanking them for their hospitality.

In the words of Leonard Twynham, “Sharon cannot lay claim to fame because of a visit from a notable, but it can thank God at the site of this little shrine along the highway that He sent this Crusader of the Cross to speak here.”

Sources and Further Reading:

• Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1791.
Freeman, Joanne. The American Revolution, Lecture 2: Being a British Colonist. YouTube. YaleCourses, 2011.
• Twynham, Leonard. “An Important Marker in Sharon, Connecticut.” 2007.25.121 (Accessible via the SHS Archives)

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