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Tercentenary of the birth of first Methodist preacher in Ireland

By Ciarán McCabe

Last month marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of George Whitefield (1714-1770), the mid-eighteenth-century preacher who introduced Methodism into Ireland. While John Wesley’s 21 visits between 1747 and 1789 drove the growth of Irish Methodism in these early decades, Whitefield’s arrival in 1738 marked the beginning of the Methodist mission to the Irish.

Whitefield was a member of the Oxford ‘Holy Club’, an informal gathering of early evangelists among the Oxford student body, centred on Wesley and his brother Charles. The activities of the ‘Holy Club’ included prayer meetings and Bible reading sessions, as well as the provision of assistance to the elderly and sick. When the Wesleys departed for Georgia in the British Colonies circa 1736, Whitefield assumed the leadership of the ‘Holy Club’. His later theological disputes with Wesley (on the subject of predestination) created a rift, from which Whitefield established Calvinist Methodism, which was particularly popular in Wales and throughout America.

Geo Whitefield

As with Wesley, Whitefield was an Anglican clergyman who spearheaded a transatlantic religious revival; indeed, in this period Whitefield was among the most well-known figures in America. They enjoyed camaraderie in the early years of their evangelising careers. Indeed, Wesley’s system of itinerant field-preaching, which became a characteristic of early Methodism, was based on the successful modern deployed by Whitefield. By removing the service and sermon from the (Established) church to fields and highways, and by encouraging revival and ‘enthusiasm’ among the laity, this generation of itinerant preachers was perceived as a threat to the Established Church. Their practices were seen as unbecoming of a man of God, and this sentiment was captured in Wesley’s journal entry recording his first foray into field preaching at Bristol, inspired by Whitefield: ‘At four in the afternoon I submitted to “be more vile”, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.’

Whitefield’s diary of his visit to County Clare in 1738 reveals much of interest. Firstly, his account mirrors those of other travellers to Ireland in this period in commenting on the extraordinary poverty of the people: ‘As I rode along, and observed the meanness of the poor people’s living in these parts, I said, if my parishioners at Georgia complain to me of hardships, I must tell them how the Irish live; for their habitations are far more despicable, and their living as hard, I believe, as to food; and yet, no doubt, content dwells in many of these low huts.’ More significantly, Whitefield was an early proponent of missionary strategies deployed by evangelicals around the turn of the nineteenth century – namely, the use of the Irish language as a means of effectively communicating with the impoverished Irish peasantry (‘I can think of no likelier means to convert them from their erroneous principles, than to get the Bible translated into their own native language, to have it put in their houses’) and the establishment of ‘charity schools erected for their children’.

Further reading:

Boyd Stanley Schlenther, ‘Whitefield, George’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography          (Oxford, 2004).

For more on Whitefield, see the dedicated section on the University of Manchester Rylands Library’s website:

http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/searchresources/guidetospecialcollections/methodist/onlinevirtuallibrary/georgewhitefield/

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