The youngest of seven children, he was born in the Bell Inn where his father, Thomas, was a wine merchant and innkeeper.
His father died when George was two and his widowed mother Elizabeth struggled to provide for her family.
Because he thought he would never make much use of his education, at about age 15 George persuaded his mother to let him leave school and work in the inn.
However, sitting up late at night, George became a diligent student of the Bible.
At an early age, he found that he had a passion and talent for acting in the theatre, a passion that he would carry on with the very theatrical re-enactments of Bible stories he told during his sermons.
Forced to leave school because of poor health, George returned home for nine months of recuperation.
Far from idle, his activity attracted the attention of the bishop of Gloucester, who ordained Whitefield as a deacon, and later as a priest, in the Church of England.
Whitefield finished his degree at Oxford and on June 20, 1736, Bishop Benson ordained him.
The Bishop, placing his hands upon George’s head, resulted in George’s later declaration that “My heart was melted down and I offered my whole spirit, soul, and body to the service of God’s sanctuary.”
In 1738 he went to Savannah, Georgia, in the American colonies, as parish priest.
While there he decided that one of the great needs of the area was an orphan house.
He decided this would be his life’s work.
He returned to England to raise funds, as well as to receive priest’s orders. While preparing for his return he preached to large congregations.
At the suggestion of friends, he preached to the miners of Kingswood, outside Bristol, in the open air.
Because he was returning to Georgia he invited John Wesley to take over his Bristol congregations, and to preach in the open air for the first time at Kingswood and then Blackheath, London.
In 1739, Whitefield returned to England to raise funds to establish the Bethesda Orphanage, which is the oldest extant charity in North America.
On returning to North America in 1740, he preached a series of revivals that came to be known as the Great Awakening of 1740.
In 1740 he engaged Moravian Brethren from Georgia to build an orphanage for Negro children on land he had bought in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.
Following a theological disagreement, he dismissed them but was unable to complete the building, which the Moravians subsequently bought and completed.
This now is the Whitefield House in the center of the Moravian settlement of Nazareth.
He preached nearly every day for months to large crowds of sometimes several thousand people as he traveled throughout the colonies, especially New England.
As he grew increasingly popular, though, Whitefield also became increasingly divisive.
Many established ministers thought he was wrong to emphasize conversion and that his style was too flamboyant.
They accused him of being an “enthusiast,” that is, someone who injured the dignity of preaching and illegitimately claimed revelation from God.
Whitefield in turn was unsparing and sometimes uncharitable in his attacks on other ministers, whom he accused of being ignorant of the gospel and of serving Satan.
These disputes began to create a division between evangelicals like Whitefield and mainstream Anglicanism.
Whitefield also broke with his fellow Methodist John Wesley over a theological argument that led to a personal rift, and the Methodists separated into two camps.
Though mentored by the Wesleys, Whitefield set his own theological course: he was a convinced Calvinist.
His main theme was the necessity of the “new birth,” by which he meant a conversion experience.