George Whitefield (1714-1770)

posted May 28, 2010, 7:50 AM by Professor Katz   [ updated May 28, 2010, 10:25 AM ]
Everyone agreed that George Whitefield was the greatest preacher of his time, but no one could precisely say why.  The great philosopher David Hume said it was 'worth going twenty miles to hear him'.  The famous writer Dr Samuel Johnson said that 'Whitefield never drew as much attention as a mountebank [charlatan] does; he did not draw attention by doing better than others, but by doing what was strange.'
Apart from his musical voice, one thing people did notice were his eyes, which were apparently hypnotic.  He also was cross-eyed (פזילה), which you can clearly see in his portrait (click to enlarge).
Benjamin Franklin (Whitefield's American publisher and an important scientist), calculated his audibility when Whitefield preached on the corner of Market St & 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106 
Franklin reckoned that Whitefield could be heard by about 30,000 persons:
He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ'd the most exact silence.  He preach'd one evening from the top of the Courthouse steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles.  Both streets were fill'd with his hearers to a considerable distance.  Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river, and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur'd it.  Imagining then a semicircle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill'd with auditors, to each of whom I allow'd two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand.  This reconcil'd me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach'd to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the ancient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.
[Source: Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography:]