On the Death of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770
George Whitefield (1714-1770) (pronounced “Whit-field”), the dynamic Calvinistic Methodist evangelist, followed the John and Charles Wesley to Savannah, Georgia, in 1738 as a missionary for the Church of England, where he established the Bethesda Home, the first orphanage in America, through a land grant of 500 acres from the Colony of Georgia in 1739. The idea for the home originated with Charles Wesley and Georgia governor James Oglethorpe, but it was mainly through the efforts of Whitefield that the orphanage became a reality in March 1740. Savannah resident James Habersham (c. 1712-1775) became the orphanage’s first schoolmaster. Whitefield would cross the Atlantic thirteen times during his thirty-two years of ministry, primarily to raise funds for the orphanage. Just before his death, Whitefield willed the orphanage to the Countess of Huntingdon, his wealthy patron in England. She spent considerable funds to repair the buildings in 1773 and planned to build a Calvinistic Methodist college on the grounds patterned after her college at Trevecca, Wales, but the American War of Independence postponed her plans. The college finally opened in 1788, but after the death of the Countess in 1791, the property and control of the orphanage was assumed by the state of Georgia. The orphanage fell into a state of neglect and decay during the next ten years. Eventually the orphanage was taken over by the Union Society of Savannah and continues to this day on its original site. Whitefield died at Newburyport, Massachusetts, and his preaching and doctrine (and attitude toward African missions and evangelizing among the slaves) were highly prized by Wheatley, as her poem reveals. Elegies of this sort were immensely popular in England and America in the eighteenth century, but Wheatley’s poem, among the numerous elegies on the death of Whitefield, became widely read, being republished in London and circulated among the evangelical followers of Whitefield throughout England, bringing Wheatley considerable fame prior to the publication of her Poems in 1773.
Text: The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Philadelphia:R.R. and C. C. Wright 1909), pp. 15-17.