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.
HAIL, happy saint, on thine immortal throne,
Possest of glory, life, and bliss unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy sermons in unequall’d accents flow’d,
And ev’ry bosom with devotion glow’d;
Thou didst in strains of eloquence refin’d
Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we the setting sun deplore,
So glorious once, but ah! it shines no more.
Behold the prophet in his tow’ring flight!
He leaves the earth for heav’n’s unmeasur’d height,
And worlds unknown receive him from our sight.
There Whitefield wings with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion through vast seas of day.
Thy pray’rs, great saint, and thine incessant cries
Have pierc’d the bosom of thy native skies.
Thou moon hast seen, and all the stars of light,
How he has wrestled with his God by night.
He pray’d that grace in ev’ry heart might dwell,
He long’d to see America excell;
He charg’d its youth that ev’ry grace divine
Should with full lustre in their conduct shine;
That Saviour, which his soul did first receive,
The greatest gift that ev’n a God can give,
He freely offer’d to the num’rous throng,
That on his lips with list’ning pleasure hung.
“Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,
“Take him ye starving sinners, for your food;
“Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
“Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
“Take him my dear Americans, he said,
“Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
“Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,
“Impartial Saviour is his title due:
“Wash’d in the fountain of redeeming blood,
“You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.”
Great Countess,* we Americans revere
Thy name, and mingle in thy grief sincere;
New England deeply feels, the Orphans mourn,
Their more than father will no more return.
But, though arrested by the hand of death,
Whitefield no more exerts his lab’ring breath,
Yet let us view him in th’ eternal skies,
Let ev’ry heart to this bright vision rise;
While the tomb safe retains its sacred trust,
Till life divine re-animates his dust.
*The Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Mr. Whitefield was
Text: The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Philadelphia:R.R. and C. C. Wright 1909), pp. 15-17.