On the Death of George Whitefield

Denise and I visited Boston in the fall of 2018 as part of one of my last work trips. We spent the weekend walking the city and exploring the area, taking in its history and culture. One of the things I always try to do when visiting a place is buy a book that is indicative of the area. In this case, I bought a few, and I know that doesn’t surprise anyone. One of them was “Poems of Phillis Wheatley” and subtitled “A native African and a slave.” With all the discussion today, I thought it interesting to read again some of what she wrote, as a native African, brought over to America and sold as a slave.

Within 16 months of her arrival in the colonies in 1761, she “attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before, to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.” (Quote taken from a letter written to her publishers from her master, Thomas Wheatley, in 1772.)

There has been quite a bit written about George Whitefield lately, and the fact that he was a slave-owner. I thought this was an interesting perspective on him written by a slave.

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 unequalled accents flowed,
And ev’ry bosom with devotion glowed;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refined,
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 towering flight!
He leaves the earth for heaven’s unmeasured 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 prayers, great saint, and thine incessant cries,
Have pierced 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 prayed that grace in ev’ry heart might dwell;
He longed to see America excel;
He charged 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 offered to the numerous throng,
That on his lips with list’ning pleasure hung.

“Take him, ye wretched for your only good,
“Take him, ye starving sinner, 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:
Washed 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 the eternal skies,
Let ev’ry heart to this bright vision rise;
While the tomb, safe, retains its sacred trust,
Til life divine reanimates his dust.

(The Countess she references is the Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Whitefield was chaplain. In fact, Phillis Wheatley’s dedication of this book of poetry was to the Countess of Huntingdon in 1773.)

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