4. George Whitefield's Preaching House
In 1740 George Whitefield’s preaching house was erected for him on this site soon after he began preaching in Philadelphia. In 1740 this “New Building” was the largest building in the city measuring 100 feet long by 70 feet wide. Edward Evans, a member of Arch Street Meeting House across the street, was a Quaker convert to Whitefield’s preaching who served as one of the trustees for the building and went on to serve as a leading Moravian and Methodist evangelist in the Philadelphia area.
When George Whitefield arrived for the first time in Philadelphia in 1739, stories of a great revival occurring in Massachusetts were spreading across the colonies and across the ocean. Philadelphia was ready for Whitefield’s preaching. Few people know George Whitefield’s name today. But during his six tours of the American colonies from 1739 until his death in 1770 he was the most famous man in the colonies. He came back to Philadelphia nearly every year to preach. He drew big crowds wherever he went from Georgia to New England.
Many of Whitefield’s hearers at this preaching house were African Americans in the city who were drawn to his enthusiastic preaching and his announcement to establish a school for blacks in Philadelphia. The school for the poor Whitefield hoped to establish here didn’t last long though and, in 1749, Ben Franklin helped to organize an Academy at this site which, in 1779, became the University of Pennsylvania. To this day, on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus some thirty blocks west of here, stands a statue to the evangelist George Whitefield.
During Whitefield’s stay in Philadelphia he befriended Ben Franklin. (We’ll say more about Ben Franklin’s and George Whitefield’s friendship at our next stop.) Although never a Methodist or even very religious, Whitefield impressed Ben Franklin with the way he affected the city. Franklin wrote: “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seems as if all the world were growing religious; so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families on every street.”
Ben Franklin was right about the singing. Hymn singing was an important part of what made Methodists Methodist – then and now. In fact, Philadelphia was the first place in America to print a Methodist hymnal. The proceeds went to support Whitefield’s orphanage in Georgia. In the spirit of those early Methodists feel free to hum a hymn as you stroll a short distance to our next stop.