In the name of historical honesty, evangelicals must be willing to face the flaws of those we hold up as heroes. George Whitefield, the spark of the Evangelical Revival, was no doubt an incredible person. In many respects, he was what today we would call a celebrity. He counted Benjamin Franklin as a friend, crowds in the thousands thronged to hear him preach, he co-founded the Methodist movement and has left a legacy that evangelicals can look back on with pride.
However, there are some significant stains on his memory. Probably the worst was the purchase of slaves for personal use while in Georgia (1740). Mark Noll explains:
Whitefield’s all-or-nothing commitment to evangelism at the expense of well-considered Christian social ethics left an ambiguous legacy as well. His stance toward the institution of slavery is an instance. During 1740, he criticized Southern slave owners for mistreating slaves and took special pains on several occasions to preach to slaves. But he also decided on the spur of the moment that, since Europeans were unable or unwilling to work the land supporting his orphanage, it would be “impracticable” to survive in Georgia without purchasing “a few Negroes” as slaves. Whitefield, who preached so willingly to slaves, hardly gave a thought when he became a slaveowner himself.
Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys A History of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2003), 108.