Our only international heritage site in the city, the Old South Church, just completed an historical reenactment service. Usually, the Rev. George Whitefield, dressed up in his properly-powdered wig, would arrive to present one of his fiery sermons.
But not this time.
This very day marks his passing away here in Newburyport on September 30th, 1770.
He had just arrived in Newburyport from speaking before a huge crowd in Exeter, NH; and he was not in good health. When he arrived and had journeyed up to Reverend Jonathan Parson’s house*, a crowd began to assemble just across the way in Atwood Park. He was treated in that day, what a celebrity or rock star would receive in our time or would in a few years later, be treated with great honors as when George Washington visited our city. The assembled eagerly wanted to have him speak. Though tired, he came down to speak with them – so everyone could see him, he spoke from the stairs that are still in existence today. It was cold and raw (sounds familiar like a New England day!) and though not well, struck a bargain with the people. He took a lighted candle and indicated that he would preach until the candle went out. They would then go home and he would go to bed.
Close to two hours passed until the candle went out and he went off to bed. Because he often suffered from Asthma (Some say he was actually suffering from Emphysema), which was poorly understood, they left the windows wide open.
He suffered an attack and passed away approximately 6:00 in the morning. Thus, the re-enacted announcement that I heard in 2o12 from the Reverend Parsons must have been a surprise to the entire congregation that was assembled in 1770 and expectantly awaiting for the famous evangelist to speak.
In his will, he specifically requested that he be buried under the pulpit at the Old South. This was the city where he began his 13-colony ministry to the America’s in 1740 and it was he that recommended to the believers at the chapel on High Street that they become Presbyterians. So often the mainline churches would refuse him and he would have to preach in a field; but he was always welcome in doors in Newburyport at the Old South.
The City in turn, was no slacker! A massive funeral was held that marched through the city and harbor guns were fired, flags hung at half-mast and three times the bells at all the churches were tolled for half-an-hour. It is thrilling to know the same bells that tolled that tribute are still in existence in our city today!
His message to all the different church denominations and sects was the same, his message was of liberty in a time when subservience to royalty was expected. A slave, Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) had been purchased in 1761, learned through her masters, passages from the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, astronomy, geography, history, and British literature and became so well-versed that her poem was spread through out the colonies as a tribute to his liberating message.
One stanza speaks of his importance as the forgotten Founding Father of our Country. I already did a post on his importance to our nation through the Doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer giving every one a right to make their own decisions as they are led by the will of God:
“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.” [my accent]
* His house in historical records is called a manse which is a term specifically referring to a house and land held by a Presbyterian minister.