Anyone looking for the burial site of George Whitefield, the bigger-than-life 18th-century evangelist who paved the way for American revivalists from Billy Sunday to Billy Graham, needs to have good eyes and perseverance to find it here in the small seaside city of Newburyport, Massachusetts.
That's because no signage exists to help visitors locate his tomb beneath the pulpit of "Old South" First Presbyterian Church, which organized in 1742 in response to a Whitefield-led revival in a nearby field. Newburyport's chamber of commerce doesn't list the crypt among its historic sites. Only an 8.5 x 11 inch computer printout, taped to a side door of the church, tells Whitefield fans that they've reached their destination.
Lack of tourist infrastructure, however, doesn't keep crowds away. Anywhere from 700 to 1,000 visitors, mostly evangelicals from as far away as California and the United Kingdom, make a pilgrimage to Old South's crypt each year. Over the past two years, travelers from 41 states and 22 countries have signed the tomb's guest book. So brisk is the visitor flow in warm-weather months that more than one of every ten church members is trained to give tours.
"If you're into spiritual renewal or revival, and a lot of conservative people are, then this is where you come," says Old South pastor Rob John.
Evangelicals walk a fine line in journeying to pay homage to Whitefield (pronounced "WIT-field"), a Calvinist who scorned pilgrimage and veneration of relics as so much "works righteousness." "Human beings collect relics and associate with tombs," says Tom O'Loughlin, a pilgrimage expert at the University of Wales-Lampeter. "So you have the classic pilgrimage basis there, but it's for a preacher who would have been shocked and annoyed [by the practice]. That's an interesting irony: You can preach a theology as long as you like, but human nature will reassert itself."
Yet 239 years after the Grand Itinerant died while passing through Newburyport, his tomb's custodians and visitors alike are finding a way to honor his legacy as well as their own traditions. The key, it seems, lies in the tomb's remarkably low profile, which belies its international drawing power. This subtlety helps mitigate tensions that enduringly surround the site. And after centuries of trial and error at Whitefield's gravesite, his admirers may at last be learning that in Protestant shrine keeping, sometimes less is more.
Passion and Ambivalence
Whitefield in life was anything but subdued. Pioneer of the open-air revival meeting in the First Great Awakening, he reached millions with his dramatic style and controversial endorsement of emotional outpourings in Christ's name. He was so famous that when he died in 1770, delegations from as far away as Georgia (where Whitefield had served as priest) arrived within days to claim his remains. But locals rebuffed the would-be pallbearers from out of town, making Newburyport an unlikely destination for pilgrims to this day.
Pastor John leads a gracious tour of what's known to some evangelicals as "the Whitefield Church." He points out the sanctuary's hulking cenotaph, which describes Whitefield as "bold, fervent, pungent, and popular." In the narthex, glass cases exhibit Whitefieldian memorabilia, such as a letter of congratulations from George Washington and the hymn Whitefield wrote for his own funeral. Then it's downstairs to what John calls "our world-famous basement." Across from an oil-burning furnace and recessed in a mostly enclosed alcove, a plaster replica of Whitefield's skull atop a Bible marks the spot where he and two early Old South pastors rest in peace. Signatures in guest books date to 1869.
Along the way, John explains why the church does little to advertise the crypt. He and his congregants want to focus on modern-day ministries, such as study groups and mission projects. He fears even a little crypt promotion could lead to a deluge of visitors who would effectively prevent the church from doing much else.
"I could spend all day every day showing people around here," John says. When asked if he thinks that would happen were the crypt's location to become more widely known, he replies without hesitation. "Oh yeah."
Church members express a similar ambivalence. On one level, they're proud of their history and like to share it. For Joyce Davis, "it just gives you a good feeling" to know that a great figure of Christian history asked to be buried beneath her church's pulpit. But on another level, some worry about being associated far and wide with a ministry that ended when Massachusetts was still a colony.
"Sometimes it's a burden [to have Whitefield's remains], because we concentrate too much on history and not enough on how God is working in our lives," says church member Jean Hansen. "I don't want Whitefield to interfere with my relationship with God."
Ambivalence notwithstanding, Whitefield's tomb—like his ministry 275 years ago—brings together Christians of widely different backgrounds. Those worshiping upstairs seldom echo sentiments prayed in the basement, where pilgrims routinely call on the Holy Spirit to ignite a new revival whose mark, as in Whitefield's day, will be masses born again. This is a liberal New England congregation that puts more emphasis on ecumenism than on evangelism. But as evangelicals arrive steadily to reinvigorate their fervor, church members are able to practice daily the Christian unity they prize. On any given day, an Old South member might forge a personal connection with a Southern fundamentalist by leading a private tour in honor of a common spiritual ancestor whom both respect.
A High-Profile Past
Whitefield's tomb hasn't always kept a low profile. In the Revolutionary era, dignitaries and other travelers between Boston and points north made Newburyport a requisite stop for paying homage to the man renowned as God's anointed. According to Yale historian Harry Stout, Benedict Arnold's men left Old South with a snippet of Whitefield's surplice (priestly gown) for luck. Others routinely did likewise, according to Montclair State College historian Robert Cray.
Steady traffic to see the holy man's decomposing body in an open casket continued through the 1800s. In 1829, someone scandalized the region by absconding with a bone. Twenty years later, a British gentleman agreed to return it. The 1849 procession to restore the bone to the casket drew thousands into Newburyport's streets.
Members of Old South built a brick-lined vault and moved the remains to a new, mahogany casket. By the late 1800s, they had installed a glass lid for easy viewing of the remains in a chamber illuminated by a gas-lit lamp. But by the turn of the 20th century, church members seemed to worry the skeleton was becoming something of a macabre freak show. They closed the crypt for a time, then limited admission to fee payers. Finally, in 1933, they permanently sealed the coffin by covering it with slate tiles.
Traffic to the crypt waned a bit at first in the absence of a viewable corpse. But while Old South's promotion dropped off, visits continued. Longtime members of the church say more visitors come to the tomb now than a half-century ago.
'Infused with More Energy'
When a religious figure becomes the object of resurgent interest centuries after death, it often means the values represented by the deceased have taken on fresh importance, says Thomas Tweed, a University of Texas at Austin historian and expert in American religious pilgrimage. Revived interest in Whitefield, he adds, usually points to fresh interest in revival.
Many visitors are evangelicals from New England, the American South, or the U.K. They identify with Whitefield's passion for Calvinist doctrine and for winning lost souls to Christ. They're often pastors.
"For pastors, [the Whitefield story] is their narrative," Tweed says. Grif Vautier, a Presbyterian Church (usa) pastor in Kingman, Arizona, says his visit to the crypt "infused me with more energy and drive to present the Word of God." He left inspired to undertake a new mission: to do Whitefield impersonations full-time when he retires.
"He was the Billy Graham of his age; I felt I was touching base with a fellow servant of Christ," Vautier says. "We desperately need to feel that spiritual awakening again."
Ryan Boomershine, headmaster of Jonathan Edwards Classical Academy in Nashville, has brought groups of teens to the site, where he says they figuratively "dig up historical treasures." Kevin Adams, pastor of East Baptist Church in nearby Lynn, Massachusetts, routinely accommodates evangelical friends when they visit from his native Wales and wish to pay respects at Whitefield's grave.
Some visitors wish Newburyporters would do more to attract attention to the crypt. But others are grateful that Whitefield sites aren't commercialized. Jason Wakefield, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashua, New Hampshire, has twice filled a bus with churchgoers for a tour of sites Whitefield graced on his last day. Along with the crypt, they visited the barely legible roadside marker in Exeter where Whitefield preached his last sermon. This summer, they might add a stop in Rowley, Massachusetts, at Pulpit Rock. There Whitefield once preached to thousands, but now the only marker is a homemade sign erected in 2004 by an Eagle Scout.
"You can walk around and find these things in an obscure way," Wakefield says. "You feel like you're getting a behind-the-scenes tour. [Because these sites lack tourist packaging], you're meeting the librarians and ministers who can tell you the stories that you didn't know about. It's fun."
Keeping a low profile also works to honor what evangelicals believe (and don't believe) about the dead. Visitors are quick to emphasize that they neither seek healing through Whitefield's relics nor pray to the deceased, as Catholics might at a saint's shrine. Instead, the site is a catalyst to remember Whitefield as a real person whom God used to do great things. The site's lack of fanfare makes evangelicals comfortable with the type of pilgrimage they're seeking.
"We're stepping in our forefather's footprints," says Boomershine. "In that way, yes, we are making pilgrimage. That's why we go see those things: to learn better, to remember better, to think through those things better."
Even boosters of local tourism seem willing to let the Whitefield tomb remain in relative obscurity. O'Loughlin notes one reason: Whitefield has no significance for Catholics, who compose the dominant religious group in this region. Another factor: Some local nonbelievers aren't interested in promoting Whitefield-related sites, no matter how much curiosity or business might be generated.
"Whitefield? I'm sick of him," scoffed one North Shore historical society officer, who asked not to be identified since she could perhaps get fired for demeaning local religious history. "The best news I've heard this year said America is becoming less Christian. It's about time people started thinking for themselves."
Consensus deems that Whitefield's tomb is best preserved without the hoopla that would likely alienate local skeptics and overwhelm Old South members. No matter; the Whitefield pilgrims still gain despite the fact that their hero, in death, lays uncharacteristically low.
"They are really finding their evangelical roots," says William Swatos, an Augustana College (Illinois) sociologist and co-author of a forthcoming book on pilgrimage. "Rather than necessarily flopping over into Eastern Orthodoxy [as some evangelicals have done in search of Christian tradition], they are finding common ground with their evangelical roots in Whitefield. This is a different way of recapturing the tradition."
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an independent reporter specializing in religion. His book on America's new religious marketplace comes out in spring 2010 from Basic Books.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Calvinism or George Whitefield include:
Minding a Malleable Movement | Why evangelicals need wise guides alongside our revivalists. (August 20, 200)
Young, Restless, Reformed | Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church. (September 22, 2006)
The Rise of the Evangelicals | Evangelicalism was once a tiny reform movement, one that was amazingly successful, says Mark Noll. (June 9, 2005)
Our sister site Christian History also has a special section on George Whitefield.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.