George Whitefield (1714-1770) was the driving force, humanly speaking, of evangelical revivals on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the mid-eighteenth century. He was dramatic and controversial, passionate and bold, heroic and flawed, adored and despised in equal measure. He was a powerful evangelistic preacher, a bold but not always successful entrepreneur, and a humble Reformed theologian. It is under those headings that we will examine the work of this extraordinary servant of God, and see what we can learn for our own missionary endeavours today.
During his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, Whitefield was a member of the so-called ‘Holy Club’ along with John and Charles Wesley, and was rigorously ascetic in his religious practice. Only in 1735 did he experience the freedom of new birth, an inner conversion to Christ and the gospel of grace. ‘God was pleased,’ he wrote, ‘to remove the heavy load, to enable me to lay hold of his dear Son by a living faith.’ He discovered, thanks to a Puritan book by Henry Scougal, that religion was not about outward conformity or feelings, but about a new creation, or as Scougal put it, the life of God in the soul of man.
So in 1736, having been ordained into the Church of England at the tender age of only 21, it was this message he began to preach. At first, churches were happy to open their pulpits to the young preacher for “charity sermons”, fundraising events for mission and social action in both England and the mission field in Georgia where he hoped to serve. In return, however, he was often scathing about the lifeless, unspiritual nature of the clergy and their leadership, which did not always go down particularly well from one with so little experience.
After his return from the first of many trips to America he found, unsurprisingly, many churches were closed to him because of his outspokenness. So Whitefield took to preaching instead in the open air, and began to attract large crowds as a sensational speaker. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was bold enough to assert that Whitefield was, ‘beyond any question, the greatest English preacher who has ever lived.’ J. C. Ryle was equally dogmatic, saying that, ‘No Englishman, I believe, dead or alive, has ever equalled him.’ His contemporary, the hymn-writer and historian Augustus Toplady, reports that Whitefield preached upwards of eighteen thousand sermons in his lifetime, so he was certainly quite prolific!
He spoke to the working class in Bristol, orphans and slaves in Georgia, aristocrats at Lady Huntingdon’s house, churchgoers in their pews, and the seething masses of London on Kennington Common, sometimes up to 40,000 of them at a time. The statistics seem incredible in an age without microphones but it seems his booming voice could be heard over a mile away. It is said that apart from those who came to heckle and throw stones there was often a holy hush amongst the crowds that gathered to hear, and Whitefield was a born orator with a flair for the dramatic. The great actor David Garrick (1717-1779) is reputed to have said he would give a hundred guineas to be able to say ‘O!’ like Whitefield. Whitefield would stamp his feet for emphasis, don a black cap in imitation of a judge as he spoke of God’s death sentence upon sinners, and had a gift for vivid, descriptive narrative which had people of all kinds on the edges of their seats.
He often spoke near the end of his sermons of his heart being enlarged, of an ardent longing for people to be converted. He would use pathos, passion, and provocation to win them over to the saviour. As J.C. Ryle put it, there was a ‘holy violence’ about him which grabbed people’s attention. ‘Pardon my plainness,’ he says in one sermon, ‘If it were a fable or a tale, I would endeavour to amuse you with words but I cannot do it where souls are at stake.’
In an age when many ministers are afraid to make an appeal to their hearers to ‘close with Christ’ and make a commitment to him, preferring rather to invite them to a series of exploratory discussions, Whitefield may spur us on to be more courageous and bold. It is possible to go too far; hectoring, badgering, and manipulating people has no apostolic warrant, of course. Yet are we, like Whitefield, like Paul, like Jesus, emotionally committed to desiring conversion and spiritual growth in a way that our earnestness can be heard and felt, and people made to appreciate how serious the gospel call truly is? Can we honestly subscribe to Whitefield’s sentiment when he told his listeners, ‘I shall return home with a heavy heart, unless some of you will arise and come to my Jesus. I desire to preach him and not myself. Rest not in hearing and following me.’
This was the time known as ‘the Enlightenment.’ Rationality was king and the human mind with all its immense potential became like an idol to many as they scoffed at the traditional religion of Western Europe as old-fashioned and hopelessly backwards. Whereas in the previous two centuries the West had divided over the interpretation of religion, in the eighteenth century it began to be divided between the religious and the secular. Yet ‘however infidels may style themselves reasoners,’ says Whitefield, ‘of all men they are the most unreasonable.’ How so? ‘Whatever you may think, it is the most unreasonable thing in the world not to believe on Jesus Christ.’ Indeed, ‘A modern unbeliever is the most credulous creature living,’ he says in one sermon, because, ‘this human wisdom, this science, falsely so called... blinds the understanding and corrupts the hearts of so many modern unbelievers.’
As Ryle so gloriously puts it, ‘He was among the first to show the right way to meet the attacks of infidels and sceptics on Christianity. He saw clearly that the most powerful weapon against such men is not cold, metaphysical reasoning and dry disquisition, but preaching the whole gospel - living the whole gospel - and spreading the whole gospel.’ In this Whitefield has much to teach us as we fashion our own responses to the trendy atheism and aggressive secularism of our world. The gospel remains the power of God.
Truly evangelical preaching must combine both rational argument and exposition with an ‘affective’ and emotional aspect. Merely to ‘explain the Bible’ from a pulpit is not Christian preaching, not in Whitefield’s eyes. In our (right) enthusiasm to educate our congregations have we forgotten this? With tears he exhorted his hearers to know Christ and love him more; with white streaks appearing on their blackened, unwashed faces, the poor coalminers of Kingswood responded in kind, as did many others in the fields and barns where Whitefield preached.
We must also be cautious about Whitefield’s style. An unapplied, ossified orthodoxy will transform neither church nor world in the way the eighteenth century was moved by Whitefield and his friends. Yet he himself repented of some aspects of his early preaching. In 1748 he wrote to a friend, after revising all his published journals,
‘Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged and acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty... I have been too bitter in my zeal... I find that I frequently wrote and spoke with my own spirit, when I thought I was writing and speaking by the assistance of the Spirit of God. I have likewise too much made inward impressions my rule of acting, and too soon and too explicitly published what had been better kept in longer, or told after my death... This has humbled me much... I bless [God] for ripening my judgment a little more, for giving me to see and confess, and I hope in some degree to correct and amend, some of my mistakes.’
All who preach regularly know how important it is to correct prevailing errors in church and society in order to be faithful shepherds of God’s people. Yet we also do well to remember the humility of Whitefield as he looked back on his earlier ministry and sought to amend his words and his ways.
Whitefield’s paternal grandfather, Andrew Whitefield, had been a successful businessman in Bristol. His father too was a businessman and George inherited a certain entrepreneurial streak from these men which made him go looking for opportunities to expand his ministry.
His first step out of the established mould had been to go to Georgia, a brand new colony in America designed to take the poor and criminal elements from England and put them to good use (much as would happen in Australia some time later). ‘The world is now my parish’ he had declared six weeks after being ordained (antedating Wesley’s now more famous use of this phrase by a month). Whitefield was clearly in his element as an Anglican cavalryman, so to speak, with a self-endangering and self-sacrificing boldness which earned him the respect of many of his contemporaries.
Whitefield himself planted three churches: ‘The Tabernacle’ in East London at Moorfields, a chapel on Tottenham Court Road in the West End, and another ‘Tabernacle’ in Bristol. Add to this an orphanage in Georgia and a school at Kingswood and it is clear that Whitefield had a talent for fundraising and starting new projects, as platforms for gospel ministry.
His expertise did not, however, extend to the maintenance of ‘empire.’ In that department he was far outstripped by the imperious John Wesley. He lost the school to Wesley, and the orphanage did not develop, as he hoped, into something bigger to rival Harvard or Yale. Instead, it was saddled with a huge debt by the time that Whitefield died and was later completely destroyed.
His itinerant ministry was also criticised, especially by some Presbyterian brethren in America, for undermining the local church. As Jim Packer puts it, Whitefield ‘did in fact unwittingly encourage an individualistic piety of what we would call a parachurch type, a piety that gave its prime loyalty to transdenominational endeavours, that became impatient and restless in face of the relatively fixed forms of institutional church life, and that conceived of evangelism as typically an extra-ecclesiastical activity.’ It has taken evangelicals in several denominations many years to rediscover the local church itself as both the vehicle and end of evangelism.
One modern biographer (Harry Stout) claims that Whitefield ‘showed no interest in theology,’ but was more concerned in his preaching with feelings, imagination, and experience. This is palpable nonsense, as any casual reader with an awareness of theological issues will be able to discern by reading his sermons. Indeed Whitefield was considered by his contemporaries to be not merely an evangelist but (as Augustus Montague Toplady put it), ‘a most excellent systematic divine.’
His divinity (theology) began with an error-free Bible. ‘If we once get above our Bibles and cease making the written word of God our sole rule both as to faith and practice,’ he declared, ‘we shall soon lie open to all manner of delusion and be in great danger of making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience.’ He went on to speak of ‘the unerring rule of God’s most holy word.’
Taught by his trustworthy Bible, Whitefield became a Calvinist. Yet as he said in a private letter to John Wesley in August 1740, ‘Alas, I never read anything that Calvin wrote; my doctrines I had from Christ and his apostles; I was taught them of God.’ Again, he wrote to another friend in 1742, ‘I embrace the calvinistical scheme, not because Calvin, but Jesus Christ, I think, has taught it to me.’ Wesley’s repeatedly republished Free Grace sermon, denouncing predestination and other Reformed tenets as satanic, unscriptural, and loathsome was highly provocative but ultimately unpersuasive for Whitefield.
He was friendly with Jonathan Edwards and often recommended people read classic Reformed works by Matthew Henry, Thomas Boston, John Pearson, John Owen, and John Bunyan (whether Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists). He believed in so-called limited atonement, in predestination, and in an eternal covenant between the members of the Trinity for our salvation. ‘Would to God this point of doctrine was considered more,’ he says, ‘and people were more studious of the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son!’
It is often asserted that belief in such Reformed doctrines saps the energy out of evangelism somehow. Yet reading and studying the example of Whitefield shows just how facile and superficial it is to claim that one cannot be a Calvinist - one cannot believe in a Father who unconditionally chooses, a Son who intentionally redeems and a Spirit who irresistibly calls only the elect - and still be a passionate evangelist. To read Whitefield and to know something of what God did through him is to see how ridiculous such a claim truly is. Far from undermining evangelism, these doctrines seemed to fire all that Whitefield did.
It is important to add one final clarification and encouragement. It would be easy to be a little disheartened as we marvel at what God did in and through this great man, in view of our own seeming insignificance and the difficulties of our own day. Most of us will never be great ourselves and the next generation will not reprint our sermons or pore over our journals (or blogs!) with keen interest. We may never see the reformation and revival of our churches for which we all long.
Yet Whitefield’s story urges us not to despise the day of small things. For example, there are several clergymen in Whitefield’s family tree going back four generations, with combined ministries in the Church of England amounting to around three hundred years. Perhaps we, like these several generations of unsung, un-noticed Revds. Whitefield, are part of God’s plan to nurture godly families, sustain gospel ministry in obscure places, and prepare the ground for greater things to come. But if not, the faithful nobodies who seem to make little impact may indeed still be just as pleasing to God as the barnstormers who capture the headlines and make the most waves. As long as the gospel remains the power of God for salvation, such people are not wasting their time in the harvest field and may avail much for God and his kingdom. May we never forget this, even as we praise God for what he accomplished in the heady days of George Whitefield.
All the same, we should take heart from the words of Luke Tyerman, another of Whitefield’s biographers, who wrote,
‘Half a dozen men like Whitefield would at any time move a nation, stir its churches, and reform its morals. Whitefield’s power was not in his talents, nor even in his oratory, but in his piety. In some respects, he has no successors; but in prayer, in faith, in religious experience, in devotedness to God, he may have many. Such men are the gift of God, and are infinitely more valuable than all the gold in the Church’s coffers. Never did the world need them more than it needs them now. May Whitefield’s God raise them up, and thrust them out!
Lee Gatiss is Director of The Church Society and Adjunct Lecturer in Church History at Union School of Theology.