The Remnant On Line History Page
THE POWER MESSAGE OF GEORGE WHITEFIELD
BY DAVID LITTLEWOOD
As the eighteenth century opened, spiritual and moral conditions in England had sunk to an all-time low. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the country plunged heedlessly into a course of godlessness, drunkenness, immorality, and gambling. The Church of England was almost totally deprived of good men since the ejection of nearly 2,000 ministers who would not submit to the notorious ‘Act of Uniformity’ of 1662. Deism – the teaching that God is merely the First Cause and man is therefore free to live as he likes – had displaced the God of the Bible.
Living conditions were appalling in the cities, with gin drinking epidemic and crime rampant, even though there were 160 offences which carried the death penalty. Public hangings were times of festivity; gambling, gaming, and alcohol were steadily destroying all vestiges of family life.
In 1738, however, this torrent of impiety was arrested by the voice of a 22 year-old clergyman, George Whitefield, declaring the gospel of Christ with such fervour and power that soon no church could hold the multitudes that flocked to hear him. The lone voice was soon joined by others – including John and Charles Wesley – and a tremendous move of God’s Spirit went through the land and spread across the Atlantic to the American colonies. A religious revival burst forth, in a few years changing the whole temper of English society and restoring much of the church to life and vitality. People high and low were infused with a new moral zeal which reformed the prisons and penal laws, abolished the slave trade and gave the first impulse to popular education.
George Whitefield was God’s primary instrument of revival in the awakening which took place on both sides of the Atlantic in the 18th century. Although others – like the Wesleys – contributed immeasurably, there is no question that Whitefield was the spearhead of the revival. In 34 years of public ministry, he preached more than 30,000 times, often to immense crowds, and made seven trips to America at a time when sea travel was immensely hazardous. John Wesley said of him: "Have we ever heard of anyone who called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners, to repentance?"
Whitefield was born in a Gloucester tavern, the Bell Inn, in 1714. His father died when he was two years old, and his mother had the misfortune to remarry to a man who squandered the family estate, leaving them quite poor.
Although knowing nothing of salvation, the young George was set on being a clergyman and entered Oxford as a ‘servitor’ (a poor student who earned his living by serving students who were well off) in 1732. Here he met John and Charles Wesley and became a member of the ‘Holy Club’ of Oxford ‘Methodists’. The members of the Holy Club were a group of earnest young men, seeking to earn their salvation by works of personal piety. As yet they knew nothing of salvation by grace, and it appears Whitefield went further than most in his search for peace with God, almost wrecking his health with the rigours of religious asceticism.
However, in 1735, in the midst of great personal searching, the light of salvation by faith alone came to Whitefield. The weight of sin lifted and his soul was flooded with unspeakable joy. Later, other members of the Holy Club, including the Wesleys, were to come into a similar experience.
Whitefield was ordained in 1736 by the Bishop of Gloucester, Dr. Benson, and preached his first sermon in St. Mary de Crypt, Gloucester, a few days later. His hearers were so struck by his eloquence that someone complained to the Bishop that Whitefield had driven fifteen people mad! The Bishop replied he "wished the madness might not be forgotten before next Sunday."
From this time on, Whitefield would preach to packed buildings and huge crowds. He had wonderful gifts of natural eloquence, attested by unbelievers such as the actor Garrick, the philosopher Hume, and the American diplomat, Benjamin Franklin. Garrick once said he would give 100 guineas to be able to say, ‘Oh’ with the eloquence of Whitefield. His voice had extraordinary carrying power, and could be clearly heard by crowds numbering 30,000 or more in the open air. For all this, his preaching was simple, totally Bible based, and easily understood by the common people. Above all, Whitefield carried an extraordinary anointing from God as an evangelist, which revealed sin and often made people cry out in repentance.
In 1738, Whitefield made his first journey to America, where he established an orphanage in Georgia. On his return, he found huge crowds gathered to hear him preach, but churches were closing their doors to his message. Whitefield now did the unthinkable – he started to preach in the open air! At Kingswood, Bristol, he preached to the miners, and soon crowds of 20,000 rough, near-heathen people were responding to the gospel of Christ. Whitefield himself movingly describes how "the first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by the tears which plentifully ran down their black cheeks as they came out of the coal pits."
It was at Bristol that Whitefield introduced the newly-converted John Wesley to field preaching. Wesley, like most of the Anglican church, was initially shocked by such ‘disorder’, but soon proved himself a worthy companion to Whitefield. Wesley’s incredible organisational abilities helped form the societies which were to become such a feature of early ‘Methodism’.
From Bristol, Whitefield moved to London, where he preached to huge crowds at Moorfields, a place of riotous entertainment, and Kennington Common, the scene of hangings and gibbetings. At such places gathered the worst characters in all London, and it took enormous courage for a field preacher to brave the hostility of the mob for the sake of the gospel. In spite of the dangers, field preaching became the pattern for Whitefield’s life’s work, travelling from place to place, often preaching twenty sermons a week.
By now a major evangelical awakening was underway, but Whitefield felt impelled to go back to America. So in 1739 he left much of the work he had begun in the hands of his friends, John and Charles Wesley, and departed again for Georgia. In America, despite much opposition from the established church, Whitefield was soon preaching to huge crowds in the open air. During his two years in the colony, his preaching sparked what has become known as ‘The Great Awakening’, with fires of revival burning wherever the young evangelist went. During this visit he met some of America’s most prominent preachers, including Gilbert Tennant and Jonathan Edwards. Edwards commented on the effect of
Whitefield’s preaching: "The congregation was extraordinarily melted by each sermon, almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of the time……..there was a great alteration in the town, both as to the revival of professors [of religion] and the awakening of others."
On his return to England in 1741, Whitefield faced the supreme trial of his life. The revival had spread wonderfully, but a sad division had arisen within its ranks over the Arminian-Calvinist controversy. There were obvious faults on both sides, but the rift was initially provoked by John Wesley’s publishing of his anti-Calvinist views. Whitefield had begged him to keep such controversies out of the public arena for fear of harming the revival. However, the controversy was now well joined, and, when Whitefield arrived back in England, he found Wesley in charge of the movement he had begun and many of his former followers had deserted him.
Deeply in debt because of his obligations to the orphanage in America, Whitefield set about recovering support and healing the rifts in the evangelical community. His friends built a huge building known as ‘The Tabernacle’ on the Moorfields, and here for the next twelve years, Whitefield would help to set the pace of revival as he pioneered a whole new direction – the training and use of lay ministers as preachers and evangelists.
From his base in London, Whitefield travelled all over England and several more times to America. In 1742, a tremendous revival shook Cambuslang in Scotland, where, as he preached to a vast crowd, Whitefield observed "for about an hour and a half there was such weeping, so many falling in deep distress, and manifesting in different ways…..The people seemed to be smitten in scores. They were carried off and brought from a field of battle."
In 1741, Whitefield married Elizabeth James, a widow ten years his senior. The marriage, although not as disastrous as John Wesley’s, does not appear to have been very successful for either partner, and was visited with sorrow when their only child, John, died in infancy.
As Whitefield got older, his health began to decline. However, he kept up his rigorous itinerary, even in his last years. Sometimes he would be so weak he had to be carried to his preaching point, where he would wait for the Holy Spirit to move upon him, and then, divinely strengthened, would again preach with great power.
He sailed for America for the last time in 1769, and in September 1770 preached his final sermon in Exeter, near Boston. On being told, "Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than preach," he lifted his heart and said, "Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work but not weary of it." He then preached a two hour sermon on "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith," in a field.
Later that evening, feeling very ill, he was about to retire when a small crowd gathered at the house requesting he preach to them. The evangelist who could never say no to sinners, preached Christ to them until the light from his candle expired. It was symbolic of his own life which had by then burnt out for God. That night Whitefield suffered a fatal attack of asthma and died.
George Whitefield was not just a great preacher but a great man, completely sold out for Christ. Although he was undoubtedly the initial leader of the Methodist movement, and the initiator of many of its innovations, he deliberately chose to hand the leadership over to Wesley rather than see the movement divided. When asked why he didn’t form a movement which bore his name, he replied, "Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified." He did not desire human recognition or adulation, but rather to put his extraordinary gifts to serve the cause of Christ.
His life is a reminder of how, in times of godlessness and sin in the nation such as we are experiencing today, God can raise up a man as a shining light and an instrument of revival. It also should reminds us, however, that revival is always an offence, particularly to the religious establishment, and that no evangelist was more shocking to many of his contemporaries than Whitefield. Those who long for God to raise up ‘another Whitefield’ should remember that such a man would always be on the radical cutting edge of modern evangelism, and would be just as offensive to our religious sensibilities as Whitefield was in his day. Even so, Lord, do it again!
A complete study of Whitefield’s life is found in a superb, two-volume biography, ‘George Whitefield’ by Arnold Dallimore (Banner of Truth). This is one of the great modern biographies.