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George Whitefield and the Calvinistic Baptists

November 2014 | by Michael Haykin

Not surprisingly, many Calvinistic Baptists had deep reservations about the Evangelical Revival, since it was uniformly led by Anglicans.

A few of these Anglican preachers were Arminian in theology, like the Wesley brothers, and thus definitely beyond the pale for the Calvinistic Baptists. However, Whitefield was a Calvinist. Yet, he was still an Anglican.

In addition, the fervency of his evangelism and his passionate urging of the lost to embrace Christ prompted a number of Baptist critics — whose heightened Calvinism caused them to question the wisdom of Whitefield’s evangelistic strategies — to complain of what they termed his ‘Arminian accent’!

Dilemma

A good number of eighteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists were thus adamant in their refusal to regard the Revival as a genuine work of God. From their perspective, it simply did not issue in ‘true gospel churches’.

These Baptists seem to have assumed that a revival could only be considered genuine if it preserved and promoted the proper form of the local church. For many Calvinistic Baptists of the first six or seven decades of the eighteenth century, outward form and inward revival went hand in hand.

Their chief preoccupation was the preservation of what they considered the proper New Testament form of church. In their minds, when God brought revival, it would have to issue in true gospel churches like theirs.

The dilemma facing these Baptists was not an easy one. They rightly felt constrained to emphasise the New Testament idea of the local church as a congregation of visible saints, and assert that the concept of a state church is antithetical to the whole tenor of the new covenant.

Moreover, these were truths for which their forebears in the previous century had suffered much. To abandon them would have been unthinkable. But what then was to be made of the ministry of men like Whitefield?

Solutions

One possible solution would have been for the eighteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists to have viewed the ministry of Whitefield and other Anglican Calvinists in the way that their seventeenth-century forebears viewed the labours of the sixteenth-century Reformers.

The latter did not reject the ministry of the Reformers because they were not Baptists. Rather, they recognised that the Reformers had been greatly used by God to bring the church out of the theological ignorance of the late Middle Ages. Yet, though the Reformers did well, they failed to apply all that the Scriptures taught.

As Benjamin Keach said with regard to the Particular Baptist community’s recovery of key New Testament principles in the wake of the Reformation: ‘Must we content ourselves with the light which the church had in respect of this and other gospel truths at the beginning of the Reformation — since God hath brought forth greater (to the praise of his own rich grace) in our days?’

Similarly, it could have been recognised that God was indeed at work in Whitefield’s remarkable ministry and that of the other leaders of the Revival, but that there were certain areas — in particular, those dealing with the church and its nature — where they needed greater light.

Thankfully, there were some noteworthy exceptions, men and women who were prepared to risk a certain degree of ostracism from their own Baptist community to fellowship with Whitefield.

In the Baptist cause in Leominster, for instance, there was John Oulton, who appears to have got to know

Whitefield in April 1742, when he invited the Anglican evangelist to preach to his Baptist congregation.

Although Whitefield was unable to accept this particular invitation, a friendship was formed and in 1743 Whitefield was able to preach twice at Oulton’s request.

Fellowship

In London, Andrew Gifford had an extremely fruitful ministry as pastor of Eagle Street Baptist Church, from 1735 till his death. A number of years prior to his death in 1780, some 600 people had been converted under his preaching and eleven men sent into the pastorate from the congregation.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of Whitefield’s ministry and preached for him at Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Road Tabernacle.

Gifford’s love of Whitefield’s preaching led him to revise Eighteen sermons preached by the late Rev. George Whitefield for publication in 1771, the year after Whitefield’s death.

The volume was dedicated to Selina Hastings and Gifford expressed the hope that the sermons would continue to instruct, despite the death of the one who had preached them, even as the sun, ‘the glorious luminary of the heavens … seems visible, even after it is set, by the refraction of its resplendent rays’.

There was also an immense number of converts to the Particular Baptist churches from the 1740s onwards, who received their first real understanding of the gospel through the voice of Whitefield.

For example, William Nash Clarke, pastor of Unicorn Yard Baptist Church in London in the 1770s and early 1780s, had been converted under Whitefield’s ministry when he was but ten years of age.

Lasting convictions

Mary Andrews, a prominent member of Olney Baptist Church, owed her first lasting convictions of the Christian faith to a sermon she heard Whitefield preach when she was but three or four years of age.

The conversion of Samuel Medley, pastor of Byrom Street Baptist Church in Liverpool, in 1760, was owing both to the ministry of Whitefield and Andrew Gifford. John Fawcett Sr was 15 when he first heard Whitefield preach in Yorkshire, on John 3:14, in 1755.

Fawcett had gone to church regularly, but he had never heard preaching like this before. By this one sermon alone he was given a clear view of ‘God reconciled’ to sinners ‘through the atonement of a suffering Saviour’. Fawcett’s ‘unbelieving fears’ were dispelled and he was filled with ‘joy unspeakable, and full of glory’.

For the rest of his life Fawcett kept a portrait of Whitefield in his study and the very mention of his name would prompt ‘grateful remembrance’.

In 1767, when John Ryland Sr was pastoring in Northampton, he met with Whitefield for fellowship during one of the latter’s last preaching tours in England. And the following year, he took his son, John Ryland Jr, later a close friend of Carey, to hear Whitefield preach one of his final sermons in London.

Michael A. G. Haykin

This extract is taken from the author’s Bitesize Biography of George Whitefield, to be published this month by Evangelical Press (£5.99; ISBN 978178397-0650). Dr Haykin is professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky