George Whitefield was always an avid reader. A few months after his conversion in spring 1735, he began to prayerfully peruse the biblical commentaries of William Burkitt and Matthew Henry.
Both these Puritan authors had died at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Henry actually died the summer before Whitefield was born. Their commentaries led to Whitefield becoming convinced of ‘free grace and the necessity of being justified in [God’s] sight by faith only’.
Following Whitefield’s ordination as deacon in the Church of England in 1736, these Reformation doctrines came to occupy a central place in his preaching arsenal. There is, for instance, an account of Whitefield’s preaching drawn up by an unknown French contemporary.
Dated August 1739, this observer states that Whitefield preaches ‘continually about inner regeneration, the new birth in Jesus Christ, the movement of the Spirit, justification by faith through grace, the life of the Spirit’.
The following year, Josiah Smith, a Congregationalist minister from Charleston, South Carolina, in The character, preaching, etc. of the Rev. George Whitefield, defended Whitefield against various attacks on him.
In the section dealing with the doctrinal content of Whitefield’s sermons, Smith lists four ‘primitive, protestant, puritanic’ doctrines that Whitefield regularly heralded in his preaching in America — original sin, ‘justification by faith alone’, the new birth and ‘inward feelings of the Spirit’.
Smith recalled the way in which Whitefield ‘earnestly contended for our justification as the free gift of God, by faith alone in the blood of Christ, an article of faith delivered to the saints of old … telling us plainly, and with the clearest distinction, that a man was justified these three ways: meritoriously by Christ, instrumentally by faith alone, declaratively by good works’.
Whitefield’s preaching on the new birth, though, was not well received by the Anglican clergy in England and churches began to be barred to him.
By and large, the bishops in the Hanoverian Church of England were, in the words of English historian J. H. Plumb, ‘first and foremost politicians’, not men of the Spirit.
‘There is a worldliness’, Plumb continues, ‘about eighteenth-century [bishops] which no amount of apologetics can conceal’. They undertook their clerical duties ‘only as political duties allowed’, and their worldliness showed in other ways. Jonathan Trelawny, Bishop of Winchester, used to ‘excuse himself for his much swearing by saying he swore as a baronet, and not as a bishop’!
Such had neither the time nor interest to promote church renewal. Of course, the decadence of church leadership was by no means absolute, but the net effect was to squash effective reform.
Moreover, the attention of far too many of the clergy under these bishops was taken up with such avocations as philosophy, biology, agriculture, chemistry, literature, law, politics, fox-hunting, drinking — anything but pastoral ministry and spiritual nurture.
There were, of course, a goodly number of Church of England ministers who did not have the resources to indulge themselves in such pursuits, since they barely eked out a living. But few of them, wealthy or poor, preached anything but dry, unaffecting moralistic sermons.
The mentalité of the first half of the eighteenth century gloried in reason, moderation and decorum. The preaching of the day dwelt largely upon themes of morality and decency and lacked ‘any element of holy excitement, of passionate pleading, of heroic challenge, of winged imagination’.
Even among many churches of the Dissenters — the children of the Puritans — things were little better. One knowledgeable observer of these churches bemoaned the fact that ‘the distinguished doctrines of the gospel — Christ crucified, the only ground of hope for fallen man; salvation through his atoning blood; sanctification by his eternal Spirit — are old-fashioned things now seldom heard in our churches’.
The Christian life was basically defined in terms of a moral life of good works. Spiritual ardour was regarded with horror as ‘enthusiasm’ or fanaticism. The ideal of the era is well summed up by an inscription on a tombstone from the period, ‘pious without enthusiasm’.
Whitefield, however, was not to be deterred. On Saturday 17 February 1739, he made the decision to take to the open air and preach to a group of colliers in Kingswood, a coal-mining district on the outskirts of Bristol.
These men with their families lived in squalor and utter degradation, squandering their lives in drink and violence. With no church nearby, they were ignorant of Christianity and its leading tenets.
It was a key turning-point in not only Whitefield’s life, but also the history of evangelicalism. The concern that has gripped evangelicals in the last 200 years to bring the gospel message directly to ordinary people has some of its most significant roots here, in Whitefield’s venturing out to preach in the open air.
From this point on, Whitefield would relish and delight in his calling as an open-air preacher. He would preach in fields and foundries; in ships, cemeteries and inns; atop horses and even coffins; from stone walls and balconies, staircases and windmills.
For instance, referring to this, in a letter dated 14 December 1768, he wrote, ‘I love the open bracing air’. And the following year he could state: ‘It is good to go into the high-ways and hedges. Field-preaching, field-preaching for ever!’
It should be noted that Whitefield never confined his witnessing about Christ to preaching occasions. He took every opportunity to share his faith. ‘God forbid’, he once remarked, ‘I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them’.
On another occasion, during his sixth preaching tour of America, he happened to stay with a wealthy, though worldly, family in Southold on Long Island. The family discovered after the evangelist had left their home that he had written with a diamond, on one of the windowpanes in the bedroom where he had slept, ‘One thing is needful’!
At that first open air service in February 1739, there were 200. Within six weeks or so, Whitefield was preaching numerous times a week, to crowds sometimes numbering in the thousands!
His description of this ministry at this time is a classic one. To visualise the scene at the Kingswood collieries, we need to picture the green countryside, the piles of coal, the squalid huts and deep semi-circle of unwashed faces, as we read his words: ‘Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend of publicans, and came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
‘The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits. Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions, which, as the event proved, happily ended in a sound and thorough conversion.
‘The change was visible to all, though numbers chose to impute it to anything, rather than the finger of God’.
Here is another of his descriptions, from this same period, when others besides the miners of Bristol were flocking to hear him preach: ‘As … I had just begun to be an extempore preacher, it often occasioned many inward conflicts. Sometimes, when twenty thousand people were before me, I had not, in my own apprehension, a word to say either to God or them.
‘But I never was totally deserted, and frequently … so assisted, that I knew by happy experience what our Lord meant by saying, “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).
‘The open firmament above me, the prospect of the adjacent fields, with the sight of thousands and thousands, some in coaches, some on horseback, and some in the trees, and at times all affected and drenched in tears together, to which sometimes was added the solemnity of the approaching evening, was almost too much for, and quite overcame me’.
Revival had come to England! And to that revival, and its confluent streams in Wales, Scotland and British North America, no man contributed more than Whitefield.
Over the 34 years between his conversion and death in 1770 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, it is calculated that he preached around 18,000 sermons. Actually, if one includes all the talks that he gave, he probably spoke about 1000 times a year during his ministry.
Moreover, many of his sermons were delivered to massive congregations that numbered about 10,000; some to audiences possibly as large as 20,000.
In addition to his preaching throughout the length and breadth of England, he regularly itinerated throughout Wales, visited Ireland twice, and journeyed 14 times to Scotland. He crossed the Atlantic 13 times, stopping once in Bermuda for 11 weeks, and preached in virtually every major town on the Atlantic seaboard.
What is so remarkable about all of this is that Whitefield lived at a time when travel to a town but 20 miles away was a significant undertaking.
In journeying to Scotland and to America he was going to what many perceived as the fringes of transatlantic British society and culture. And yet some of God’s richest blessing on his ministry was in these very regions.
For example, Harry Stout, commenting on Whitefield’s impact on America, writes: ‘So pervasive was Whitefield’s impact in America that he can justly be styled America’s first cultural hero. Before Whitefield, there was no unifying inter-colonial person or event. Indeed, before Whitefield, it is doubtful any name other than royalty was known equally from Boston to Charleston. But by 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion’.
In 1746, Whitefield told a correspondent, Joshua Gee: ‘Oh that I was a flame of pure & holy fire, & had [a] thousand lives to spend in the dear Redeemer’s service’, for the ‘sight of so many perishing souls every day affects me much, & makes me long to go if possible from pole to pole, to proclaim redeeming love’.
‘Had I a thousand souls and bodies’, he noted on another occasion, ‘they should be all itinerants for Jesus Christ’.Six years earlier he told a correspondent that because ‘Jesus hath of late remarkably appeared for me, I ought to lay myself out more and more in going about endeavouring to do good to precious and immortal souls. At present this is my settled resolution.
‘The Redeemer seems to approve of it; for the fields in the southern parts are white ready unto harvest, and many seem to have the hearing ear. All next October, God willing, I have devoted to poor North Carolina. It is pleasant hunting in the woods after the lost sheep for whom the Redeemer hath shed his precious blood.
‘May the Lord of the harvest spirit up more to go forth in his strength, to compel poor sinners to come in!’
Nothing gave Whitefield greater joy than to report to his friends that God was blessing his preaching. ‘The Word runs and is glorified’, a line from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (3:1), and Jesus’ statement to his disciples that the fields were ‘white already to harvest’ (John 4:35) were frequent refrains in his correspondence.
Writing from Pennsylvania in May 1746, Whitefield informed a correspondent in Gloucestershire, England, that Christ ‘gives me full employ on this side the water, & causes his Word to run & be glorified. …Everywhere the fields are white ready unto harvest. I am just now going to tell lost sinners that there is yet room for them in the side of Jesus’.
And only a couple of years before his death: ‘In London the Word runs and is glorified, and in Edinburgh, I trust, the prospect is promising. The fields are white ready unto harvest’.
George Whitefield has been long gone to his reward, but his God is ever the same and very much alive; and still the ‘fields are white ready unto harvest’.
Michael A. G. Haykin
The author is professor of church history at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky