When British Christians seem to be making little progress against the destructive tendencies of humanism, and false religions of various sorts appear to be capturing popular attention, why should we spend time considering a preacher born 300 years ago?
Perhaps obsession with contemporary issues swamps our attention and we forget our need to study God’s work on a broader canvas? The life and experience of George Whitefield remind us that the story of Christianity is not necessarily one of continuous retreat.
George Whitefield was born in the city of Gloucester in December 1714. His father, who kept the Bell Inn, died when George was two years old, but his widowed mother, determined that George should receive a good education, sent him to the Crypt Grammar School, where a good classical education gave him a facility in reading the Greek New Testament by the time he was 16 years old.
It also promoted an outstanding gift for public speaking. Both George and his mother dreamed of his progress to Oxford. These hopes were dashed by a family crisis which impoverished his mother and ended her business at the Bell.
George left school and began to work for his elder brother, now landlord at the Bell. This change of direction was a bitter disappointment, until Mrs Whitefield learned that a poor boy could to go to Oxford if he were prepared to accept the lowly position of college servitor, where he would receive a free education in return for menial tasks such as cleaning and waiting at table.
The opportunity was seized, and he went back to school to catch up with his studies, until he could be admitted to Pembroke College Oxford in 1732.
It was at Oxford that George was converted. After a deep conviction of sin which taught him the inadequacy of formal Christianity, he turned to the Scriptures and, blessed with some helpful Puritan writings, came to faith in the Lord Jesus, leading to glorious assurance of the love of God that sustained him through a long and challenging ministry. Ordination in Gloucester cathedral followed on 27 June 1736.
His public ministry began exactly one week later in the church of St Mary de Crypt, Gloucester, where he faced a crowded congregation that included his mother, his former school master and friends, as well as civic dignitaries.
Somewhat nervously, he announced a text from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: ‘Two are better than one’. The apparently innocuous theme of Christian fellowship became controversial when he insisted that fellowship was possible only for those who have experienced the new birth.
Warming to his theme, he wrote: ‘As I proceeded, the fire kindled … I trust I was able to speak with some degree of gospel authority. Some few mocked, but most for the present seemed struck and I have heard since that a complaint was made to the bishop that I drove 15 people mad the first sermon’.
Unusual authority marked that first sermon, leading to invitations to preach in Bristol and London, where increasingly large congregations were confronted with gospel preaching of a type that was almost forgotten. His early sermons were marked by his insistence to rich and poor, religious and irreligious alike that, ‘Ye must be born again’.
Whitefield was not to be exclusively a city preacher. Invited to care for a village church at Dummer in Hampshire in the absence of the minister, he learned how to gain the attention of a rural congregation. This experience stood him in good stead when he received another unexpected opportunity to minister, in the Cotswold village of Stonehouse, during the absence of the vicar. Again crowds were drawn.
Neither church nor house could contain the people that came. ‘I found uncommon manifestations granted me from above. Early in the morning, at noonday, evening and midnight, nay all the day long, did the blessed Jesus visit and refresh my heart…
‘Sometimes as I was walking, my soul would make such sallies, as though it would go out of my body. At other times I would be so overpowered with a sense of God’s infinite majesty, that I would be constrained to throw myself on the ground, and offer my soul as a blank in his hands to write on it what he pleased’.
By this time, he had responded to an appeal from John Wesley to go as a missionary to the new colony of Georgia in America. Before he could sail, he returned to London, where even greater crowds attended his preaching, but the opposition from the clergy grew as they understood his doctrine.
Early in 1738, he crossed the Atlantic for the first time and stayed in Georgia until urgent business brought him home in the following year. A perilous voyage through autumn gales in 1738 brought him back via Ireland, where he preached for the first time.
Of the voyage he noted: ‘The voyage has been greatly for my good; for I have had a glorious opportunity of searching the Scriptures, composing discourses, writing letters and communing with my own heart. We have been on board for just nine weeks and three days — a long and perilous, but profitable voyage to my soul; for I hope it has taught me in some measure to hardships as becometh a minister of Christ’.
In England, Whitefield discovered that the opposition had intensified, but he had the joy of renewed fellowship with John and Charles Wesley, both of whom had been converted and were now preaching the gospel.
Theological differences caused by the Wesley brothers’ Arminianism were not yet prominent. Whitefield was however discovering that his insistence on the new birth was causing offence to many clergymen who believed that this was conferred by baptism and so they denied him their churches.
However, he was now becoming increasingly concerned about the needs of those who never entered a place of worship. So it was that, in February 1737, he made the monumental decision to take the gospel to such people.
With two friends he went to Hanham Mount, centre of a rough coal mining area east of Bristol. There he preached to the miners as they were leaving the pits. He estimated that about 200 stayed to listen to him. A few days later, he addressed a crowd of about 2000 in the same place.
In his own words: ‘Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend of publicans and sinners, and who 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 flowed down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits. Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions, which, the event proved happily, ended in a sound and thorough conversion. The change was visible to all, although numbers chose to impute it to anything rather than the finger of God’.
The sight of a clergyman preaching out of doors shocked many. Even John Wesley had grave doubts until persuaded by Whitefield to join him. In Wesley’s own words: ‘I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation’. For both men this began a ministry that they pursued until the end of their days.
Doctrines of grace
Sadly the co-operation was broken when the Wesleys began to promote an aggressive Arminianism. Whitefield remained a firm contender for the doctrines of grace. These events and details of his remarkable life can be traced in the excellent biography of George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore (pub. Banner of Truth Trust), who has done much to rescue the history of Whitefield from obscurity.
Whitefield’s significance was also emphasised by the Methodist historian, Arthur Skevington Wood, who wrote: ‘A scrutiny of the eighteenth century records will reveal that in the eighteenth century itself the name of Whitefield figures most prominently of all.
‘In the letters of Horace Walpole, for example, Wesley is hardly mentioned, whereas Whitefield appears repeatedly. This may of course be explained to some extent by the fact that Whitefield was found more frequently than Wesley in fashionable circles and that his was the more spectacular ministry and more likely to catch the eye of publicity.
‘Whatever may be the ulterior reason for the estimate, it is unquestionable that in the popular view Whitefield was regarded as the primate of the new move-ment and even as the founder of Methodism’.
In England certainly no one attracted greater crowds. He was frequently in Wales, where he was chosen as the first Moderator of the Calvinistic Methodist Association, in 1743 — a remarkable honour for an Englishman!
He paid 15 visits to Scotland. where he was involved in the events of the Cambuslang Revival, a remarkable story in itself. He visited North America seven times, a record for an eighteenth-century traveller.
Skevington Wood quoted the verdict of F. W. Boreham that Whitefield was ‘the first man who treated Great Britain and America as if they both belonged to him. He passed from one to the other as if they were a pair of rural villages, and he was the minister in charge of the parish. George Whitefield took a couple of continents under his wing; and the wing proved capacious enough for the task’.
It was in North America that his action-packed life finally ended in September 1770. It has been computed that in his 33 years as a preacher, eight of these were spent in America and 25 in the British Isles, which in the words of a fellow-Gloucestershire man, Dr J. I. Packer, ‘were his stamping-ground, and he crossed them again and again as a messenger of the gospel of Christ’.
John Wesley bore testimony to his memory in a memorial sermon in London: ‘Have we read or heard of any person since the apostles, who testified the gospel of the grace of God, through so widely extended a space, who called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners to repentance? Above all, have we read or heard of any, who has been a blessed instrument of bringing so many sinners from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God?’
It was George Whitefield who asked John Wesley to preach his memorial sermon. This illustrates the fact that Whitefield was able to retain his strong convictions without alienating brothers in Christ.
Treated badly by the Church of England leadership, he nevertheless remained a loyal Anglican, because he believed the 39 Articles to be true to Scripture. He managed to do this even at the cost of breaking canon law (preaching without permission in the parishes of other clergymen).
His catholic spirit enabled him to extend fellowship to Dissenters, a despised section of English society since the tragic events of the mid-seventeenth century. Many of these in return learned from Whitefield that active evangelism can spring from Calvinist convictions.
Whitefield, while faithful to his own convictions, sought to be the helper of all. His legacy was surely the strong evangelicalism that proved so powerful in public life in the early years of the next century.
The impact of this remarkable ministry was felt by Anglicans and Dissenters. For the latter, it provided an example and an inspiration for the remarkable expansion of Nonconformity after Whitefield’s death.
Robert W. Oliver
The author was formerly pastor of Old Baptist Church in Bradford-on-Avon and a lecturer in church history at London Theological Seminary.