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250th anniversary of George Whitefield’s death

November 2020 | by Roger Fay

George Whitefield preaching (Credit: National Portrait Gallery)
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During the 250th anniversary of George Whitefield’s birth (1714), Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones described Whitefield as the ‘greatest evangelist England has ever produced’, but also as the ‘most neglected man in church history’. Were ‘the Doctor’ with us today, would he think Whitefield as neglected on the 250th anniversary of his death (30 September 1770)? Perhaps not after Arnold Dallimore’s magnificent biography, published more recently by the Banner of Truth Trust. But we cannot be complacent.

Indeed, saying anything good about Whitefield has become counter-cultural! On 2 July 2020, the University of Pennsylvania declared they would remove a statue of him from their campus, since he ‘led a successful campaign to allow slavery in Georgia’, and slavery was ‘undeniably one of [his] principal legacies’. Lamentable as his involvement was, we must take issue with this grossly one-sided perspective.

In 1714 Britain seemed anything but on the verge of a revival. Yet, within two generations, the 18th century Evangelical Awakening, led by George Whitefield and John Wesley, would reverse this.

Conversion

George was born on 16 December 1714, at the Bell Inn in Gloucester. As a result of measles when four, he had a life-long squint in his left eye. His father died when he was two and his mother remarried. As a boy, George was enrolled at Gloucester Cathedral School and then at St Mary de Crypt. He showed ability in speech-making and was a natural actor, often playing feminine parts – something he later deeply regretted.

Gloucester Cathedral cloisters SOURCE pixabay
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Because of his stepfather’s mismanagement, the Bell fell on hard times, and George left school for a while to help run the inn. However, his mother persuaded him to try for Oxford University, so he returned to school. About this time, he became serious-minded about Christianity and began reading his Greek New Testament. Aged 17, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, as a ‘servitor’ – an established way of reducing expenses which the Bell had well prepared him for.

At Oxford Whitefield joined the ‘Holy Club’. Charles Wesley lent him books, including The Life of God in the Soul of Man, by Henry Scougal. Whitefield later wrote: ‘Tho’ I had fasted, watched and prayed, and received the sacrament so long, yet I never knew what true religion was, till God sent me that excellent treatise by the hands of my never to be forgotten friend … in reading … that “true religion was an union” of the soul with God and Christ formed “within us”, a ray of divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul, and from that moment, but not till then, did I know that I must be a new creature.’

He intensified his adherence to the Holy Club’s strict religious rules. His spiritual struggle continued for four months, with an increasing sense of sin and oppression. Night and day he confessed his sins to God, imposing new severities on himself, while his health deteriorated seriously. At last God met with him: ‘O! with what joy – joy unspeakable – even joy that was full of and big with glory, was my soul filled when the weight of sin went off, and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God, and a full assurance of faith broke in upon my disconsolate soul!’

He returned to Gloucester to recuperate and pore over the Scriptures. Matthew Henry’s Commentary and other Puritan works were eagerly read. He says: ‘About this time God was pleased to enlighten my soul, and bring me into the knowledge of his free grace and the necessity of being justified in his sight by faith only. This was more extraordinary, because my friends at Oxford [the Holy Club] had rather inclined to the mystic divinity’. After nine months he returned to Oxford to gain his BA degree.

Ordination

By now, friends were urging Whitefield to seek ordination. Bishop Martin Benson was impressed with him and on Trinity Sunday 1736, aged 22, he was ordained deacon in Gloucester Cathedral. A week later he preached his first sermon at St Mary de Crypt. Complaints were made to the bishop that his sermon had driven 15 people ‘mad’, but, as Whitefield said, ‘the worthy prelate … wished that the madness might not be forgotten before next Sunday’!

For some months he ministered in London. He was offered a curacy but declined, having decided to follow the Wesleys to the colony of Georgia. Providentially, the voyage was delayed, and, while waiting for this, his preaching with its riveting message of the new birth, rapidly became a phenomenon in London.

As the weeks unfolded, he drew very large congregations. He was soon in special demand for services when collections were taken up for charities. During 1737, these raised £1,000 for English charity schools and £300 for Georgia (multiply by nearly 200 for today’s values). He took to travelling by coach rather than walking, in order, as he put it, ‘to avoid the hosannas of the multitude’.

Eventually he arrived in Georgia on 7 May 1738. This was the first of seven visits to America and lasted three months. His preaching was powerful, and he used his charitable funds to establish schools. More significantly, inspired by August Francke’s orphanage at Halle, he decided to start an orphanage in Georgia. It was to collect money for this and receive ordination as a priest that he returned to England.

In England again, he could say, ‘I perceive that God had greatly watered the seed sown by my ministry when last in London.’ By now John Wesley too had received assurance of salvation, at the Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street.

Open-air preacher

Whitefield met with the Georgia Trustees and resumed preaching in London. He was ordained priest on 14 January 1739. A fortnight earlier there had been a remarkable New Year’s night meeting at Fetter Lane, in London, when ‘about sixty brethren’ including the Wesleys and Whitefield met for a Moravian ‘love feast’.

John Wesley described the occasion: ‘About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground.’ This was surely a divine preparation for all that the Methodists were soon to experience.

But soon an outpouring of opposition arose, as a result of a trivial incident – a double-booking involving Whitefield and another man for a society lecture at St Margaret’s, Westminster. The fault wasn’t Whitefield’s, but the other was made to give way (not by Whitefield, but by Whitefield’s supporters). The upshot was an explosion of anger against the Methodists.

Pulpits in London, Bath and Bristol were suddenly closed to Whitefield without warning. Whitefield now took the bold step of preaching in the open air to the coal-miners of Kingswood, Bristol. On 17 February 1739 he stood on Hanham Mount and preached as they came out of their pits. About 200 heard him; a few days later there were 10,000. Whitefield wrote: ‘Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus that was a friend to 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.’

Whitefield, anticipating his return to America, skilfully steered John Wesley into this ministry. Wesley tells us what happened next: ‘Saturday 31 March 1739. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday: having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in church.’ A week later Wesley was preaching to fifteen hundred on Hanham Mount.

Whitefield returned to in London, where he frequently preached for two hours. His main two open-air venues were Moorfield and Kennington Common, where attendances grew to 30,000. But clerical opposition was also mounting. He was hated for his doctrine, open-air ministry, and exposure of the unregenerate. At a morning service in Newgate he sat through a violent sermon directed against him by Revd Joseph Trapp, just after Whitefield had published the first part of his Journal. Trapp called the journal blasphemous and accused him of pride or madness. During 1739 and 1740, two hundred pamphlets opposing Methodism were printed, of which 154 were aimed at Whitefield.

Great Awakening

In August 1739 Whitefield embarked on a second visit to America. Here, the First Great Awakening was in progress, through the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, the Tennent brothers, and others. Thousands across New England gathered to hear Whitefield. Everywhere, people were gripped by his preaching. Many professed conversion, including ministers. Five years later, Whitefield discovered in Boston, Massachusetts, alone 20 ministers who professed conversion from this visit. As in England, Whitefield’s insistence on the need to be born again and forthright statements against an unconverted ministry caused antagonism.

He spent time with Jonathan Edwards at Northampton, Massachusetts, and observing the happy relationship between Edwards and his wife Sarah, wrote to Elizabeth Delamotte at Blendon Hall, Kent, proposing marriage. But he felt conflicted: while drawn to Elizabeth, he feared a romantic attachment would dull his ardour for Christ. The result was a very unromantic love-letter! He said: ‘I am free from that foolish passion, which the world calls love. I write, only because I believe it is the will of God, that I should alter my state.’ Perhaps not surprisingly, Elizabeth declined.

Whitefield reached Savannah in January and two months later laid the first brick of the Bethesda Orphanage. For much of his remaining ministry, funding the orphanage would be a burden he was never entirely clear of.

That March Whitefield was drawn into controversy with Alexander Garden, Rector of St Philip’s in Charleston, South Carolina. After an initially friendly interaction, Garden vowed to put a stop to ‘the fascinating gibberish of young Geo’. He pronounced Whitefield’s suspension as a clergyman, but Whitefield carried on preaching as usual.

Whitefield’s Calvinistic yet evangelistic sermons were breathing a new vitality into the American churches. But in this doctrinal area, too, trouble was brewing. Back in England John Wesley was preaching in lurid terms against predestination. There was the added problem of Wesley’s erroneous teaching on sinless perfection. A major public breach ensued after Wesley published a highly charged sermon against predestination entitled Free Grace. This drew from Whitefield a Letter of remonstrance. Over the next 30 years their friendship was repaired, but not their doctrinal unity.

Scotland

Whitefield returned to England in 1741. A year later he could write: ‘We see greater things than ever at London. Every day poor sinners are brought home to Jesus Christ. Our people are filled with new wine: it seems to be a “Pentecost”.’

Ralph Erskine, of the Associate Presbytery in Scotland, invited Whitefield north of the border. This presbytery was a distinctly evangelical group that had been excluded from the Church of Scotland over the issue of patronage. Whitefield visited Scotland between July and October 1741 – the first of 14 visits north of the border – and over three months visited 30 towns and preached to huge open-air congregations. He preached for the Erskines, but they wanted him to preach only for Associate Presbytery churches, since they were ‘the Lord’s people’. Whitefield’s response was that ‘the devil’s people’ were in greater need!

Leaving Scotland, he rode to Monmouthshire to see Mrs Elizabeth James. Mrs James, a widow about ten years older than Whitefield, had been recommended by Hywel Harris to Whitefield as someone he should consider marrying. Having wed at Caerphilly on 14 November 1741, rather than honeymoon the two set off on a preaching tour.

Though their marital relationship began well, later unhappiness is suggested by the language of John Berridge, who rather waspishly called the wives of Wesley and Whitefield ‘a brace of ferrets’. According to Cornelius Winter, who as a young man lived with the Whitefields from 1767–69, Whitefield ‘was not happy in his wife’. Elizabeth died in 1768.

Whitefield returned to Edinburgh on 3 June 1742. This was his most significant Scottish visit. His preaching fanned the flame of revival taking place at Cambuslang, near Glasgow, under the ministry of William M’Culloch. This was, according to John Gillies, ‘such a time for the revival of religion as had never before been seen in Scotland’. Whitefield presided over a huge and blessed communion season at Cambuslang, with 30,000 present over several days. Next year he presided at the first Conference of Calvinistic Methodists, near Caerphilly.

Slavery

Taking his wife with him, Whitefield embarked on a third visit to America in August 1744. Once more he faced opposition from clergy opposed to the revival. Testimonies against him were issued by the faculties of Harvard and Yale Colleges. Whitefield admitted that some of his earlier actions and words had been immature. Alexander Garden, still burning with resentment, yet again announced Whitefield’s dismissal from the Anglican priesthood.

Whitefield put Elizabeth in charge of the Bethesda Orphanage. The state of Georgia was founded in 1733 as a non-slaving colony. Observing how slave states to the north flourished economically, Whitefield believed slaves would be of great use in Bethesda. He joined others in arguing that slavery should be permitted there too, advocating it in a letter to the Georgia trustees. They legalised slavery in 1751. This is why, today, Whitefield faces fierce criticism for his promotion of slavery.

In a letter to a friend he said: ‘As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house … And though it is true, that they are brought in a wrong way from their own country, and it is a trade not to be approved of, yet as it will be carried on whether we will or not; I should think myself highly favoured if I could purchase a good number of them, in order to make their lives comfortable, and lay a foundation for breeding up their posterity in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.’

George Whitefield’s Grave
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1748–1770

We must summarise very briefly the remaining 22 years of Whitefield’s eventful life. He returned to England in 1748, visiting Bermuda en route. On his return, the Countess of Huntingdon made him one of her domestic chaplains. Largely through her generosity, a new, brick-built Tabernacle was erected on the site of his old one at Moorfields.

His fourth and fifth visits to America were brief. On the fifth an honorary MA degree was conferred on him by New Jersey College. The eight years from May 1755 to June 1763 were nearly all spent in Britain. In November 1756 he opened a second London chapel in Tottenham Court Road. Three years later, this was the largest nonconformist church building in Britain, and probably the world.

In 1760 he experienced a further wave of personal abuse, after being burlesqued as ‘Dr Squintum’ in a play by Samuel Foote entitled The Minor. By the 1760s he was worn out by his unremitting gospel labours and all the abuse. He became ill and for a year hardly able to preach. Cornelius Winter said during the 1760s that, after preaching, as soon as Whitefield ‘was seated in his chair, nature demanded relief, and gained it by a vast discharge from the stomach, usually with a considerable quantity of blood’.

In 1765 he opened Lady Huntingdon’s chapel at Bath. Wesley, who met him in London, described him as ‘an old, old man, fairly worn out … though he has hardly seen fifty years’. In summer 1768 he made his last journey to Scotland, reporting that he was ‘in danger of being hugged to death’. He preached at the opening of the Countess of Huntingdon’s college at Trevecca and, in September 1769, embarked for America for the last time.

His final open-air sermon was in Exeter, New Hampshire. As he made ready to preach, someone said to him, ‘Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.’ To which he replied, ‘True, Sir.’ Then he prayed aloud: ‘Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.’

That night (29 September 1770) he preached to the people who had crowded the manse of Jonathan Parsons at Newburyport, Massachusetts, to hear him. During the night he was seized by what was probably a heart attack and died at 6:00am the next morning. It took six weeks for news of his death to reach London and there was great mourning. His funeral took place at Tottenham Court Road Chapel, with the sermon preached by John Wesley, as George Whitefield had requested.

Assessment

Whitefield had his faults, some of which he was acutely conscious of.

a) He had long repented of the apparent egotism that sometimes surfaced in his first Journal narrative as it recounted the astonishing blessing of God on his youthful preaching.

b) In the early days especially, he could be rash in claiming extraordinary guidance from God and was too inclined to denounce unworthy ministers.

c) Like John Wesley, Whitefield failed to grasp what made for a truly happy Christian marriage.

d) He could be over-deferential to aristocrats. He once told the Countess of Huntingdon, ‘tears trickle from my eyes, whilst I am thinking of your Ladyship’s condescending to patronise such a dead dog as I am.’

f) He never changed his mind about the legitimacy of slavery. This cannot be excused, but he was ahead of his time in urging slave-owners to treat their slaves kindly.

But Whitefield had magnificent virtues.

a) He blazed a trail in Britain for the gospel, with open air preaching to vast crowds. That his powerful ministry on both sides of the Atlantic began when he was still in his early twenties is remarkable. Thousands traced their conversion to him, and dozens of them became ministers. He was a pioneer too in the intense persecution that he suffered.

b) As a preacher Whitefield was unrivalled. In his 34 years of ministry it is estimated he preached on 18,000 occasions to about 10 million people. He preached between 40 and 60 hours a week. His squint lent him a penetrating gaze. His clear, musical voice was heard over long distances. His oratorical skills were enhanced by dramatic gestures and vivid part-playing. He was, to quote one biographer, ‘the eighteenth century’s most sensational preacher in Great Britain and America’.

c) More than anything, George Whitefield was moved with compassion for the lost. Like John Wesley, he claimed the whole world as his parish. Immense too was his concern for the poor, and especially the orphans at Bethesda.

d) He was a godly Christian. He was patient and humble under persecution and longed for unity with all evangelicals. His love was especially displayed towards his intransigent brother in Christ, John Wesley. How grace triumphed in this is shown by the glowing tribute John Wesley gave Whitefield in his funeral sermon: ‘Have we read or heard of any person, 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 in the hand of God, of bringing so many sinners from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God?’

Lessons

While our days are very different from Whitefield’s, the sinfulness of the human heart and God’s grace in Christ have not changed. Whitefield’s life teaches us that:

a) A heaven-sent revival is what our nation needs more than anything else. We are weak and sinful, but to God belongs ‘the kingdom, the power, and the glory’.

b) God can bless the use of sound Christian literature in very bad times. Henry Scougal’s and Matthew Henry’s writings had a profound impact on Whitefield and his ministry.

c) The devil often attacks gospel work through nominal churches and unconverted ministers. Let us pray for such people and not be too surprised when they persecute.

d) God’s greatest method of saving lost sinners is through ‘the foolishness of preaching’. Pray that the Lord will today raise up Holy Spirit-anointed preachers of his Word.

Further reading

Clark, Stephen; ‘Holy worldliness?’, Westminster Conference 2014: Authentic Calvinism?

Dallimore, Arnold; George Whitefield, Banner of Truth; Vol. 1, 1970; Vol. 2, 1980.

Fawcett, Arthur; The Cambuslang Revival, Banner of Truth, 1971.

Gordon, Alexander; ‘George Whitefield’, Dictionary of National Biography, 18851900.

Haykin, Michael, ‘“Blessed Whitefield”: George Whitefield’s impact upon the transatlantic Baptist community’, The Banner of Truth, January 2015.

Lloyd-Jones, D. M.; ‘John Calvin and George Whitefield’, The Puritans – their Origins and Successors, Banner of Truth, 1987.

Murray, Iain H.; Heroes, Banner of Truth, 2009.

Murray, John J.; ‘The inspiring ministry of George Whitefield’, The Banner of Truth, January 1989.

Ryle, J. C.; ‘George Whitefield and his ministry’, Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century, Banner of Truth, 1978.

Tracy, Joseph; The Great Awakening, Banner of Truth, 2019.

Waddell, S. Blair; ‘Cornelius Winter: a tempered assessment of George Whitefield’, Shepherds After My Own Heart, Ed. S. Blair Waddell & Robert Strivens, EP Books, 2016.

George Whitefield’s Journals, Banner of Truth, 1960.

Roger Fay is elder of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon, North Yorkshire. Chairman of the board of directors and former editor of ET.