By Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird
–previously published in the April 2019 Light Magazine
When is the last time that you heard of a pastor being hoisted, like George Whitefield, through a window into your crowded church building, because there was no other way in?[i] The Rev. George Whitefield took part in a Great Awakening that is still impacting many congregations today.[ii] Charles Spurgeon called Whitefield “all life, fire, wing, force.”[iii]
After being ordained at age 21, Whitefield was accused of driving fifteen people mad in his first sermon. People spontaneously began to moan and weep as they fell under the conviction of sin.[iv] His Gloucester Bishop Benson ironically said that he wished that the madness might not be forgotten before next Sunday.[v] The so-called madness was actually people waking up to the life-changing love of Christ. In his 34 years of ordained ministry, Whitefield preached more than 18,000 sermons to around ten million people.[vi] Dr. Thomas S Kidd holds that “perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever known.”[vii] Because of his speaking gift, Whitefield’s nickname was the Seraph (type of angel).[viii] He was once described by UK Prime Minister Lloyd George as the greatest popular orator ever produced by England.[ix] David Hume, a famous agnostic commented that “Mr Whitfield is the most ingenious preacher I ever heard. It is worth going twenty miles to hear him.”[x] The famous English actor David Garrick held that Whitefield could “make men weep and tremble by his varied utterances of the word ‘Mesopotamia’.”[xi] (the ancient land that Abraham came from)
While in Oxford, he became close friends with John and Charles Wesley who helped him in the spiritual disciplines. Constant fasting, visiting prisons and hospitals, and conflict with students led him to the edge of a physical breakdown.[xii] The Methodism of Oxford reached but a handful of people (8 or 9 at once) and knew no assurance of salvation. It died away with the departure of the Wesleys in 1735.[xiii] After reading the book The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Whitefield became convinced that good works would not earn him heaven: “God showed me that I must be born again….”[xiv] Whitefield described his new birth by saying: “The Day Star arose in my heart.”[xv] Experiencing the new birth gave him a fresh love of the beauty of spring: “At other times, I would be so overpowered with a sense of God’s Infinite Majesty that I would be compelled to throw myself on the ground and offer my soul as a blank in his hands, to write on it what he pleased.”[xvi] The new birth became the heart of an unprecedented evangelical revival.
Whitefield accepted the Wesley’s invitation to join them as missionaries in Savannah, Georgia.[xvii] He waited however for months to sail to Georgia with his patron General Oglethorpe. During this delay in England, tens of thousands came to hear him preach about the new birth. Many couldn’t make it into the overcrowded churches where Whitefield preached around nine times a week: “…those who did come were so deeply affected that they were like persons…mourning for a first-born child.”[xviii]
After passionately preaching outside to 10,000 miners in Kingswood near Bristol, he wrote: “The fire is kindled in the country; and, I know, all the devils in hell shall not be able to quench it.”[xix] Whitefield became the Billy Graham of the 17th century, preaching that all people need to be born again.[xx] He was very countercultural, doing the unthinkable thing of preaching in fields, without notes, to tens of thousands. In 17th century England, sermons were only supposed to be given inside church buildings. In 17th England, because of the fear of revolution, the worst thing you could be accused of was enthusiasm. Whitefield sought to reach the heart as well as the head, saying that many people “were unaffected by an unfelt, unknown Christ.”[xxi] Not everyone was happy about this revival. The chancellor of the Bristol diocese, accusing him of false doctrine, prohibited Whitefield from preaching in public or private meetings, threatening him with excommunication if he continued his unlicensed preaching in Bristol.[xxii] In Exeter, rioters violently entered Whitfield’s Methodist meeting-house in Exeter. They swore at the minister and the men present, kicking and beating them. Then the stripped the women naked, dragged them through a sewer, and attempted to rape one of them up in the gallery. Whitefield took the perpetrators to court, winning his case, and then forgiving them. This resulted in a significant drop in persecution.[xxiii]
On December 30th, 1737, he boarded the ship Whitaker for Georgia, praying: “God give me a deep humility, a well-guided zeal, a burning love, and a single eye, and let men or the devils do their worst.”[xxiv] On his way to Savannah, Whitefield had such a strong voice that when the two other ships travelling with them drew close, he was simultaneously able to preach to all the people on the three ships.[xxv] At a time when travel was precarious, Whitefield had seven visits to America, fifteen to Scotland, and two to Ireland.[xxvi] Whitefield was the best-known person to have travelled extensively in the thirteen American colonies.[xxvii] By 1740, he had become the most famous man in both America and Britain, at least the most famous aside from King George II.[xxviii] Reminiscent of the Beatles, he was the first ‘British sensation.’[xxix]
Whitefield was radically generous even to a fault. Sir James Stephen, author of Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography (1893) commented that “If ever philanthropy burned in the human heart with pure and intense flame, embracing the whole family of man in the spirit of universal charity, it was in the heart of George Whitefield.”[xxx]
After a fever had killed off many of the Savanah parents, Whitefield dedicated his life to caring for the orphans.[xxxi] Wherever revival meetings took place, Whitefield received offerings, including from Benjamin Franklin, to help with the most famous orphanage in North America, Bethesda in Savannah, Georgia. After Benjamin Franklin scientifically established that Whitefield was able to preach to 30,000 without a microphone, he became his publisher, and a close friend and ally.[xxxii] Between 1740 and 1742, Franklin printed forty-three books and pamphlets dealing with Whitefield and the evangelical movement.[xxxiii] He even built Whitefield a building for preaching that became the University of Pennsylvania. That is why there are statues of both Franklin and Whitefield as co-founders of the University of Pennsylvania.[xxxiv] Benjamin Franklin commented: “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world was growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families in every street.”[xxxv]
The Bishop’s Commissary (superintendent), Alexander Garden, in Charleston was offended by Whitefield’s article challenging slave owners over mistreatment of slaves, and by Whitefield’s preaching both in other parish areas and among other denominations. Garden declared that the slave owners were going to sue Whitefield for libel. During his sermon, Garden attacked Whitefield, and refused him communion.[xxxvi] Then he dragged Whitefield into an ecclesiastical court, trying to defrock him.[xxxvii] Jonathan Edwards of Northhampton, a co-leader in the Great Awakening, wrote: “Whitefield was reproached in the most scurrilous and scandalous manner…I question whether history affords any instance paralleled with this, as so much pains taken in writing to blacken a man’s character, and render him odious.”[xxxviii] Professor Edward Wigglesworth of Harvard, reminiscent of modern-day cessationists,u criticized Whitefield in 1754 for pretending to be an evangelist, saying that evangelists had gone out of existence, when the Bible was completed.[xxxix]
Everyone had an opinion about Whitefield. There was even a theatre production The Minor by Samuel Foote, mocking him as Dr. Squintum, because of his cross-eyes caused by childhood measles.[xl] Kidd commented that “Whitefield has the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first people in world history whose personal life became a topic of rampant conjecture in the mass media.”[xli] In reaching out to First Nations people, he debunked the myth that European = Christian, saying: “thousands of white people believe only in their heads, and are therefore no more Christians than those who have never heard of Jesus Christ at all.”[xlii] Whitefield did not let criticism stop him, saying “The more I am opposed, the more joy I feel.”[xliii]
On a Sunday morning in Philadelphia, Whitefield preached to perhaps 15,000 people. Then, he attended an Anglican Communion service where Commissary Cummings publicly denounced him and his followers. Whitefield followed this right after with preaching a farewell sermon to an outdoor assembly of 20,000.[xliv] The relentless pace was brutal to Whitefield’s health. At another time in Boston, “Whitfield was running himself ragged and becoming extremely ill, violently vomiting between sermons. He was feverish, dehydrated, and sweating profusely.”[xlv] Dan Nelson holds that “his overwhelming pace led him to an early grave.”[xlvi] Whitefield had wanted to preach in Canada, but was prevented by his health issues.[xlvii]
During his four years away from England, the Gentleman’s Magazine and other English newspapers listed George Whitefield as having died.[xlviii] He changed so many lives that even the English upper classes began to give Whitefield a hearing. Lord Bolingbroke, after hearing Whitefield at Lady Huntington’s place, wrote: “Mr Whitefield is the most extraordinary man of our times. He has the most commanding eloquence I ever heard in any person…”[xlix] One Anglican minister claimed that Whitefield had set England on fire with the devil’s flames. Whitefield countered. “It is not a fire of the Devil’s kindling, but a holy fire that has proceeded from the Holy and blessed Spirit. Oh, that such a fire may not only be kindled, but blow up into a flame all England, and all the world over!”[l]
Dying at 55, Whitefield had been used to set many people on fire with love for Christ. He memorably prayed: “O that I could do more for Him! O that I was a flame of pure and holy fire, and had a thousand lives to spend in the dear Redeemer’s Service.”[li] Whitefield was passionate about awakening to the new birth. We in Canada also need to wake up to the fire of Christ. We too need to recapture the priority of the new birth. Have you, like Whitefield, awoken yet to the new birth?
Co-authors of For Better, For Worse: discovering the keys to a lasting relationship
[i] Kidd, p. 249.
[ii] Dan Nelson, A Burning and Shining Light: The Testimony and Witness of George Whitefield (LifeSong Publishers, Somis, CA, 2017), p. 255 “The origin of evangelical Christianity is traced back to the influence of the awakening movements.”; p. 256 “Many of today’s Christians, especially those who think of themselves as ‘born again’, are his theological heirs.” (Cashin, Preface I)
[iii]Nelson, p. 174
[iv]Nelson, p. 41.
[v] George Whitefield, The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield (Edinburgh and London: Dilly, 1771), pp. 18,19.
[vi] Nelson, p. 42.
[vii] Kidd, p. 263.
[viii] Arnold A Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant for the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century (Crossway Books, Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 1990), p. 15.; Nelson, p. 46.
[ix] Kidd, p. 259.
[x] Dallimore, p. 160.
[xi] Thomas S Kidd, George Whitfield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2014), p. 15.
[xii] Nelson, p. 31.
[xiii] Dallimore, p. 29.
[xiv] Dallimore, George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant for the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century, P. 16.
[xv] Kidd, p. 21.
[xvi] Dallimore, p. 27.
[xvii] Dallimore, p.26 Because Charles Wesley only lasted seven months at Savannah, Georgia, his brother John invited George Whitefield to leave Oxford and join him in Georgia.
[xviii] Whitefield, Life & Times, p. 114; Dallimore, p. 29.
[xix] Kidd, p. 46.
[xx] Nelson, p. 262 “Both Billy Sunday and Billy Graham followed in Whitefield’s footsteps when they made use of tents, athletic stadiums, and other large venues for their meetings.”
[xxi] Nelson, p. 48.
[xxii] Kidd, p. 68.; Nelson, p. 65.
[xxiii] Dallimore, p. 136.
[xxiv] Dallimore, p. 30.
[xxv] Dallimore, p. 36.
[xxvi] Dallimore, p. 66.
[xxvii] Kidd, p. 255.
[xxviii] Kidd, p. 1-2.
[xxix] Kidd, p. 260.est
[xxx] Dallimore, p. 8.
[xxxi] Nelson, 49, 80. The orphanage was Charles Wesley’s idea.
[xxxii] Dallimore, p. 77.
[xxxiii] Kidd, p. 85.
[xxxiv] Rick Kennedy, “Did George Whitefield Serve Two Masters?”, February 22nd 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/february-web-only/george-whitefield-peter-choi-evangelist-god-empire.html
“On the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, there sits a statue of one of the school’s co-founders: George Whitefield, the 18th-century British evangelist and hero of the Great Awakening. Underneath it, one finds a quote from Benjamin Franklin, the school’s other co-founder (and Whitefield’s longtime friend): “I knew him intimately upwards of thirty years. His integrity, disinterestedness and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work I have never seen equaled and shall never see equaled.” (accessed March 9th 2019)
[xxxv] Dallimore, p. 76.
[xxxvi] Kidd, p. 118, Regarding Commissary Garden, Whitefield commented :”Had an infernal spirit been sent to draw my picture, I think it scarcely possible that he could have painted me in more horrid colours.” (Whitfield, Journal, Georgia to Falmouth, 4-7).
[xxxvii] Dallimore, p. 83.
[xxxviii] Kidd, p. 185.
[xxxix] Kidd, p. 223.
[xl]Nelson, p. 18, 204, “At four years of age, he had a bout with the measles, leaving him with one eye dark blue and causing a squint.”
[xli] Kidd, p.18.
[xlii] Kidd, p. 116.
[xliii] Kidd, p. 117.
[xliv] Kidd, p. 115.
[xlv] Kidd, p. 125.
[xlvi]Nelson, p. 14.
[xlvii] Nelson, p. 210.
[xlviii] Dallimore, P. 152.
[xlix] Dallimore, p.159, Lord Bolingbroke, after hearing Whitefield at Lady Huntington’s place, wrote: “…his abilities are very considerable —his zeal unquenchable and his piety and excellence genuine…”
[l] Kidd, p. 66, 68.
[li] Dallimore, p. 149.