Jul 4, 2010 1771
George Whitefield (1714-1770)
This man, who preached with only brief intermissions in Britain and America for the most of forty years, was perhaps the greatest preacher of all time. So say many who have studied his life and work.
‘As an orator there has scarcely ever been his equal. His voice was not only powerful, but beautifully modulated and under perfect control … It had a most moving and melting quality that none could resist and , which was the envy of the famous actor, David Garrick. … [and] could pull out all the stops of the entire gamut of the human emotions.’ (Arnold A Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth Century Revival, Vol 1, 1970, p ix)
Whitefield was possibly the most loving and lovable proclaimer of grace ever known. He pioneered open-air preaching. ‘From the age of twenty-two till his death, he was the foremost figure of the immense religious movement that held the attention of multitudes on both sides of the Atlantic’ (Dallimore). But he wore himself out by the age of fifty-five after setting afoot influences which would never end. Said Cowper of him:
‘He followed Paul—his zeal a kindred flame, his apostolic charity the same.’
Between 1730 and 1740 the life of England was foul with moral corruption and crippled by spiritual decay” (Dallimore), yet it was at such a time that God called forth the Wesley brothers and Whitefield to stir and cleanse the nation. Historian J. R. Green has written of this time:
‘A religious revival burst forth … which changed in a few years the whole temper of English society. The Church was restored to life and activity. Religion carried to the hearts of the people a fresh spirit of moral zeal, while it purified our literature and our manners. A new philanthropy reformed our prisons, infused clemency and wisdom into our penal laws, abolished the slave trade, and gave the first impulse to popular education’ (Cited by Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, p. 32).
Whitefield’s ancestry was clerical, educated and cultured, but he himself spent his early years serving in the best-known hostelry in Gloucester as a tapster, cleaning and mopping. His father died at the age of thirty-five, and his mother’s later marriage was a failure. The new husband turned out to be a drunkard, and after six years the couple separated. These were the most formative years of the life of George. No wonder he fell into the typical vices of youth, but these years were interspersed with devotion to religion. At times he played ‘church’ with himself the preacher. While he stole money from his mother, some of it purchased books of piety, and some of it he gave to the poor. He told his sister that he was convinced God had a special work for him to do.
At St. Mary’s school he became acquainted with ‘a set of debauched, abandoned, atheistical youths and was soon in a fairway of being as infamous as the worst of them.’ So says his Journal. But then we read:
‘Oh, stupendous love! God even here stopped me, when running on in a full career to hell! For, just as I was upon the brink of ruin, he gave me a distaste of their principles and practices. … I began now to be more and more watchful over my thoughts, words and actions.’ From his seventeenth year to his dying day, Whitefield lived among embittered enemies and jealous friends, without a stain on his reputation (pp. 57-58).
At eighteen he went to Oxford as a servitor, one who acted as lackey for several well-to-do students. Here Charles Wesley noted his serious demeanour and invited him to breakfast. This was the beginning of a friendship which would have tremendous consequences for Whitefield and the world. He joined the Holy Club and was among the foremost in practices of religion and philanthropy.
But God in his providence put in his way a book by Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man. It pointed out that true religion was a union of the soul with God and a consequent transformed nature. Whitefield wrote: ‘I knew I must be born again, or be damned.’
Then began a series of austerities that almost killed him. He prayed for hours on the ground, or upon his knees, beneath the great trees of the University, and fasted recurringly. Giving up the eating of fruit, he gave the money to the poor. He chose apparel that was patched and shoes that were scuffed. Soon he was so weak he could hardly ascend the stairs to his room and was forced to tell his kind tutor of his condition. A physician was sent for and he was sentenced to bed-rest for seven weeks. During that time he did not cease to pray for the new birth he now believed to be essential.
God put it into his mind that when Jesus prayed, ‘I thirst,’ his sufferings were complete. George cried out again and again, ‘I thirst,’ and God came to him in power. He knew that he was now a ‘new creation,’ and rejoicing began which never ceased until his death nearly forty years later. Whenever in later years he returned to Oxford, he always sought out the spot where he knew God had come to him in mercy.
Returning to Gloucester in order to save his health, he now spent hours daily on his knees with his English Bible, his Greek New Testament, and the Bible Commentary by Matthew Henry before him. Much of what he prayed over, line by line, became indelibly inscribed on his heart and mind for the rest of his life. From this storehouse he constantly drew when later he preached forty hours per week.
It was falsely reported that at his first sermon he had driven fifteen people mad. The presiding Bishop expressed the hope that many more would thus be driven to extremity. Justification by faith and its accompanying new birth was Whitefield s great theme, and multitudes responded.
The very day he set off for Georgia in America in response to a call from the Wesley brothers there, John Wesley returned to England, a broken-hearted failure. Whitefield’s congregations wept as he bid them farewell. After a year’s ministry in Georgia he returned to England to find the church doors closed against him. So he took to the fields and, at times, twenty thousand or more came to listen. He made fourteen preaching tours of Scotland, and returned seven times to America. Frequently he delivered twenty sermons in one week.
Whitefield believed in Calvin’s predestination, and here he and Wesley differed, but the funeral service Wesley took for George, was one of unparalleled affection and respect. Other preachers may have been more learned, but none were more eloquent and moving than this former hostelry tapster who found the gospel of justification by faith and took it to the world.
* This article is an extract from Dr. Ford’s recent book, The Coming Worldwide Calvary: Christ verses Antichrist (2009), pp. 134 137.