Among English evangelists and preachers, the name of George Whitefield must without hesitation be placed at the very forefront.
Born at Gloucester in the year 1714, Whitefield was of humble origin, and had no rich or noble connections to help him forward. His mother kept the Bell Inn and appears not to have prospered in business. In recollecting his tender years Whitefield confesses that he was “addicted to lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting.” Furthermore he tells us that he was a “Sabbath-breaker, a theatre-goer, a card-player, and a romance-reader.” This life-style went from bad to worse up to the age of fifteen.
It appears that he was quite bright at school but because of hard circumstances he was constrained to start helping his mother in the daily work of the Inn. “At length,” he says, “I put on my blue apron, washed cups, cleaned rooms, and, in one word, became a professed common drawer for nigh a year and a half.”
Whtiefield’s residence at Oxford was what give a new direction to his life. For two or three years before he went to the University he had been without religious convictions. But from the time of his entering Pembroke College these convictions fast ripened into decided Christianity. He attended all means of grace within his reach, starting to study the Bible, praying regularly and seeking the fellowship of other believers.
He devoured Christian literature of the first rate, reading authors such as Baxter, Alleine and Matthew Henry.
“Above all,” he says, “my mind being now more opened and enlarged, I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and prayer over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul.”
Whereas before he had indulged in ascetic, legalistic and mystical practices, now that an adequate understanding of the gospel of grace and liberty took hold of his mind, he never turned to such ‘broken wells.’
The doctrines of free grace, once thoroughly grasped, took deep root in his heart, and became, as it were, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.
Ordained to the gospel ministry
At the early age of twenty-two Whitefield was admitted to holy orders by Bishop Benson of Gloucester, on Trinity Sunday, 1736. The ordination was not of his own seeking, but as he narrates in his journals, “I began to think that if I held out longer I should fight against God.”
He left us an account of his first sermon in the very town where he was born, at the church of St. Mary-le-Crypt. “As I proceeded the fire kindled, till at last, though so young and amidst a crowd of those who knew me in my childish days, I trust I was enabled to speak with some degree of gospel authority. Some few mocked, but most seemed for the present struck; and I have since heard that a complaint was made to the bishop that I drove fifteen mad the first sermon! The worthy prelate wished that the madness might not be forgotten before next Sunday.”
From the very beginning Whitefield obtained popularity such as no preacher, before or since, has probably ever reached. Whether on week-days or Sunday, wherever he preached, the churches were crowded, and an immense sensation was produced. A really eloquent, extempore preacher, heralding the pure gospel with most uncommon gifts of voice and manner, was an entire novelty in his days.
Upon John Wesley’s encouragement Whitefield visited the colony of Georgia in North America, and assisted in the care of an Orphan House which had been set up near Savannah for the children of colonists. He returned to the New World several times.
Drastic change of scene
When he came back to England the first time, he was disappointed at the change he saw around him. The majority of the clergy was no longer favourable to him, and regarded him with suspicion as an enthusiast and a fanatic. They were especially scandalised by his preaching the doctrine of regeneration, as a thing that many baptised persons greatly needed. They regarded his method to be a “breach of order.”
It is ironic that bishops who could tolerate Arianism, Socinianism and Deism, were filled with indignation at a man who declared fully the atonement of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, and began to denounce him openly.
From this period, Whitefield’s field of usefulness within the Church of England narrowed rapidly on every side.
“Compel them to come in”
The step which at this juncture gave a turn to the whole current of Whitefield’s ministry was his adoption of the system of open-air preaching. Seeing the many unchurched thousands, instead of waiting for them, he went to them instead. Whitefield’s spirit was one of holy aggression. He literally went “into the highways and hedges,” compelling sinners to take heed of the gospel feast.
As he engaged in this kind of unheard of ministry, the ministrations of Whitefield in the pulpits of the Church of England almost entirely ceased. He loved the church in which he had been ordained; he gloried in her Articles of Faith; he used her Prayer-book with pleasure. But the Church did not love such an adventurer for the gospel.
An untiring herald
The facts of Whitefield’s history from this period to the day of his death are almost entirely of one complexion. One year was similar to the next. A whole period of thirty-one years was one of uniform employment. He went about his Lord’s business: incessantly he preached Christ, urging men to repent and come to Christ and be saved. England, Scotland, Wales, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, were all fields of labour for him. He visited Ireland twice, and on one occasion was almost murdered by an ignorant popish mob in Dublin. He crossed the Atlantic seven times for the sole purpose of make Christ known to all and sundry.
He preached and delivered lectures, at least thirteen sermons a week! And all this time he was carrying on a vast correspondence with people in almost every part of the world, with the main topic being the risen Saviour, able to save to the uttermost all who draw near to God through Him.
It is marvellous that his life was not cut off prematurely by violence, to which he was frequently exposed.
The good that Whitefield did was that he pointed the way of life to immortal souls. Many, wherever he preached, were not merely pleased, exited, and arrested, but positively turned from sin, and made thorough servants of God. John Newton, an eminent minister of the gospel, said: “That which finished Mr. Whitefield’s character as a shining light, and is now his crown of rejoicing, was the singular success which the Lord was pleased to give him in winning souls. It seemed as if he never preached in vain.” Even sceptics and hardened unbelievers spoke favourably of his anointing and power.
The rise and progress of the Evangelical body in the Church of England received a mighty impulse from Whitefield. He was among the first to show the right way to meet the attacks of infidels and sceptics on Christianity. He preached the whole gospel, lived the whole gospel and spread the whole gospel.
He was the first to see that Christ’s ministers do the work of fishermen. They must not wait for souls to come to them, but must go after souls, and appeal to them, for Christ’s sake, to be reconciled to God. City missions, town missions, district visiting societies, open-air preaching, home missions, special services, theatre preaching, are all evidences that the value of the “aggressive system” (as Dr. Chalmers called it) is now thoroughly recognised by all the churches.
Distinctive characteristics of Whitefield’s preaching
Whitefield preached a singularly pure gospel. He gave his hearers so much wheat and so little chaff. He was perpetually telling about sin, the heart of man, Jesus Christ the Lord and Redeemer, the Holy Spirit, the absolute need of repentance, faith, and holiness, in the way that the Bible presents these mighty subjects.
Again, his preaching was singularly lucid and simple. His hearers could never fail to understand what he meant. It was a wise saying of Archbishop Usher, “To make easy things seem hard is every man’s work; but to make hard things easy is the work of a great preacher...” such as Whitefield abundantly proved to be.
Besides he was also singularly bold and direct in his message. A constant vein of application ran through all his sermons. His hearers were never left alone. Utilising his singular power of description, Whitefield held them bound to hear him. The proverb, so true in Whitefield’s case, says, “He is the best orator who can turn men’s ears into eyes.” Whitefield dramatised the message; he presented no abstract metaphysics!
Nobody could mistake his tremendous earnestness. He succeeded in showing people that he at least believed all he was saying, and that his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, were bent on making them believe it too. Whitefield was different from other conservative and faithful preachers in this one respect: not so much in the things said, but in the manner in which he delivered them.
One more feature of his preaching was the immense amount of pathos and feeling it always contained. It was not an uncommon thing with him to weep profusely in the pulpit as he saw the danger of the people before him, without Christ and without hope in this world. Whitefield possessed true eloquence, which, according to Clarendon’s definition, is nothing else but “a strange power of making themselves believed.”
The vessel God uses must be cleaned and sanctified for His use. This we find exemplified in Whitefield’s case.
He was a singularly transparent man. There was nothing about him requiring apology or explanation. He was a man of deep and unfeigned humility. This we gather from his journals and letters where it becomes apparent that even during the peaks of success he still saw himself as “viler than the vilest.” He writes: “I stand amazed at his employing such a wretch as I am.”
Whitefield was a man of burning love to our Lord Jesus Christ. That name which is “above every name” stands out incessantly in all his correspondence. Like fragrant ointment it give a savour to all his communications.
This being so, Whitefield was never lazy. He was a man of unwearied diligence and laboriousness in advancing the kingdom of God. Being absorbed in the work, he is known to have been a man of eminent self-denial. His style of living, his food and drink, were most simple.
A man of prayerful habits, he frequently spent whole nights in reading and devotion. He cared little for money, except as a help to the cause of Christ, and refused it, when pressed upon him for his own use, once to the amount of seven thousand sterling. The pope’s coarse saying about Luther, “This German best does not love gold,” applies equally well to Whitefield.
Disinterestedness and singleness of eye was another godly characteristic of this man. He seemed to live only for two objects: the glory of God and the salvation of souls. He brushed aside all secondary interests.
Nobody could miss the happiness and contentment of Whitefield. His cheerful spirit infected those nearby. Everyone who met him could never doubt that he enjoyed his fellowship with his Maker and Redeemer.
A striking trait in his character was his extraordinary love, catholicity and liberality in the outworking of his faith. He knew nothing of that narrow-minded feeling which makes some men fancy that everything must be barren outside their own camps, and that their own party has got a complete monopoly of truth and heaven. A man once asked him whether he would see Wesley (with whom Whitefield disagreed about the doctrines of grace, particularly predestination) in heaven. The striking answer was: “No, sir, I fear not. He will be so near the throne, and we shall be at such a distance, that we shall hardly get a sight of him.”
All this being said (to the praise and glory of Christ) we cannot imagine that Whitefield was entirely lacking in moral faults. He sometimes erred in judgement. He often drew rash conclusions about Providence, and mistook his own inclination for God’s leadings. He was frequently hasty with his tongue and his pen. He exceeded his limits in saying that “Archbishop Tillotson knew no more of the gospel than Mahomet.” But his blemishes may be compared to the sun’s spots which are overwhelmed by the brightness of the same.
Whitefield is a model herald: his giftedness and faithfulness in the stewardship entrusted to him is something most remarkable. He was wise enough to employ God’s methods to advance God’s work. And he himself was God’s man to do it. Like many other preachers of eighteenth century Britain, Whitefield ran his course with joy.
Of such a company J.C. Ryle writes: “They had neither money to buy adherents, nor family influence to command attention and respect. They were not put forward by any Church, party, society, or institution. They were simply men whom God stirred up and brought out to do his work, without previous concert, scheme, or plan. They did his work in the old apostolic way, by becoming the evangelists of their day. They taught one set of truths. They taught them in the same way, with fire, reality, earnestness, as men fully convinced of what they taught. They taught them in the same spirit, always loving, compassionate, and, like Paul, even weeping, but always bold, unflinching, and not fearing the face of man. And they taught them on the same plan, always acting on the aggressive; not waiting for sinners to come to them, but going after, and seeking sinners; not sitting idle till sinners offered to repent, but assaulting the high places of ungodliness like men storming a breach, and giving sinners no rest so long as they stuck to their sins.”
They preached; they preached everywhere; they preached simply; they preached fervently and directly; they preached from the heart to the heart.
And the contents of their sermons could not be mistaken: they preached the sufficiency and supremacy of an infallible Holy Bible; they preached the corruption of human nature; they preached that Christ’s death upon the cross was the only satisfaction for man’s sin; they preached justification by faith alone in Christ alone; they preached the universal necessity of heart conversion and a new creation by the Holy Spirit; they preached the inseparable connection between true faith and personal holiness; they preached God’s eternal hatred against sin, and God’s love towards sinners in Christ.
And Whitefield was at the head of this “company of preachers.”
He died very suddenly at Newbury Port, in North America, on Sunday, September 29th, 1770, at the comparatively early age of fifty-six. He was cut down in a single night by a spasmodic fit of asthma, almost before his friends knew that he was ill.
It happened this way. He was importuned to preach at a place called Exeter, and though feeling very ill, he had not the heart to refuse. A friend remarked before he preached that he looked more uneasy than usual, and said to him, “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.”
Whitefield replied: “True, sir,” and then turned aside and prayed: “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.” A fitting conclusion to his whole career.
He was once married to a widow named James, of Abergavenny, who died before him. Little mention is made of her in his letters, an indication that his marriage does not seem to have contributed much to his happiness. He left no children; he left no denomination; but he left a name far better than that of sons and daughters.
Never was there a man about whom it could be truly said that he spent and was spent in the process of making known the unsearchable riches of Christ than George Whitefield.