GEORGE WHITEFIELD, (1714-1770)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

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If the worth of a preacher is to be judged solely by popularity and numbers, then George Whitefield stands without equal. He preached 18,000 times within 34 years, and to congregations numbering from 20,000 to 30,000. He was as well known in Colonial America as in the British Isles, and enormously popular wherever he went. His power as a public speaker proved bewildering to many of the most famous men of his generation. They called him "the Demosthenes of the pulpit," and "the apostle to the English-speaking world." England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and America hailed him as though he were a conquering hero. He died at the age of 56, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and he is buried there beneath the pulpit of the Presbyterian church. He had just preached to a great congregation, who followed him to his lodgings, urging him to preach again. Standing on the steps, with a candle in his hand, he preached until the candle flickered out. Then he went upstairs and died.

George Whitefield was the son of a tavern keeper, and he was born in 1714 at the Bell Inn, Gloucester. At the age of 15 he was taken out of school by his widowed mother and obliged to work behind the public bar. An English "pub" is not the best place for a young boy, and it is not surprising that Whitefield learned to drink and steal, to lie and to swear. With it all he was a strange lad, for he owned a Bible; and after the saloon was closed, he went upstairs to his room and read the Word of God by the light of a stolen candle. He did not find his Saviour, but he did experience great uneasiness because of his lying, stealing, drinking and foul language. After working for a year and a half as bar-tender, Whitefield returned for a time to the parochial school of St. Mary-le-Wigford church. In 1733 he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, as a servitor. There he became acquainted with John and Charles Wesley, and their Holy Club. They had misgivings at first, for the roughly clad young man had come from a public house and not from a rectory, and he had, by his own confession, been a drunkard and a thief. However, his repentance seemed sincere, and they admitted him to their select circle. Whitefield attended lectures and was graduated in 1736, at the age of 22. John Wesley was his senior by eleven years.

In 1735 we find Whitefield, who had taken deacon's orders but was not yet ordained to the Anglican priesthood, preaching with great success. His first sermon caused a great sensation, and complaint was made to the bishop (probably exaggerated) that the sermon drove fifteen people mad. Following the example of the Wesleys and their friends, Whitefield visited the prisons and workhouses in and around Oxford admonishing and instructing the inmates. He went throughout Gloucestershire preaching to great congregations. Next we find him in London, not yet ordained, and preaching in some of the leading churches of the metropolis. People arose before dawn in order to gain entrance to the churches where he was to preach. All of this seems remarkable when the fact is recalled that Whitefield was in his earliest twenties; but it must not be forgotten that preaching in Britain was hopelessly dull and lifeless, and the least show of animation in the pulpit was considered indecent. George Whitefield was anything but lifeless.

In 1738, when but 24 years of age, he resolved to follow his friend John Wesley to America. He had not yet learned that Wesley was having serious trouble in his congregation and preparing to return to England. Whitefield set out, but for some reason his ship was detained at Downs. Just as they were about to weigh anchor, a second ship dropped anchor nearby. Some biographers declare with utmost conviction that a messenger boarded Whitefield's ship with a note from John Wesley, who was on the ship that had just arrived from Georgia. Wesley begged Whitefield to return to London, quoting a Scripture verse that he had found when opening the Bible at random. Whitefield replied by recalling the incident in 1 Kings wherein the Lord had called a prophet to a certain task. The prophet turned back upon the advice of another prophet, and was devoured by a lion for his disobedience to the Lord. Wesley was satisfied, and Whitefield sailed with his ship. This incident, while interesting, is not recorded by Wesley in his famous Journal. Under date of February 1, he merely says: "The day before Mr. Whitefield had sailed out, neither of us then knowing anything of the other."

Whitefield reached Georgia in May, 1738, but at the end of three months he was obliged to return to England for his ordination. After weeks at sea he arrived in England in December of the same year and went up to London and joined John and Charles Wesley. John was fresh from his Aldersgate experience and his trip to Herrnhut. Charles, nominally a curate in Islington, was preaching with great success in the prisons and workhouses of London, to the great annoyance of the bishop, who looked upon his activities as irregular.

The three friends preached to the neglected and the unchurched of London and vicinity and fraternized with the Moravians. London was not a great city in 1739, and the word soon got about that notorious thieves had given up their evil ways, drunkards of long standing had been made sober, convicted felons had confessed their sins and had gone to the gallows singing hymns and quoting Scripture promises, and the unchurched were coming in great numbers to hear the three young missionaries. The bishop and the local clergy were offended and denounced it all as fanaticism. Efforts were made to silence the three men. They replied by saying that if their methods were "irregular" then the ways of the holy Apostles must be irregular, for they went about among the neglected, preaching everywhere with great success. So long as there are immortal souls without the Law and Gospel, and so long as the organized Church made no effort to reach this neglected class, they proposed to testify. The clergy found these things difficult to answer, and they replied by closing their pulpits one by one to the three clergymen, and it was arranged in official circles that they were not called to parish work.

In some manner Whitefield managed to preach in Bermondsey Church in South London. The congregation was so great that he was compelled to go to the churchyard and stand on a tomb to deliver his sermon. He attended a service at St. Margaret's, Westminster, in the very shadow of the Abbey. He was recognized and the people fairly dragged him to the pulpit, pushed him up the steps by main force and cried out, demanding that he preach. The outraged parochial clergy got possession of a letter attributed to Whitefield, in which he had expressed himself rather tartly in regard to indolent clergymen, their frost-bitten formalism and their neglect to the great truths of Redemptive Christianity. Whitefield decided to visit Bristol until the excitement in London subsided.

He selected Bristol partly because of the sharp remark of an acquaintance who had said, "You went to America to convert the Indians. If you have a mind to convert the Indians, what about the colliers of Kingswood, who are without spiritual care?" Whitefield found conditions in Bristol worse than he had imagined. There were whole families in the Kingswood colliery district who had never seen a Bible, had never set foot within a church, and who had never heard the name of the Saviour except in profanity. The local churches appeared to be totally indifferent to the spiritual needs of this district. Whitefield, as an obedient clergyman of the Established Church, went to the chancellor of the diocese, who informed him bluntly that he was forbidden to preach in that diocese without a license. The canons prohibited it. The quick-witted Whitefield, who seems to have had a drop of Gaelic blood in his veins, replied that the same canons prohibited ordained clergymen from hanging about in the public houses, drinking and playing at cards.

Whitefield made no further attempt to preach in the churches. He went promptly to St. Nicholas street and started to preach. A great crowd collected. Then, on February 17, 1739, he took his stand on a hill on the outskirts of Bristol, in Kingswood Common, and preached to a congregation of 200. His next sermon drew 3,000 people. The third sermon attracted 5,000, and in a short time he was preaching to congregations of 20,000. In graphic words he describes the miners, many of whom had never before listened to a sermon, standing before him with their tears cutting white furrows through the coal dust on their faces. "The open firmament above me," he wrote, "the prospect of the adjacent fields, with the sight of thousands and thousands, some in coaches, some on horseback, and some in the trees, and at all times affected and drenched in tears together, to which sometimes was added the solemnity of the approaching evening, was almost too much for and quite overcame me."

Whitefield was the hero of the hour. As he walked through the streets people crowded round him. Mothers lifted up their young children so that they might catch a glimpse of him. People appeared even on the roof tops when he passed by. All of this enraged the local clergy, who considered it disorder of an extreme kind. Even so good a man as Samuel Wesley, Jr., brother of John and Charles, complained that Whitefield, in his field-preaching, had neglected to read the liturgy of the Church.

Mr. Whitefield had agreed to return to America after his ordination, and his stay in Bristol was cut short. He landed at Lewes, Delaware, in August, 1739. The way had been prepared for him by Frelinghuysen and the Tennents, and the people of the Middle Colonies were awaiting the famous young preacher. He made a triumphal tour of New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, and New York. He met the elder Tennent, founder of the Log College, and he captivated even Benjamin Franklin, who speaks of him again and again in his writings. George Whitefield remained in America from August, 1739, to January, 1741. This was the second of his seven trips to America. The Great Awakening, which had appeared in the Middle Colonies and then in New England, owes much to him. Frelinghuysen, the Log College group, and Edwards prepared the way, each in his own community, but it was Whitefield who ranged up and down the American colonies and caused it to become a widespread awakening of religious interest, instead of several local movements. He visited America seven times, and his labors on these occasions varied from a few months to as much as four years. Almost one-third of his ministry was spent in America.

When Whitefield returned to England after an absence of two years in America, he found that John Wesley had departed from strict Calvinism. This led to a temporary estrangement between the two great leaders of the Evangelical Awakening. Friends built a large wooden tabernacle for Whitefield in Moorfields, London, not far from Wesley's headquarters. It was not long until the two were reconciled. . . .

It is hard to find such a man as Whitefield in all the pages of history. John Summerfield might have become his equal, had he not died at so early an age. The Countess of Huntingdon was one of his greatest admirers. Horace Walpole, David Hume, Lord Chesterfield, and Lord Littleton sang his praises. Bolingbroke declared, "He is the most extraordinary man in our times. He has the most commanding eloquence I ever heard in any person." Hume, although a Deist, declared that George Whitefield "was worth going twenty miles to hear." Foote the actor, William Pitt, and Lord North praised him. David Garrick declared that he "would give a hundred guineas,"--about $500,--"if I could say 'Oh!' like Mr. Whitefield." Whittier, who was not an orthodox believer, wrote a tribute in verse. On one occasion Whitefield, in comparing spiritual blindness to physical blindness, described a sightless man moving step by step toward a cliff. So realistic were his words that Lord Bolingbroke, who was in the congregation, cried out, "In Heaven's name, Whitefield, you are not letting him go over, are you?" Seafaring men were visibly agitated when Whitefield indulged in a word-picture of a storm on the Atlantic. Garrick declared that Whitefield towered above all the great actors of the day, as a giant oak towers above the forest, and he urged others of his profession to attend Whitefield's services and study his methods.

Nathan Cole, an American farmer, has left in writing a long account of Whitefield's visit to Middletown, Connecticut. Mr. Cole was working in the field when word came that Whitefield, then 26 years of age, was coming to the nearby town. He dropped his tools in the field, ran to the farmhouse at top speed, and taking his wife on the horse behind him they galloped toward Middletown, all the while "fearing we should be too late to hear ye Sarmon for we had twelve miles to ride dubble in little more than an hour." As they drew near to the town, Mr. Cole says: "i saw before me a cloud or fog rising i first thought of from ye great river but as i came nearer ye road i heard a noise something like a low rumbling thunder & i presently found it was ye rumbling of horses feet coming down ye road & this Cloud was a Cloud of dust made by the running of horses feet it arose some rods into ye air over the tops of ye hills and trees & when i came within about twenty rods of ye road i could see men and horses Sliping along . . . it was like a steady stream of horses and their riders scarcely a horse more than his length behind another . . . when we gat down to ye old meating house thare was a great multitude it was said to be 3 or 4000." Looking toward "ye great river" he saw its banks black with people, and "fery boats running swift forward and backward bringing over loads of people ye ores rowed nimble and quick every thing men horses and boats all seamed to be struglin for life." Then Mr. Whitefield arrived and ascended the outdoor platform. "He looked almost angellical a young slim slender youth . . . with a bold countenance," whose very expression put Mr. Cole into "a trembling fear."

George Whitefield made it a rule to preach about ten times a week, and a single sermon usually was from four to six hours in length. Once he was passing Hampton Common, where 12,000 people had gathered to see a criminal hanged in chains. Whitefield took his stand on a slight hill and began to preach, and people flocked away from the gallows and crowded about him until the end of the sermon. At a place known as Hannam Mount the crowds were so great that an observer declared, "you could have walked on the peoples' heads." After a single sermon on Moorfield Common he tells us that he received over one thousand letters from people who were anxious in regard to their souls.

He visited Hampstead Heath, a great open common in the northern part of London. As he preached to an immense gathering, the skies darkened and a severe thunder storm broke forth. So great was his power over the congregation that they remained to the end of the long sermon, standing in a downpour of rain. The thunder crashed like shrapnel overhead, and between its peals Whitefield compared the lightning and thunder to the wrath of God against the unrepentant. Several of his hearers are said to have died of heart attacks on that occasion.

Once he visited a carnival and preached for three hours. The concessions were at once deserted, and all crowded around his improvised pulpit. One of the clowns rushed at him with his whip, but the whip fell from his hand under the steady gaze of Whitefield. Others pelted him with sticks and stones, but he continued his sermon without noticing them. At the end of three hours he told them that his tabernacle was not far away, and should any care to hear him, he would preach again in a few moments. Thousands forsook the carnival grounds and followed him to his tabernacle.

Although a university graduate, yet Whitefield was not a man of exceptional depth of thought, neither was he a theologian of first rank. His success lay in the fact that he had "a pure, heart-kindling Gospel, a lucid and simple style, boldness and directness, intense earnestness, pathos and feeling, perfect action, a powerful and sonorous utterance, and a singular faculty of description." One of his contemporaries said that Whitefield could utter the single word "Mesopotamia" in such a way as to make his hearers weep or rejoice at will. As he preached, tears often rolled down his cheeks and fell upon the open Bible before him.

Whitefield was slightly over middle height, slender in his earlier years and moderately stout in middle age. He had the round face of the Saxon and the perfervid [burning/fiery] eloquence of the Celt. His eyes were deep blue and one of them had a slight squint, like Edward Irving of later days. Although his father was a tavern keeper, yet several of his immediate ancestors had been clergymen. Somewhere in his background had been either a Scottish or an Irish Celt, and all of the fire, the emotionalism and the undercurrent of melancholy of that race appeared in this man, whom many authorities have called the greatest preacher of modern centuries. Actors have declared that had he followed the stage, he would have been the greatest actor of all time. However, Whitefield's preaching was not mere acting, for if there is anything upon which all his contemporaries agree, it is his absolute sincerity. He felt deeply everything that he preached, and if tears flowed when he pleaded with sinners to repent, his interest in their eternal welfare was absolutely genuine.

Like many great orators, Whitefield was a poor writer. A number of his sermons have survived, and may be found in his published Works. They give us no hint of his phenomenal power. Much of his material, as is the case with Summerfield, is in the form of rough notes. Again do we find sermons that seem to be mere shorthand reports, taken down by his hearers, and transcribed by men of mediocre ability. Men such as Whitefield and Summerfield and Chalmers had a rare gift of "magic speech." They could combine words and sentences with overwhelming effect while before an audience, but when they attempted the slower process of writing with pen or pencil, they were but mediocre. . . .

In his published Works there is a sermon by George Whitefield on Jeremiah 6:14. He begins by warning his hearers against certain wolves in sheeps' clothing "that prophesied smoother things than God did allow." In the first part of the sermon he describes the state of the man "that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the Law to do them." He reminds his hearers that the Law demands perfection. They must continue in the Law in thought, word and deed, and they must keep it perfectly or else face eternal damnation. He calls upon his hearers to search their hearts and be convinced that they have not kept the Law, nor have they met the demands of its perfection; therefore the wrath of God burns hotly against them. God has written bitter things against such sinners, and the arrows of the Almighty are directed against them. One can realize how this thundering message, uttered in Whitefield's highly dramatic style, aroused the people of his day, accustomed, as he declared, to "those false teachers who, when people were under conviction of sin, when people were beginning to look toward Heaven, were for stifling their convictions and telling them they were good enough before." Under his thunderbolts of the Law, terror swept through his congregations and they cried aloud to be delivered from the penalty of their sins.

Then, in the same sermon, he warns the people against sewing together the fig leaves of good works in order to hide their sins from God. Mere resolutions to reform one's evil ways, trusting for salvation in prayer, and other human efforts are of no avail. Then he points them to the righteousness and blood of Jesus Christ, and he cries out: "Before we can ever have peace with God, we must be justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ; we must be enabled to apply Christ to our hearts; we must have Christ brought home to our souls, so that His righteousness may be made our righteousness; so as His merits may be imputed to our souls." Like all great preachers, Whitefield had gifts more important than eloquence and dramatic ability. Such men have something worth saying, and they say it well.


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