Wednesday, April 13, 2011

George Whitefield

Newburyport, Massachusetts. Visited July 2003

When you consider the ministry of George Whitefield, the numbers are staggering. To adequately consider the physical reality of the breadth and impact of his influence consider his world. In an era when books were the primary means of mass communication, Whitefield published nothing beyond a handful of sermons and some biographical material. He lived in a world where the only transportation was horse, foot or ship. Yet he had massive influence on two continents by virtue of preaching alone. He traveled to the American Colonies seven times, spending over three years of his life onboard a ship. In the course of his 35 year ministry he preached at least eighteen thousand times – addressing audiences totaling up to ten million people. In a world with no voice amplification, Whitefield regularly preached to crowds in the thousands of people. Whitefield’s sermon on Boston Common in his last preaching visit to the city drew 23,000 people, more than Boston's entire population. So who was this extraordinarily influential evangelist?

George Whitefield was born to a Gloucester, England innkeeper’s family in December 1714. His father died when he was two, and George grew up helping keep the inn afloat. In his youth Whitefield was attracted to the theater; an interest that shaped his emotionally evocative preaching style later in life. He was able to attend Oxford University as a servitor, a student who received free tuition in exchange for serving the needs of wealthy students. During his time in college Whitefield read Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man, which threw him into spiritual crisis. After an extended period of anguish over the state of his soul, the twenty-one year old student embraced the saving forgiveness of God. In later years he would say, "I know the place.... Whenever I go to Oxford, I cannot help running to the spot where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me and gave me the new birth."

Whitefield had received his copy of Scougal from John Wesley, whom he had met at Oxford. Along with his brother Charles, John had formed ‘the Holy Club’, a society of students desiring sincere devotion to Christ. A relationship was born in that college ministry between Whitefield and the Wesley’s that endured, though often tempestuously, for the remainder of the evangelist’s life.

Whitefield in the fields
 Upon graduation, George Whitefield was ordained into the Anglican Church, but was not placed in parish ministry. From the get go, Whitefield’s preaching gift was remarkably used. Very soon he recognized that his specific call was to evangelistic preaching among an increasingly irreligious and unbelieving culture. Whitefield soon took to the fields where his booming voice and passion gathered far more people than could be accommodated in any structure. In time he did accept the curacy of a church in Savannah, Georgia, which led to the creation of an orphanage that would be a work of charity he tended all his life.

There are great books that cover the breadth of Whitefield’s life an ministry. If you're interested in a brief bio, check out this 'preacher on preacher' video - D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on George Whitfield

But here are some seemingly contradictory aspects of the man that I find fascinating.

  • Whitefield was a ‘Free Gospel Calvinist’ – committed to the doctrine of election and unmerited favor but at the same time bold to call all his hearers to repentance and faith in Jesus.
  • Whitefield was, sadly, an advocate of the institution of slavery in the Colonies, though at the same time he actively preached the Gospel to slaves, treating them as souls capable of trust in Christ, not as semi-human property, which is what most people in his time thought.
  • Due to his influence Whitefield was always a controversial figure, but in private he did more to build bridges and heal divisions than any other prominent religious leader of his day.
Me and my daughter Kelsey at the Whitefield
statue at Penn
One of the remarkable themes of Whitefield's life was his enduring friendship was with the non-believing humanist Benjamin Franklin. Franklin admired Whitefield’s intellect, his character and his gifts of communication. Whitefield relentlessly prayed for Franklin's salvation to the end of his life.  What little publishing occurred of Whitefield’s ministry was done by Franklin the publisher. It was through the friendship of Whitefield and Franklin that the University of Pennsylvania began in a hall specifically built for the preaching of Whitefield in Philadelphia. There is a great statue of Whitefield in the Quad at Penn upon which the following words from Franklin are written,

"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 excelled."

It might be said that over a 35 year ministry George Whitefield effectively preached himself to death. Sick with severe asthma and worn out from his labors, Whitefield’s last sermon was preached in Exeter, MA. When those near him urged that he decline the preaching opportunity, Whitefield offered this remarkable reply, “Lord, if I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for the once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.”  He traveled that night to Newburyport, spoke briefly to a small crowed as he struggled to bed in the parsonage of the Old South Church. At around 6:00 am the next morning, September 30, 1770, Whitefield the preacher was silenced on this earth and Whitefield the eternal worshipper entered into his heavenly reward.

The Old South parsonage at Newburyport, MA where
Whitefield spent his last night 

According to his wishes, Whitefield was buried in the basement of Old South Church, under the pulpit from which he had preached the Gospel. John Wesley, with whom he had theologically broken years before, preached his memorial service in London. My brother John and I had the chance to visit Whitefield’s crypt at Old South at the invitation of his friend Rob John (the current church pastor) when he was finishing his masters in church history at Gordon Conwell Seminary. If you go, also look at the little historic display in the entrance of the church. There is a small box there which at one time contained one of Whitefield’s forearms. Apparently a zealous Brit wanted to transport Whitefield back to the Isles bone by bone. But he regretted his thievery and remorsefully sent the bone back in the aforementioned box. The parsonage where Whitefield passed away is still standing next to the church.

George Whitefield's crypt in the cellar of Old South Church -
for some reason there is a plaster cast of his skull on a Bible
on the slab.

To become acquainted with George Whitefield is to realize that there will never be another like him.  His story illustrates a remarkable providence of God in bringing a man with remarkable gifts and a consecrated heart into a culture ripe for the message he was bringing.  We can't recreate the Whitfield model, but we can emulate the Whitefield passion:  “God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.”

On the Penn Campus statue is the following epitaph.

The Reverend George Whitefield
Bachelor of Arts, 1736,
Pembroke College, Oxford
Humble Disciple of Jesus Christ
Eloquent Preacher of the Gospel

Yours truly at the front of Old South Church

We remember George Whitefield – eloquent preacher of the Gospel. How would he want us to remember him? In his own words:

Other men may preach the gospel better than I, but no man can preach a better gospel.

No comments:

Post a Comment