The Life and Times of George Whitefield
18th century Britain, found Christianity in rough shape. Author Robert Philips quotes Bishop Butlers Analogy from that era.
It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious; and, accordingly, they treat it as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world” (p.13)
Sounds like something coming right out of 21st century North America, but there it is, in 1730’s England. This reality was even more unsettling when one considers that these sentiments were coming not just from people outside the church, but from people inside it!
A long comes George Whitefield and everything changes, not just in England, but Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and America. The wave of doubt and distraction to pleasure which looked to extinguish the flame of the gospel was rebuffed in large part by the voice of this one man.
What was special about George? Certainly due credit was attributed to God for the incredible work wrought through this man, but George was no ordinary man. It must however, be borne in mind that his face was a language, and his intonation music, and his actions passion. So much was this the case, that Garrick said of him, he could make men weep or tremble by his varied utterances of the word “Mesopotamia” (575) He could represent in the most awful manner the terrors of the Lord (156) When Whitefield preached “Neutrality was an impossibility(156) With what a flow of words—what a ready profusion of language, did he speak to us upon the great concerns of our souls! In what flaming light did he set our eternity before us! How earnestly he pressed Christ upon us! How did he move our passions with the constraining love of such a Redeemer!” How awfully — with what thunder and sound—did he discharge the artillery of heaven upon us! And yet, how could he soften and melt even a soldier of Ulysses, with the mercy of God! George burst on the scene, with his passion for the living God, and incredible oratory at exactly the time when preaching had been reduced to the reading of set pieces without emotion or even belief, rote tradition was all that dribbled out of the mouths of passionless sleeping ministers.
Whitefield was one of the first of his kind. He was the new thing. In our world, we would say he went viral. Everyone had to come and listen to this totally unique preacher who preached in fields instead of church buildings, who refused to use notes, who cried, and emoted in dramatic fashion. George would stoop to such unthinkable tactics as to use stories and humour while he preached! He also would defy and criticize the religious leaders of the established church. The net result is that for over 30 years years people would come to listen to him by the thousands, many traveling 20 miles or more on foot to come and hear. He preached an estimated 18,000 sermons in his life! Many weeks of his life he would preach 9 times or more. In the end, thousands upon thousands of people repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus. The tide of large scale unbelief was turned back. In the nearly 300 years that have passed from Whitefield, the use of emotion, drama, and storytelling in the pulpit has become commonplace for us. I wonder, were it possible to transport Whitefield into our era, if he would even distinguish himself? We have taken seriously his warning: Awkwardness in the pulpit is a sin — monotony a sin — dulness a sin — and all of them sins against the welfare of immortal souls (560)
As with any new thing there will always be criticism. How George managed to survive and thrive considering all of the invective and persecution he faced is a testament to his faith in God.
What was Whitefield like?
- Not a fan of Sin — He was vicious in calling out the vices of his day. The 18th century version of UFC was known as cudgelling. He was not a fan. He blasted dancing schools and concert halls, referring to them as inconsistent with the doctrine of the gospel. These were “devilish diversions” One of Whitefields followers put it this way “every step in a dance is a step towards hell” (174) Whitefield was convinced that Satan used the common entertainments of his day as instruments of distraction that would fill “Beelzebubs Harvest” All of it was bad, so all of it came under his condemnation. Puppet shows, drummers, trumpeters, clowns, exhibitors of wild beasts — basically anything that happened in an 18th century fair was a distraction from the devil. (270) As you could imagine, this message was not always well received, and Whitefield paid for his criticisms in lumps and bumps, several times his life was nearly lost by people angry for his ‘captain kill joy’ stance. In the the end however, so many people converted that much of these entertainments ceased for a time. It’s hard for a 21st century mind to conceive a clown or a drummer as evil. To Whitefield, anything that turned ones affections away from God was evil. He saw that these entertainments distracted people away from Sabbath keeping, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and service. These entertainments were creating self absorbed, idolatrous, consumers instead of people whose greatest joy was God. Does he have a point?
- Not into Romance — Love was only really for God. However, he felt he needed to get married, But lest any young woman might fancy a marriage to George for loves sake, he was quick to set the record straight “I am free from that foolish passion which the world calls love…The passionate expressions which carnal courtiers use, I think ought to be avoided by those who marry in the Lord. I can only promise by the help of God, ‘to keep my matrimonial vow, and to do what I can towards helping you forward in the great work of your salvation’. (179-180) As you can see he really poured on the charm! Ultimately he was married, but one could hardly consider it a marriage, because he was gone so much of the time.
- Wanted Peace and Unity – Denominationalism had found it’s stride in the 1700’s. Fragmentation was the way of the future for the church. Whitefield hated all of it, he wished that the partition wall of bigotry and party spirit (would be) broken down, and ministers and teachers of different communions join with one heart and one mind, to carry on the kingdom of Jesus Christ. (127) I wish all names among the saints of God were swallowed up in the one of Christian. I long for professors to leave off placing religion in saying ‘I am a church man’ ‘I am a dissenter’ My language to such is ‘are you of Christ? If so, I love you with all my heart” His desire for unity was severely tested. People pressured him to start his own denomination. The church of England was constantly persecuting him, and even the dissenters took shot’s at him as well, they could not understand why he would remain a part of that corrupted institution known as Anglicanism. Then there was the rift with Wesley. Whitefield could never agree with Wesley’s view on perfectionism and Wesley thought Whitefields belief in election was damnable. It got heated and it got public. It was a bigger thing than a modern U.S. presidential debate. All of this, you would think, would create a perfect storm for fragmentation. Whitefield resisted the storm and chose to pursue love, peace and unity. It was Wesley, who preached Georges memorial service, a final testimony to Whitefields commitment to unity.
- Prayer was the Essential thing. – I frankly confess, that I see and feel more sublimity in a vestry prayer meeting for the spread of the gospel, than in the most splendid meetings in Exeter Hall. I would rather have been one in the first nameless groups, of two or three, who meet together in the name of Christ to pray…than have been the inventor of the platform. I feel much more sure that prayer meetings will prolong themselves, than that speech meetings will keep their place or their power” (532) What an incredible thing for the “prince of preachers” to say. He never lost his way for all his success. The work of God, starts, is sustained, and brought to completion through humble dependance on God in prayer.