Edward M. Panosian
His pulpit: the fields
His congregation: all who would listen
His message: the Word of God
He was an evangelist, a “chaplain” of ships crossing the Atlantic, a compassionate friend of orphans and founder of orphanages and schools, a fundraiser for their support, an exhorter of the clergy to godliness, and more. But he is remembered first as a remarkable preacher of the grace of God. George Whitefield was· an “awakening preacher,” awakening sleeping sinners to their eternal need and alerting slumbering saints to their divine responsibility.
The life of this English evangelist is singularly instructive to Christians. He reflected true Christian graces while enduring the great trials of the faithful believer. He knew both struggle and success, frustration and fruitfulness, weariness and wonderful joy in the Gospel ministry. His mission and his motives were often misunderstood, but the results which accompanied his message were evidences of divine anointing — conviction, conversions, and opposition.
Born in an inn
His contemporary, John Wesley, was born and reared in a minister’s home; George Whitefield was born in his parent’s tavern, the Bell Inn of Gloucester, England, in December 1714. Although he had ample opportunity to witness the ways of the world in his early years, he seems to have been spared its worst consequences. The youth showed an interest in words and drama, reciting plays frequently during his grammar school days. He knew the drudgery of menial labor, working in and about the tavern (which in the eighteenth century combined the hotel, the restaurant, and the “club” or “bar” of today). He learned the quality of personal industry which was later to keep him busy preaching an average of almost twice a day, every day, for 30 years.
At Oxford University Whitefield worked hard, waiting on tables and studying with diligence. But he was also seeking heart peace. The little “Holy Club” of Methodists with its regimen of humanitarian works attracted him. But the student found that good works, while noble in purpose, did not meet his real need. Whitefield then attempted self-denial, hoping to conquer his flesh and become worthy of God’s release from his sin and guilt. He abandoned his friends and spent long periods in mystic meditation. During six weeks of 1735, Whitefield denied himself any food but coarse bread and tea, and so weakened his body that he required the services of a physician. Still, he found no soul comfort.
After this experience, Whitefield realized that the way of the Gospel is not by striving. Now came true conversion. Exhausted with his own ways, at the end of all his human resources, the 20-year-old threw himself on his bed crying, “I thirst! I thirst!” Submitting to God’s saving grace, he found deliverance “from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me.”
In his Journals, Whitefield wrote about his conversion: “O! with what joy … that was full of and big with glory, was my soul filled, when the weight of sin went off, and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God, and a full assurance of faith, broke in upon my disconsolate soul! Surely it was … a day to be had in everlasting remembrance. … My joys were like a spring tide, and overflowed the banks!”
The field preacher
The bishop who ordained Whitefield at the age of 21 as a deacon in the Church of England had previously asserted he would ordain none so young. But this young man was clearly ready. He possessed a noticeable variety of gifts — he had known the meaning of the world and sin, he was accustomed to hard work, he had an eagerness to learn, he attracted children, his imagination was fertile, and his speech was compelling. A squint in one eye added a commanding seriousness to the lithe youth’s presence. And he had experienced salvation by grace through faith. Now called of God to preach, he responded with vigor.
His preaching was against sin and for Jesus Christ. He invited men, women, and children to be born again. He exhorted clergy of the Church of England to more pious living. His preaching was his very life; in later years when bothered by heart disease, undiagnosed in those days, he was confident that a “good preaching sweat” was his best remedy.
Whitefield soon became known as a strong, vibrant preacher who stirred up his listeners. People of all ranks in life came to hear this man of God, even as he denounced their sins, for he invited them to the Saviour. Many who came to scoff remained to pray. The preaching of the Word of God turned hecklers into converts and detractors into supporters. But the parish ministers of England, jealous of their “territorial rights” over the villages and countryside which provided their congregations, began to close their church doors to the awakening preacher. So George Whitefield turned from the parish churches to “field preaching.” He preached from nearly every kind of pulpit which nature and human ingenuity provided: foundries mounds, tables, wagons, balconies’ boats, wherever his body could be elevated so his voice could be heard.
That voice has been occasion for considerable wonder in the two centuries since it was last heard on earth. When preaching out of doors — which had become for him more the rule than the exception — Whitefield would position himself so that his voice could be carried downwind to reach the greatest number of hearers. That number was often recorded as more than 20 000 in the journals of eyewitnesses. They testify also that Whitefield’s voice could be heard more than a mile away.
But far more important than his voice’s volume and clarity was its moving power. Surely this was the empowering of the Holy Spirit of God moving upon the human instrument. That instrument was beautifully tuned to communicate compelling truth. Whitefield was able to accommodate the flavor and application of his message to the immediate circumstance, he would turn a heckler into an illustration, he would turn a thunderstorm into a vivid picture of the judgment of God. He was able to illustrate his text from life and from experience, both his and his hearers.
Luke Tyerman, an outstanding biographer of George Whitefield, described the awakening preacher: “Half a dozen men like Whitefield would at any time move a nation, stir its churches, and reform its morals. Whitefield’s power was not in his talents nor even in his oratory, but in his piety. … Such men are the gift of God and are infinitely more valuable than all the gold in the church’s coffers.”
Across the Atlantic
George Whitefield’s preaching ministry took him across the Atlantic for the first time in 1737-38 as a missionary to the newly established colony of Georgia. John and Charles Wesley had been laboring there, although themselves yet unconverted, to win the heathen, but had returned in defeat. Whitefield preached throughout the area, finding a ready hearing. When he saw the prospect for the orphanage planned by Oglethorpe, the colony’s founder, Whitefield returned to England to raise funds for the project. The orphanage ministry and the schools in connection prospered as a blessing to many. He raised thousands of dollars for their support, never personally profiting financially, but building up such treasure m Heaven that it is certain he enjoyed an abundant entrance to that place for which he helped fit so many.
There were seven “missionary journeys” to America in Whitefield’s ministry. Each crossing was long and severe, often aggravated by storm or delayed by calms. But each preaching mission in America gave the Awakener notable opportunities. In 1740, in Philadelphia, which then had a population of 12,000, one Sunday evening congregation on Society Hill was estimated as 15,000. Then he traveled to New York, preaching at towns along the way. At Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, 5000 heard him; in New Brunswick, New Jersey, “near seven or eight thousand.” After similar meetings in New York, he returned to Philadelphia where his farewell service in the City of Brotherly Love was estimated at nearly 20,000, perhaps the largest gathering in America to that date.
Charleston, South Carolina, also heard him in great numbers that summer before his return to Savannah Georgia and the orphanage. That fall New England received Whitefield. Four days he preached in Rhode Island before coming to Boston, enjoying much spiritual fruit in both places and in the smaller towns farther to the north.
Whitefield then met Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, an occasion of great joy for both men. In Middletown, Connecticut, he preached to “about four thousand people.” He then preached from New England to Georgia, carrying the Awakening revival up and down the colonies, preaching literally to thousands as he moved along. The Great Awakening of 1740 was only a sample of the ministry Whitefield enjoyed in America.
These revivals, and Whitefield’s constant zeal to proclaim the message always and everywhere, drained his bodily energy. In 1770 he preached his last sermon from the stairs of a parsonage in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He was still staying in the parsonage when at six o’clock on a September Sunday morning he awakened in Heaven.
A lesson in balance
There is an interesting postscript to the life of George Whitefield that teaches a lesson of spiritual balance among the people of God.
Today we commonly hear the name of Whitefield with that of John Wesley — contemporaries, sometimes co-laborers, sometimes contenders for opposite doctrinal truths, but always mutually respectful of God’s respective gifts. Their relationship is an instruction to us. Their largeness of soul taught John Wesley [see here for Dr. Panosian’s brief bio of Wesley] and George Whitefield a toleration of different viewpoints when no disobedience to the clear Word of Scripture was concerned. They learned to subordinate their differences to the performance of their callings without compromise of the Truth.
John Wesley and George Whitefield with an ocean often between them each believed one aspect of the “mystery of the ages,” divine sovereignty and human responsibility. While both are true, if irreconcilable by finite reason, undue emphasis on either has always divided good men.
In emphasizing man’s responsibility, Wesley decided that a man who believes that God foreknows those whom He calls must also believe that it is useless to preach the Gospel to all. Whitefield’s reply was that since we do not know who are the elect we are to preach to all. And Whitefield, who believed in election but preached to all, wrongly understood that when Wesley said all men may be saved he meant all would be saved. So Whitefield charged Wesley with universalism and Wesley charged Whitefield with teaching the arbitrary damnation of souls. Each accused the other of the logical conclusion of his position, yet neither actually held those extremes.
While the relationship between the two men was thus strained, their love and respect for each other was never quenched. It was John Wesley, who was to outlive Whitefield by 21 years, who gave him the most generous tribute as he gently chided his friend who asked “Do you think we shall see Mr. Whitefield in Heaven?” Wesley replied, “No, sir, I fear not, Mr. Whitefield will be so near the Throne and we at such a distance we shall hardly get a sight of him.”
This article appeared in Faith for the Family, January/February 1976. It is republished here by permission.