Month: July 2017

Protestant Profiles #18: George Whitefield

George Whitefield (1714 – 1770)

George Whitefield

Born: Gloucester, England
Role: Itinerant Preacher; significant (Calvinistic) Methodist figure; chaplain
Emphases: Divine Sovereignty; need for spiritual regeneration; open-air preaching; working across boundaries
Protested against: Anglican unfaithfulness to the gospel; Roman Catholicism

George Whitefield was closely associated with the subjects of our last two profiles (John Wesley and the Countess of Huntingdon), but he himself is a giant in the history of preaching, evangelism and religious revival; a key figure in Methodism and in American and English religious history.

American historian Thomas Kidd summarises Whitefield’s significance:

1. “Whitefield was the most influential Anglo-American evangelical leader of the eighteenth century.”
2. “He also indelibly marked the character of evangelical Christianity.”
3. He “was the first internationally famous itinerant preacher and the first modern transatlantic celebrity of any kind.”
4. “Perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher that the world has ever seen.” [1]

Whitefield was one of the earliest Methodists – joining the Wesleys’ ‘Holy Club’ at Oxford around 1729/30. After having a conversion-experience as a result of reading the 17th century Presbyterian Henry Scougal‘s work The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Whitefield promptly dedicated himself to gospel preaching. He was ordained as a deacon within the Anglican church, but continued to be actively involved with the earliest Methodists.

In early 1739, he preached to a very large open-air crowd in Kingswood, near Bristol in England. Whitefield gave the following account of his outdoor-evangelistic debut:

‘At four I hastened to Kingswood. At a moderate computation there were about ten thousand people … All was hush when I began: the sun shone bright, and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power, and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear me…About nine I came home, rejoicing at the great things God had done for my soul [2]   

Later that year, he invited John Wesley to begin open-air preaching and continue the work he had begun in the area, as he prepared to head for Georgia in North America (where Wesley himself had gone a few years earlier, only to return to England after a terrible ‘false start’ to his ministry).

It is estimated that Whitefield preached to crowds of up to 50 000 people at a time during this first year he spent touring the American colonies. He started an orphanage in Georgia, which he tirelessly raised funds for while going about his evangelistic preaching ministry on both sides of the Atlantic. A friend began advertising Whitefield’s upcoming preaching dates in local newspapers to publicise the events and attract as many people as possible – which contributed enormously to his popularity and reach.

His theological differences with Wesley – one of the most famous Calvinist-Arminian conflicts in church history – led to a natural alliance with the similarly minded Countess of Huntingdon within the growing Methodist movement. The two became the lead figures among the Calvinistic Methodists and had a somewhat strained relationship with the Wesleys and other Arminian Methodists over the years. The Countess made Whitefield her chaplain and funded many of his evangelistic tours in England and America.

Like Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield’s preaching in North America was one of the major means through which God worked to bring about the spiritual revival known as the (First) Great Awakening. Whereas in our day it is not uncommon to meet Christians in their autumn years who were converted after attending a Billy Graham crusade, an enormous multitude had profound spiritual experiences under Whitefield’s earnest, dramatic and powerful preaching. And, also not unlike Graham, there was division among Christians and churches across the country as to whether Whitefield’s ministry and the revivals that seemed to be occurring were a positive thing or not.

It is of course difficult to gauge how many people who had a spiritual experience during the revival went on to bear the ongoing fruit that evidenced a true conversion. But there can be no denying that God used Whitefield’s preaching to draw many souls to Himself and bring them to salvation through the gospel of Christ. Reportedly 80% of America’s population at the time heard him preach at one time or another. And biographies of his life testify to his tireless work – day in day out, all year round – for the advance of God’s Kingdom through the preaching of the gospel.

Whitefield died in his mid-fifties and the Countess of Huntingdon took care of his orphanage in Georgia after his death, along with the estates he bequeathed to her. He had laboured in the gospel for 33 years and touched countless lives. Mass evangelism has continued as a medium long after his death – made easier by the construction of stadiums and arenas, along with the advent of new technology. And yet there has never been another figure quite like Whitefield in the years since.

He remains an inspiration to evangelists, Calvinists, Wesleyans and many other Christians the world over.

You can read more about Whitefield’s life and ministry here.

 

Sources

[1] Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, pp. 260 & 263.
[2] George Whitefield’s Journals137.

F. Lambert, “Whitefield, George” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals.
“George Whitefield” wikipedia.

 

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Protestant Profiles #17: Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon

Selina Hastings (1707-1791)

Selina_Hastings,_Countess_of_Huntingdon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_18444

Born: Leicestershire, England
Role: Patroness of evangelical ministry; founder of eponymous Connexion; Principal of Trevecca College
Emphases: Training of effective gospel ministers; Calvinistic Methodism; renewal of English Church

Due to a combination of illness and endeavouring to spend more time with family during a holiday break, this installment of the series is regrettably both late and concise.  

Selina Shirley (later Hastings) was born in the early 18th century to a noble family and herself married an earl in 1728. Her marriage lasted for the better part of two decades, before her husband’s death in 1746. Following her conversion seven years earlier, the Countess Huntingdon was active in the evangelical scene of the Anglican church – but her significance to Protestant history – and the Methodist movement in particular – largely came about during her four and a half decades of widowhood.

The Countess was part of the very early Methodist movement and a member of the society established by the Wesley brothers and others. But over time, she found that her theological perspective aligned much more comfortably with the emergent Calvinist branch of Methodism, which included figures such as George Whitefield (see next profile).

Taking advantage of a legal provision which allowed the English nobility to establish their own private chapels and appoint chaplains (in reality ‘preachers’) as they saw fit, the Countess financed and facilitated a network of godly, revivalistic preachers across the country. While there were apparently some grumblings within church and society that she was overstretching this provision, the Countess was not prevented from establishing more than 60 chapels that allowed for ministers of her choosing to conduct evangelistic preaching ministries.

The Countess established an evangelical Bible College in Wales in 1768 – effectively the world’s first Methodist seminary – but it did not manage to attract the number of ministry candidates she had hoped for. Eventually her excessive liberality with respect to acquiring personal chapels and chaplains reached a breaking point with the Anglican establishment and in 1783, she found herself and part of her network operating outside of the state church – effectively becoming a dissenting denomination which would come to be known as the “Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.” While the Connexion had an entirely male ministry, it was at the time perhaps the only English denomination that was in effect headed by a woman.

One of her biographers, H.M. Jones says of the Countess:

“Lady Huntingdon’s significance was remarkable. The roles she exercised (hostess, patroness and private spiritual exhorter) were acceptable for a woman of high rank, but she exercised them on an unparalleled scale, thanks to her combination of rank and wealth with an iron will and charismatic character. She thus acquired a degree of religious authority that was, for a woman, almost unprecedented. By hosting worship and preaching in her own home (a great mansion) she created an alternative space for worship from that of the established church. By giving her patronage to not one or two, but to hordes of preachers and clergy, she became, in one sense of the word, their bishop.”[1]

Measuring the Countess’ true impact as a patron of the Methodist renewal movement is a difficult task. On the one hand, the college and denomination she founded continue to this day in different forms – but they do not appear to be making the same impact on the 21st century religious landscape of the U.K. that their founder had on the 18th. On the other hand, everyone who heard Whitefield and the other preachers that she supported is long gone – and yet in the last 250 years or so, surely thousands upon thousands of people have become Christians in England, Wales and around the world during the harvest of the seeds the Countess of Huntingdon sowed through her financial and spiritual investments in her 50 years of zealous ministry.

Sources

[1] D.M. Jones, “Huntingdon, Selina Hastings, Countess of”, Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, p. 320-321.

“Countess of Huntingdon” wikipedia

Protestant Profiles #16: John Wesley

John Wesley (1703 – 1791)

John_Wesley_1

Born: Epworth, Lincolnshire, England
Role: Minister, Preacher, Founder of (Wesleyan Methodism)
Emphases: personal holiness; justification by faith; circuit preaching & lay ministry
Protested against: Catholic sacramentalism; transubstantiation, purgatory; indulgences

John Wesley is an interesting, yet significant figure when it comes to the history of Protestant Christianity. He made an enormous contribution to the emergence of evangelicalism through his pioneering Methodist movement.

Wesley was born to Anglican rector Samuel Wesley and his devout wife Susanna. Both of his parents came from dissenting religious backgrounds, but had migrated to the Church of England earlier in their lives. Though Wesley would not found the religious movement known as “Methodism” for many years, the ‘methodical’ approach to religion and devotion was part of his upbringing – as his mother trained all of the Wesley children rigorously in the knowledge of Scripture and in spiritual exercises.

Wesley’s desire for holiness of life and true, inner spirituality was a constant theme during his youth, education and early ministry. He treated his daily activities and religious progress with the utmost seriousness and famously formed a group at Oxford University (known derisively as the “Holy Club”) to pursue a live that was more devout than that of the typical university student or academic.

Wesley’s “General Questions” were a series of spiritual diagnostic inquiries to determine the genuineness of one’s religion and motives. They are worth reproducing here as a sample of his flavor of spirituality:

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
  4. Can I be trusted?
  5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
  6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
  7. Did the Bible live in me today?
  8. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
  9. Am I enjoying prayer?
  10. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
  11. Do I pray about the money I spend?
  12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
  13. Do I disobey God in anything?
  14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
  17. How do I spend my spare time?
  18. Am I proud?
  19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
  20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
  21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
  22. Is Christ real to me?[1]

There can be little doubt that Wesley’s rigourous and methodical outlook enabled him to excel at religious duties and spiritual disciplines where so many others have failed. But his quest for sincerity also led him to doubt the genuineness of his spirituality. He was heavily influenced by Moravian Christians in his early thirties and concluded that there was something pivotal to their Christian experience that was missing in his own. When he was just shy of thirty-five, he had what has come to be known as his “Aldersgate Experience”, where his heart was “strangely warmed” during a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans and he experienced a deep assurance of his salvation.

In 1739 Wesley began to establish Methodist societies – small parachurch groupings where Christians who were serious about conversion and holiness could gather and be encouraged, while reaching out to people in their local area. These groups were designed to facilitate Wesley’s goal of reformation and revival within the Anglican Church – but as with previous (i.e. Puritan) attempts at such spiritual renewal within the state church, Methodism began as a grassroots movement inside local parishes across the country, but would end as a completely separate religious entity due to the Church’s unwillingness to change.

Wesley earned the ire of Anglican authorities for his willingness to appoint lay preachers who were not authorized – let alone ordained – by the state church. Wesley himself was an indomitable itinerant preacher, constantly travelling to preach and establish the movement in different parts of the country. Methodist preachers followed suit, travelling in circuits from town to town to preach and provide pastoral care to Christians who belonged to the new societies.

Wesley and other notable, early Methodist figures (see our next 2 Profiles) had a widespread impact on Christianity in England and the American colonies. Despite Methodism never growing to become a large demographic percentage in either country, its vitality and dedication to the gospel were catalysts for positive change in other sections of the Christian community.

Wesley’s rejection of Calvinist soteriology in favour of a modified form of evangelical Arminianism sets him apart from many of the other figures featured in this series. Some Reformed Christians would see certain Wesleyan theological emphases as departures from the theology of the Reformation. But for all the deficiencies in his theology, Wesley did faithfully propagate many of the core doctrines and emphases of evangelical Protestantism and bequeathed that legacy to his followers (though many who claim to follow him have long since departed from them!).

His approach to Christian piety was an earnest and affective response to the lacklustre spirituality of the Anglican church in his day – and yet it carries with it a dangerous over-optimism about sanctification in this life. But Wesley possessed a remarkable passion for spreading the gospel and his thought and ministry have made an enormous impact on Protestantism and evangelicalism ever since.

Millions of Christians – not only in the Methodist Church, but offshoots such as Holiness Churches; the Salvation Army; the Church of Nazarene and many branches of Pentecostalism – continue to be impacted by Wesley’s emphasis on holiness and example of dedicated ministry. Even those who hold deep concerns about his understanding of sovereignty, soteriology and sanctification can find things about him to admire and give thanks for.

Protestant Profiles #15: Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

383px-Jonathan_Edwards_engraving

Born: East Windsor, Conneticut Colony, North America
Role: Pastor/Preacher; revivalist; theologian; supporter of mission to Native Americans; 3rd President of Princeton University
Emphases: Beauty, Majesty and Sovereignty of God; religious affections; justification by faith
Protested against: Arminianism, false revivalism

Jonathan Edwards looms as a giant of giants among early American Protestants. Dubbed by some “the last of the Puritans,” Edwards was a major figure in the religious revival known as the “(First)  Great Awakening” and delivered perhaps the most famous sermon in the English language. He had an incredible impact: in his native New England; throughout America; and across the Atlantic. His influence would also later inspire many missionaries as they prepared to take the gospel to unreached parts of the world.

Edwards became assistant minister to his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, in his mid-20s. A couple of years later his grandfather died, leaving the young Edwards in charge of one of New England’s most prestigious and important churches. Edwards was concerned with the spiritual health of many in his congregation, but in the mid 1730s (a few years into his solo ministry), he began to see some incredible results in response to his faithful, gospel preaching.

In the space of just six months, around 300 people were recorded as experiencing a meaningful spiritual conversion under Edwards’ ministry. Edwards took a great interest in how Christians should understand the nature of true conversion and this concern characterised his ministry and writing for many years to come – as religious revivals occurred across the land. Edwards rejoiced in the ministry of the revival-preachers that saw much fruit in New England during the next decade, such as George Whitfield and Gilbert Tennent, but he grew concerned about some of the emotionalism and unscriptural attitudes that arose as the Great Awakening unfolded.

In addition to his production of several important treatments of the nature and characteristics of true revivals, the 1740s saw Edwards publish three of his most notable works.

In 1741 he preached his most famous sermon – perhaps the most famous ever American sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards was not theatrical or manipulative in his presentation, unlike some later revival-preachers, but the sheer gravity of his message about the imminence of divine judgement and the real and present danger of sinners falling into hell-fire at any moment, had a profound impact on many of his hearers. While many Protestants and Evangelicals in the 21st century would be embarrassed by the nature of such a message, there is little denying that Edwards’ handling of these themes in a serious manner carried spiritual potency.

In 1746, he produced a work on Religious Affections, showing his indebtedness to earlier Puritans when it came to the effect that religious knowledge should have upon the hearts of those who receive them. The gospel moved the heart to an intense fear of judgement; an intense love of God and an intense hatred of sin and worldliness. This is the kind of resource from Christian history which is invaluable to those concerned about cold, heady Reformed orthodoxy on the one hand and warm, fuzzy spirituality unanchored in doctrine on the other.

1749 saw Edwards publish the Life and Diary of David Brainerd – detailing the ministry and intense personal struggles of a sincere, Christian young man who had gone to live among Native Americans and share the gospel with them. Through making Brainerd’s life known to many Christians around the world, Edwards was used by God to challenge untold numbers of people to missionary service to the unreached ends of the earth.

A couple of years after publishing this work, Edwards became involved in ministry to Native Americans himself, as his family relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a town where relations were tense between white American settlers and local tribes. Edwards enjoyed a productive, but by no means easy ministry during the 1750s, before accepting the presidency of the College of New Jersey (today Princeton University) in 1758. In a strange and unexpected twist to the end of his life and ministry he died in March of that year after volunteering as a test subject for a smallpox vaccine in the name of promoting medical research. He was president of the college for just a few weeks.

Edwards theology and spirituality continue to have a sizeable impact on American Reformed Evangelicalism and he continues to attract the interest of lay Christians, pastors and scholars in many parts of the English speaking world: including the UK, South Africa and Australia. As we celebrate 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, Edwards not only reminds us that religious revivals do have a legitimate place in the life, ministry and history of our movement – but provides us with resources to evaluate the extent to which a “move of God” is occurring.

You can read Edwards’ well known “Resolutions” for living (produced when he was around 20 years old), here.
Or Desiring God has an extensive treatment of his life and ministry by John Piper here.

Sources

“Jonathan Edwards” at Wikipedia
R.W. Caldwell & D.A. Sweeney, “EDWARDS, Jonathan” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
Diane Severance, “The Great Awakening” http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/the-great-awakening-11630212.html