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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