George Whitefield - The power of the gospel
[For the background to this series of articles see the post for May 2022, Forty years ago]
The power of the gospel
A young man by the name of George Whitefield, not yet twenty, and a student at Oxford University, was deeply in earnest about saving his soul. And he did seem to be making progress. He had been fasting and praying, meditating on Scripture and earnestly doing good, and had now made the astounding discovery that it was all in vain. This was not the way to become a true Christian! He needed to be born again. The realisation so gripped him that he immediately set pen to paper. Family and friends must know this too.
The sequel is first painful and then thrilling. The new birth was pursued with the same ardour and by the same methods as George had sought to make himself righteous. He practiced rigorous self-denial – giving up sleep, giving up warm clothes, giving up laughter, giving up certain foods, giving up eating altogether for long periods of time – hoping and hoping that God would reward his efforts. But again it was all in vain. It left him weak and ill and as far from peace as ever.
At last came the cry of utter helplessness. George had been reading Bishop Joseph Hall on Christ’s sufferings, how Christ had cried out, ‘I thirst!’ It became his own cry. ‘I thirst! I thirst!’ ‘He had thrown himself, at long last’, writes his biographer John Pollock, ‘blindfold and without reserve, without struggle or claim, into God’s almighty hands. And Someone, unseen but real, had slaked his thirst – had removed his burden, and replaced it with himself.’ The result was an irrepressible joyfulness, an eagerness to tell others, a willingness on their part to listen, and the first indications that God intended to use him as a soul-winner.
Early work as a preacher
In the summer of 1736, George, now twenty one and a half, was ordained a minister of the Church of England. He might easily have settled into a parish ministry in England but his heart was drawn to America. During his Oxford days he had become friends with John and Charles Wesley who had gone out as chaplains to the newly founded colony of Georgia. They were keen for Whitefield to join them. John, for example, had written, ‘The harvest is so great and the labourers so few. What if thou art the man, Mr. Whitefield?’
It was early 1738 before he was able to set sail. Part of the waiting time was spent in Bristol, where his brother Andrew lived. The fervency, popularity, and success of Whitefield’s preaching there give us a snapshot of what was true from beginning to end of his remarkable ministry. People came to hear him in crowds. He writes of how they ‘hung upon the rails of the organ loft, climbed upon the leads of the church, and made the church itself so hot with their breath’ – it was June – ‘that the steam would fall from the pillars like drops of rain.’ And they not only listened. ‘Whenever he preached’, writes Pollock, ‘men and women of all ages cried out for the living God.’
Sailing across the Atlantic in those days was no easy task. A later voyage, the first for his wife Elizabeth whom he married in 1741, took almost twelve weeks. ‘Our captain and others’, wrote Elizabeth, ‘say they never saw such a voyage, for all nature seemed to be turned upside. We had nothing but storms, calms and contrary winds.’ Whitefield’s own first crossing was in the Whitaker which was carrying troops as well as passengers like himself. Two other ships were in the convoy. When Whitefield preached (which he did every day) these other ships would sometimes draw near to join the service, Whitefield’s magnificent voice carrying easily across the water. In all he was to cross the Atlantic no fewer than thirteen times.
Whitefield’s destination, as we have noted, was Georgia, and with the establishment of an orphanage there he was often to return to Georgia in coming years. But it was not the only scene of his American ministry. On the contrary, his evangelistic labours took him the whole length of the eastern seaboard from Georgia in the south to Maine in the north. And nor was his preaching confined to churches. Vast crowds gathered to hear him the open air. So too in Britain.
Into the open air
Whitefield had initially preached only in churches. Open air preaching – at least by Church of England ministers – was unheard of. To venture into the open air was a huge step for Whitefield to take. For John Wesley it was an even bigger one. Wesley regarded open air preaching as ‘a mad notion’. But the step was taken – and with momentous consequences. Opposition was the thing that forced Whitefield’s hand. The gospel message that he preached and his criticism of fellow clergy for not preaching it themselves led to churches being closed to him. When that happened in Bristol he turned to the colliers in neighbouring Kingswood.
Uneducated, unruly, and evil-living the colliers were feared and shunned. Whitefield’s heart, however, went out to them. ‘My bowels’, he said, ‘have long yearned towards the poor colliers, who are very numerous and are as sheep having no shepherd.’ The first time he spoke to them – it was a Saturday in February 1739 – about two hundred gathered round to listen. And the word found its mark. As Whitefield preached Jesus, ‘who was a friend of publicans and sinners and came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’, he could see the ‘white gutters made by their tears down their black cheeks.’ It was only the start. At the next meeting many of the townsfolk joined them. So too the following Sunday, when it was known that every pulpit in Bristol was closed to him. On Sunday 25th March it was estimated that were no fewer than twenty-three thousand present. ‘The open firmament above me’, writes Whitefield, ‘the prospect of the adjacent fields with the sight of thousands and thousands…and at times all affected and drenched in tears together, to which was added the solemnity of the approaching evening, was almost too much and quite overcame me.’
Open air preaching, to vast crowds like this, was to remain the order of the day until Whitefield’s death in 1770. Scotland witnessed it in 1742. Early that year, in the village of Cambuslang, several hundred people were converted over a period of three months. There was a similar work of God in nearby Kilsyth. The two ministers who were at the heart of it, William M’Culloch and James Robe, urged Whitefield to visit. Arriving in Cambuslang at noon on a Communion Sunday he preached at two in the afternoon, six in the evening, and nine at night. ‘Such a commotion’, he writes, ‘surely never was heard of, especially at eleven at night…For about an hour and a half there was such weeping, so many falling into deep distress and expressing it in various ways, as is indescribable…Their cries and agonies are exceeding affecting.’ Returning to Cambuslang a week later, a crowd of nearly twenty thousand heard him on the Saturday; between thirty and fifty thousand the following day. At a still later date nearly forty thousand attended in spite of the rain. ‘The work’, he writes, ‘seems to spread more and more.’
Whitefield could say that if he had a thousand souls and bodies they should all be itinerants for Jesus Christ. ‘Oh, may I never cease itinerating till I sit down in the kingdom of heaven. Oh for a pilgrim’s heart with my pilgrim’s life.’ His wish was fulfilled. He crossed the Atlantic to America for the last time in late 1769. His wife Elizabeth had died the year before. From the time of his arrival to the day of his death in September 1770 he was constantly on the move and constantly preaching. And that in spite of very poor health. It had dogged him for many years. He had not indeed expected to live as long as he did. Asthma and angina were especially troublesome. But as often as he rose to preach his weakness would leave him and for up to two hours at a time he would preach Christ with all his old energy, passion, drama, and spiritual power, his great voice still able to be heard by vast numbers.
So it was on Saturday 29th September 1770 in Exeter, Massachusetts. Though unable to speak for several minutes the Lord strengthened him to preach, as one hearer put it, ‘with such clearness, pathos and eloquence as to please and surprise the surrounding thousands.’ ‘I go’, he cried, ‘I go to rest prepared. My sun has arisen and by the aid of heaven has given light to many. It is now about to set – No! it is about to rise to the zenith of immortal glory! Many may outlive me on earth but they cannot outlive me in heaven. O thought divine! I shall soon be in a world where time, age, pain and sorrow are unknown. My body fails, my spirit expands. How willingly would I live for ever to preach Christ! But I die to be with him!’ And so indeed he did, in the home of his friend Jonathan Parsons in Newburyport, Massachusetts, just hours afterwards.
The source for this article has been George Whitefield: the Evangelist by John Pollock. It helpfully sets Whitefield before the reader in his humble beginnings, his education, his early spiritual struggles, his uneasy relationship with the Wesleys, his marriage, his mistakes, his humility, his remarkable gifts, his labours in the gospel on both sides of the Atlantic, his extraordinary success as an evangelist, and his profound love for Christ. My first reading of it, many years back, prompted me to go on and read Arnold Dallimore’s magnificent two-volume George Whitefield, The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival, published by the Banner of Truth. May it do the same for you! Whitefield’s story is a remarkable illustration of the power of the gospel; of what God can do through a man whom he has saved, gifted, and empowered. It is just the kind of story we need in these dark days. The God of George Whitefield and of the eighteenth-century revival is the same God still.