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George Whitefield: His Early Life

Category Articles
Date June 21, 2013

A brief account of the early life of this remarkable preacher, assembled by T. H. W. Scott.

Lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting I was much addicted to, even when very young. Sometimes I used to curse, if not swear. Stealing from my mother I thought no theft at all, and used to take money out of her pocket before she was up. I have frequently betrayed my trust, and have more than once spent money I took in the house, in buying fruits and tarts, to satisfy my sensual appetite.[37]

Unpromising material indeed! Could this possibly be the boy whom God one day was to use as the most powerful preacher ever known in England?

Let him tell us in his own words a little about his early days.

I was born in Gloucester, in the month of December, 1714. My father and mother kept the Bell Inn. It would be endless to recount the sins and offences of my younger days. They are more in number than the hairs of my head. But such was the free grace of God to me, I can recollect very early movings of the blessed Spirit upon my heart, sufficient to satisfy me that God loved me with an everlasting love, and separated me even from my mother’s womb, for the work to which He afterwards was pleased to call me.[37-38]

It seems that from his earliest days he was fond of being a clergyman. He frequently imitated ministers reading prayers and preaching. However, his mother was very careful of his education, for which he was ever thankful.

When I was about twelve, I was placed at a [grammar] school called St. Mary de Crypt. During the time of my being at school, I was very fond of reading plays, and have kept from school for days together to prepare myself for acting them. I must always acknowledge my particular thanks to my schoolmaster, for the great pains he took with me and his other scholars, in teaching us to speak and write correctly.

Before I was fifteen I one day told my mother I judged it best not to learn Latin any longer. She at first refused to consent. However, my mother’s circumstances being much on the decline, I from time to time began to assist her occasionally in the public house, till at length I put on my blue apron and my snuffers [for the candles], washed mops, cleaned rooms, and, in one word, became a common drawer.

After I had continued about a year in this servile employment, my mother was obliged to leave the inn. My brother, who had been bred up for the business, married. It was agreed that I should continue there as an assistant. But God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts. By His good Providence it happened that my sister-in-law and I could by no means agree; and at length the resentment grew to such a height, that my proud heart would scarce suffer me to speak to her for three weeks together. But notwithstanding I was much to blame, yet I used to retire and weep before the Lord, little thinking that God by this means was forcing me out of the public business, and calling me from drawing wine for drunkards, to draw water out of the wells of salvation for the refreshment of his spiritual Israel.

I at length resolved to go away. Accordingly, I went to see my elder brother, then settled at Bristol.[39-41]

It was while at Bristol the work of grace in his heart was deepened. He tells us once, in St. John’s church, he was ‘given great foretastes of His love, that I was carried out beyond myself.’ He felt ‘great hungerings and thirstings after the blessed Sacrament.’ He tells us he was always impatient till the bell rang to call him once more ‘to tread the courts of the Lord’s House.'[41] He first partook of Holy Communion at the age of seventeen.

A full account of how God prepared him for the ministry can be read in his Journals (published by the Banner of Truth Trust), which we highly recommend as interesting and profitable reading.

The Bishop of Gloucester declared he would not ordain anyone under the age of twenty-three. In the case of George Whitefield, he made an exception. He ordained him at the age of twenty-one.

Another old and worthy minister of Christ said he believed, if St. Paul was then at Gloucester, he would ordain him too!

We include three short extracts from the early days of his ministry, as told in his Journals.

At Bristol (1737, aged 22)

I preached, as usual, about five times a week; but the congregations grew, if possible, larger and larger. It was wonderful to see how the people 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, that the steam would fall from the pillars like drops of rain. Sometimes, almost as many would go away, for want of room, as came in; and it was with great difficulty that I got into the desk, to read prayers or preach.

Persons of all denominations flocked to hear. Persons of all ranks, not only publicly attended my ministry, but gave me private invitations to their houses. A private Society or two were erected. I preached and collected for the poor prisoners in Newgate prison twice or thrice a week; and many made me large offers if I would not go abroad.

During my stay here I paid another visit to Bath, and preached three times in the Abbey Church, and once in Queen’s Chapel. People crowded, and were affected as at Bristol; and God stirred up some elect ladies to give upwards of £160 for the poor of Georgia.

June 21st, I took my last farewell at Bristol; but when I came to tell them it might be, that they would ‘see my face no more,’ high and low, young and old burst into such a flood of tears, as I had never seen before. Multitudes, after sermon, followed me home weeping; and, the next day, I was employed from seven in the morning till midnight, in talking and giving spiritual advice to awakened souls.

About three the next morning, having thrown myself on the bed for an hour or two, I set out for Gloucester, because I heard that a great company on horseback, and in coaches, intended to see me out of town. Some, finding themselves disappointed, followed me thither, where I stayed a few days, and preached to a very crowded auditory. [84-85]

At Cheltenham (1739, aged 24)

Being earnestly invited by several of the inhabitants, I came hither, attended with about a dozen friends, by five o’clock. The use of the pulpit being refused me, I preached on the Bowling Green belonging to the Plough Inn.

When I came in, the town I perceived, was alarmed, by the people standing at their doors. At the first, I found myself quite shut up. My heart and head were dead as a stone, but when I came to the inn, my soul began to be enlarged. I felt a freedom in my spirit, and was enabled to preach with power to near two thousand people. Many were convicted. One was drowned in tears, because she had said I was crazy; and some were so filled with the Holy Ghost that they were almost unable to support themselves under it. This, I know, is foolishness to the natural and letter-learned men, but I write this for the comfort of God’s children. They know what these things mean.

Wednesday, April 18. Preached this morning with power to a much larger congregation than we had last night. Several servants of God said they never saw the like before. We shall see greater things than these; for almost every day persons of all denominations come unto me, telling how they intercede in my behalf. And it shall now be my particular business, wherever I go, to bring all the children of God, notwithstanding their differences, to rejoice together. How dare we not converse with those who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? [253]

At Baskinridge [Basking Ridge?], USA (1740, aged 25)

Wednesday, Nov. 5. Set out at eight in the morning, and got to Baskinridge, the place where Mr. Cross exercises his stated ministry, about one o’clock. At the house where I waited in the way, a woman spoke to me under strong convictions, and told me ‘she was deeply wounded by my last night’s discourse.’ When I came to Baskinridge, I found Mr. Davenport had been preaching to the congregation, according to appointment. It consisted of about three thousand people. I had not discoursed long when, in every part of the congregation, some one or other began to cry out, and almost all were melted into tears.

A little boy, about eight years of age, wept as though his heart would break. Mr. Cross took him up into the waggon, which so affected me that I broke from my discourse, and told the people that, since old professors were not concerned, God, out of an infant’s mouth was perfecting praise; and the little boy should preach to them. As I was going away, I asked the little boy what he cried for? He answered, his sins. I then asked what he wanted? He answered, Christ.

After sermon, Mr. Cross gave notice of an evening lecture in his barn, two miles off. Thither we went, and a great multitude followed. Mr. Gilbert Tennent preached first: and I then began to pray, and gave an exhortation. In about six minutes, one cried out, ‘He is come, He is come!’, and could scarce sustain the manifestation of Jesus to his soul. The eager crying of others, for the like favour, obliged me to stop; and I prayed over them, as I saw their agonies and distress increase. At length we sang a hymn, and then retired to the house, where the man that received Christ continued praising and speaking of Him till near midnight.

My own soul was so full that I retired, and wept before the Lord, under a deep sense of my own vileness, and the sovereignty and greatness of God’s everlasting love. Most of the people spent the remainder of the night in prayer and praises. It was a night much to be remembered.[487]


Taken with permission from Perception, Summer 2013

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