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The Life of George Whitefield

Category Articles
Date May 13, 2015

The following is closely based on an article published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume 18, number 2 (Summer 2014), with selected references. The Trust’s publications on Whitefield include The Life and Times of George Whitefield by Robert Philip,1 George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore, Volumes 12 and 2,3 and Select Sermons of George Whitefield,4 which includes an account of his life by J. C. Ryle.

Who is the greatest preacher since the apostles?

Billy Graham? Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones? The ‘prince of preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon? Such an exercise is futile, as there are many preachers in different times and countries that most will never hear of, and it is impossible to make a proper comparison. Sound recording is a relatively recent invention in the history of the church, and it is only really possible to compare recorded preachers. But if we go on the basis of reports of the power and effects of preaching, Whitefield would certainly have to be considered in a list of ‘greats’.

Spurgeon said of Whitefield,

There is no end to the interest that attaches to such a man as George Whitefield. Often as I have read his life, I am conscious of a distinct quickening whenever I turn to it. He lived; other men seem only to be half alive; but Whitefield was all life, fire, wing, force. My own model, if I may have such a thing in due subordination to my Lord, is George Whitefield; but with unequal footsteps must I follow his glorious track.5

In a short article it impossible to cover everything about Whitefield’s life. This will be more ‘edited highlights’.

Birth and early life

George Whitefield was born on 16 December 1714 (27 December 1714 on our current calendar)6 in the city of Gloucester at the Bell Inn, Southgate Street, near the central crossroads. He was the youngest of seven children of Thomas and Elizabeth Whitefield. He was baptized in the font of nearby St Mary de Crypt. His parents owned and ran the Inn that he was born in. His father died when Whitefield was aged two years old. At the age of four Whitefield contracted measles and as a consequence was left with a severe squint, the left eye pointing inwards. Eight years after her bereavement, Mrs Whitefield remarried, but the marriage was not happy and after a few years her new husband left.

Gloucester was a port on the River Severn and the first crossing point of the river to get into south Wales from London. It was a place where coaches travelling from London to south Wales would stop for the night. The Old Bell Inn continues to stand, but the main part of Whitefield’s Bell Inn is now a parade of shops.

From the age of twelve Whitefield attended the Crypt Grammar School at St Mary de Crypt. Here he developed a passion for acting and loved nothing more than reading and performing plays. At fifteen he decided he had learned enough and, as there was no hope of his following some of his ancestors in attending Oxford University (because of the family finances), he persuaded his mother to allow him to start working at the inn, washing floors and serving customers. He especially enjoyed meeting the travelling players and discussing acting with them.

Some time later a former school friend returned from Oxford and explained that by acting as a servitor (a servant to the wealthier students) he was able to study at Oxford and pay for his education. Elizabeth Whitefield decided this would be ideal for her son, so George returned to the Crypt School to brush up on his Classical education.

As a youth Whitefield was no more or less religious than other Englishmen of that day. He was a good Anglican, attending church regularly, but knowing nothing of the teaching of the Bible. In his mid-teens he went to church with friends to mock, but before he went to Oxford he became more serious and began to take religion much more seriously. English religion had become very soft, drifting into Deism. The thing that many people feared was ‘enthusiasm’ which they associated with the English Civil Wars and the execution of Charles I.

Oxford and the Holy Club

In the autumn of 1732 he went up to Pembroke College, Oxford as a servitor. He did all the chores for those students whose families could afford to pay for their tuition. Working in an inn had trained him perfectly for such tasks. This made him popular with the wealthier students.
He started attending church regularly, singing psalms and praying daily. He was an ideal person to join the Methodists (a pejorative name, along with Bible Moths and Bible Bigots) as they had a similar concern for religion. Their name for themselves was the Holy Club. It was after about a year that he was invited to breakfast by Charles Wesley. Charles lent him some books, the most significant of which was Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Whitefield recounted:

In a short time he let me have another book, entitled, The Life of God in the Soul of Man; and, tho’ I had fasted, watched and prayed, and received the sacrament so long, yet I never knew what true religion was, till God sent me that excellent treatise by the hands of my never to be forgotten friend.

At my first reading it, I wondered what the author meant by saying, ‘That some falsely placed religion in going to church, doing hurt to no one, being constant in the duties of the closet, and now and then reaching out their hands to give alms to their poor neighbours.’ Alas! thought I, ‘If this be not religion, what is?’ God soon showed me. For in reading a few lines further that ‘true religion was an union’ of the soul with God, and Christ formed ‘within us;’ a ray of divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul, and from that moment, but not till then, did I know that I must be a new creature.7

This completely undermined Whitefield’s beliefs. Every religious duty that he had been doing up to this point was without value before. He resolved to do everything he could to become a new creature. He worked so hard at it that he nearly killed himself. He began to live by the rigid rules of the Holy Club, accounting for every moment of the day. It did him no good. He felt a load of sin pressing upon him, and nothing took it away. He went to extremes, not eating, not speaking. At one point ‘It was now suggested to me, that Jesus Christ was amongst the wild beasts when he was tempted’ and that he should follow his example. He would go outside and pray, in the cold, even laying on the ground, for hours. His health began to deteriorate and one of his hands was turning black. His tutor began to worry about him and there were fears he would die. After seven weeks of sickness, he found he had a thirst which drinking did not allay. He remembered that when Christ was near an end of his sufferings he said ‘I thirst’. He threw himself onto his bed and cried to God ‘I thirst! I thirst!’, the first time he had looked outside of himself for help. His load lifted and he found himself full of joy. ‘The Spirit of mourning was taken from me, and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour, and, for some time, could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was’. He had become a new creature in Christ. In a sermon preached near the end of his life, he said ‘I know the place: it may be superstitious, perhaps, but whenever I go to Oxford, I cannot help running to that place where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me, and gave me the new birth.’

For the sake of his health, he returned home to Gloucester to recuperate. While there he spoke to people about his new found faith. Some were converted and he gathered them together in a small society for mutual encouragement.

After nine months he had fully recovered and returned to Oxford to complete his studies. Though there was opposition to his new beliefs, and he was tested more rigorously, he passed and was awarded his degree.

He had vague thoughts of entering the ministry, but thought he was unsuited. Friends urged him that he should be ordained, but he resisted for some time. A visit with the Bishop of Gloucester finally persuaded him. This bishop, Martin Benson, said that normally he would not ordain anyone under the age of 23, but he had been so impressed with Whitefield’s character that he would ordain him whenever he asked. So it was that he was made a deacon of the Church of England in a ceremony at Gloucester Cathedral on Trinity Sunday, 20 June 1736. The following Sunday he preached his first sermon from the pulpit of St Mary de Crypt on that most evangelistic of all subjects, The Necessity and Benefit of Religious Society. He recorded in a letter that complaints had been made to the bishop that he had sent fifteen people mad!

He returned to Oxford to undertake further studies, but was soon asked by a friend to fill in for him as curate at the chapel of the Tower of London. Whitefield did not consider he was ready to take on a full time ministry — he wanted to have a stock of a hundred sermons first — but was happy to help his friend. He preached at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, near the Tower and, initially, people mocked, saying ‘There’s a boy parson’. But their opinions changed after hearing Whitefield preach.

In November 1736 another friend prevailed upon him to fill in for him and Whitefield spent several weeks in the small village of Dummer. Here he met with and ministered to ‘normal’ people, not Oxford academics or London sophisticates. While here he was offered a profitable curacy in London, but declined. Then he received letters from the Wesley brothers, now missionaries in the new colony of Georgia. He had received accounts of their activities before, and felt a yearning to join them, but this time the letter made a specific appeal to Whitefield to join them. He believed this to be the call of God and resolved he would be a missionary in the New World. He set his affairs in order and began saying his farewells to friends in Gloucester and Bristol.

He met with General Oglethorpe, the founder and first governor of Georgia, who said that Whitefield was to travel with him. But Oglethorpe was not ready to travel yet. So Whitefield had to fill his time, which he readily did, with preaching. Large numbers began attending his preaching and he was becoming very popular. It was both his manner of preaching (lively, not dull and dusty) and his ‘new’ message (‘You must be born again’) that attracted people. He filled in for another friend at Stonehouse, near Gloucester. Here, again, he ministered to ordinary people, and the eventual parting was tearful on all sides.

Returning to London he preached for many churches and for religious societies. Around the middle of 1737 a journalist published an account of his preaching, as a young man going to Georgia as a missionary. Whitefield was horrified and asked the journalist never to mention him again. He thought speaking of him detracted from Christ. But the journalist said that as long as these reports sold newspapers he would continue to publish. This was to have a great influence on the rest of Whitefield’s ministry. Publishing accounts of his preaching, printed sermons, and advertising his preaching, would draw people along to hear the message of the New Birth, the theme that was to be his constant refrain for the rest of his life.

As the crowds grew in size, Whitefield began to discover opposition. He received criticism from some clergymen for stating in a published sermon on Regeneration that he wished ‘his brethren would entertain their auditories oftener with discourses upon the new-birth.’ He was also criticised for fraternising with Dissenters, who had said to him ‘That if the doctrines of the new-birth, and justification by faith, were preached powerfully in the [Anglican] churches, there would be few Dissenters in England.’

Eventually Oglethorpe was ready to depart at the end of December 1737 and they set sail aboard the Whitaker. Progress was slow and they met adverse winds as the ship turned into the Channel. The ship anchored off of Deal. Whitefield took lodgings in the town and preached while waiting for the winds to change direction. These adverse winds brought John Wesley back from his time in Savannah. When he heard that Whitefield was at Deal he sought to ‘discover God’s will’ for Whitefield. He wrote two options on pieces of paper and drew one of them from a hat, which he sent to Whitefield. The message read ‘Let him return to London’. Whitefield ignored it and soon the winds changed and his voyage proper began. The ship sailed via Gibraltar before striking out across the Atlantic, arriving at Savannah at the start of May. During that time the ship’s crew and company of soldiers had changed their minds about the young clergyman. He had shown great love and concern for them, and preached the gospel to them, and some had been converted.

Arriving in Savannah he began his duties as the parish priest. He quickly found favour with the local population as he was not as rigid in his practice as John Wesley had been. When baptising their babies he poured or sprinkled water on their heads rather than the full immersion that Wesley had sought to practise (in line with a strict understanding of the Book of Common Prayer).

One of the needs that Whitefield noticed was something that Charles Wesley had mentioned to him. The climate and disease had led many who came from England to die leaving their children as orphans. Others had come as a means of escaping debtors’ prisons, to work and repay their debts. On arrival in Georgia they had abandoned their families and headed north to other colonies where they were not known. Someone needed to care for the orphans and Whitefield decided that this would be what he would concentrate on. He resolved to return to England (which he had to do anyway to be ordained a priest), to get permission from the Georgia Trustees and to raise funds to build an orphan house. With the help of lobbying by powerful friends, the Trustees approved his plan and he was granted a portion of land south of Savannah, and on his return he proceeded to build and run the orphan house, which he named Bethesda.

Journals

Whitefield had promised to send back to his friends and supporters an account of his journey to Savannah. This he supplied, intending it for private circulation. But a printer, Thomas Cooper, seeing the chance of a good profit, published the second half of this journal. A friend of Whitefield, James Hutton, was thus driven to publish that journal in full. In his introduction he castigates Thomas Cooper, the publisher of the ‘surreptitious edition’, claiming that Whitefield had not intended to have it published, and saying that Cooper’s edition contained errors. However, a comparison of the Cooper edition and the Hutton edition shows negligible differences in the text.8

In the journals Whitefield, thinking he was writing only to friends, was more unguarded in what he said than was wise. He gave his enemies ammunition to use against him. A pamphlet was produced with quotes from the journal purporting to show that Whitefield was an enthusiast. Whitefield later responded to this, and gave additional quotes from the journal where he had used unguarded language and apologised for them. Whitefield continued to publish journals of his activities as he saw that this was encouraging to believers. He published seven in all, the final one taking the narrative of his life up to his arrival back in England on 11 March 1741. A manuscript journal was discovered at Princeton and published in the Christian History in 1938. Some of his biographers refer to later manuscript journals. Gillies, in his memoir of Whitefield, published Whitefield’s journal for his time in Bermuda. We do not know why Whitefield ceased to publish his journal, but he may have considered that several revival newspapers, The Christian’s Amusement, The Weekly History, A Further Account, and The Christian History (and The Glasgow Weekly History, the Edinburgh Monthly History and The American Christian History) provided his readers with sufficient information about his work, as well as avoiding the controversy they caused. Whitefield edited his published journals in 1756 and toned down some of his too exuberant language and claims

Into the open air

He returned to London in December 1738 in order to be ordained as a Church of England priest and began preaching in various places. He found that some churches were now closed to him because of his teaching. But others welcomed him. Whitefield found the crowds that wanted to hear him often would not fit into the church buildings. He began to realise that there were often more outside than inside and perhaps he should be preaching outside to the majority. He mentioned this to friends who thought it was a mad idea — it verged on ‘enthusiasm’. He set out for Bristol, expecting to preach at St Mary Redcliffe on behalf of the orphan house. But he was told he needed permission from the Chancellor. The Chancellor was not happy with him and while not refusing permission indicated that he should not ask for it. ‘I am determined to put a stop to your activities’ the Chancellor told him. Whitefield left without permission to preach.

On the hearing of his intention to go to America to preach to the Indian ‘savages’, someone asked him why he did not go to preach to the ‘savages’ of Kingswood, a mining area south-east of Bristol. There was no church and the people were rough. Whitefield, accompanied by his friend, publicist and financier William Seward and another friend, went and stood on Hanham Mount in Kingswood and Whitefield preached from the Beatitudes as the miners came out of the pits. This was something new for Whitefield and for the miners. On the first day there was a small crowd of 200 people. He promised to return and when he did the crowd was said to number in the thousands. Whitefield wrote:

Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus that was a friend to publicans, and came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. The first discovery of their being affected, was to see the white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits. Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions, which (as the event proved) happily ended in a sound and thorough conversion. The change was visible to all, though numbers chose to impute it to anything, rather than the finger of God.9

News of these events came to the Chancellor who called for Whitefield to attend him again. He accused Whitefield of breaking Canon law, but Whitefield replied by asking why other Canon laws were not being upheld such as clergymen being prohibited from frequenting taverns and playing cards. Whitefield was accused of preaching false doctrine, but Whitefield replied that he would continue regardless. With the Chancellor threatening to excommunicate him, they parted.

Not long afterwards, Whitefield, anticipating his return to America, asked John Wesley to come and take over the work in Bristol. Wesley was amazed by what he saw:

Saturday March 31th 1739, In the evening I reached Bristol, and met Mr Whitefield there. I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday: having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in church.10

A week later he recorded, ‘I preached to about fifteen hundred on the top of Hanham Mount in Kingswood’.

Wesley took over the work, but with his high Anglican, Arminian, background, he began preaching against predestination. Whitefield wrote from America pleading with him not to be contentious on this matter, but Wesley persisted, and added his doctrine of sinless perfection to the doctrinal differences between the two men. It resulted in a major breach between them. But over the years, Whitefield’s large-heartedness led him to put aside differences and he would preach for Wesley’s societies. As Wesley remained in Britain for the rest of his life, he was able to build his work up. Whitefield’s transatlantic travels meant his work in Britain was more fragmented, and often declined in his absence.

Back in London Whitefield began to find places where he could preach in the open air. Moorfields in the city of London was a place where ‘the lower classes’ would often meet for entertainments. Whitefield took the opportunity of a gathered crowd to preach the gospel to them. The stallholders were unhappy with the competition and used a variety of methods to silence him, but without effect. He also preached at Kennington Common in south London, near to a place where hangings took place, and at Blackheath in south-east London. The latter has a small mound from which Whitefield would preach, and it is still known as Whitefield’s Mount.

Marriage

Before his second visit to America, Whitefield had formed an emotional attachment to Elizabeth Delamotte. Whitefield had preached around the Blackheath area of what is now south-east London, not far from the Delamotte family home at Blendon Hall. He appears to have struggled with conflicting thoughts. On the one hand he was determined that he would spend his life wholly for Jesus Christ. Yet he was afraid that romantic attachments would dull his ardour for gospel preaching. On the other hand his heart was drawn to Elizabeth. After arriving in America for the second time, he wrote two letters in April 1740, one to her parents and one to Elizabeth. The parental one asked permission to propose marriage to Elizabeth, and if this was acceptable, to pass the second letter to their daughter. The reason given to the parents was the fact that several of the women who had come from England to assist in the work of the Orphan-House had died and he needed a help-meet to replace them. He was most unromantic: ‘I am free from that foolish passion, which the world calls LOVE. I write, only because I believe it is the will of God, that I should alter my state.’ The second letter was to be given to Elizabeth only if the parents approved. There has probably never been a less romantic proposal letter in the history of the world. We do not know if Elizabeth ever read the letter. She did marry someone else, having expressed doubts over her salvation.

Whitefield still felt the need to marry, and did so in 1741. He travelled from Scotland to Wales to marry a widow, Elizabeth James (née Burnell or Gwynne)11 of Abergavenny, who had a daughter named Nancy. She and Howell Harris had formed a close attachment and probably should have married, but at that time Harris had the same doubts that Whitefield had. How could he marry a woman and not be deflected from his devotion to and work for Christ? So he resolved to ‘hand her over to brother Whit.’ Elizabeth raised objections, but over a few days was persuaded that she should marry Whitefield, and having travelled around looking for a sympathetic clergyman to marry them, they wed at Capel Martin, Caerphilly, on 14 November 1741. Rather than honeymoon, the newlyweds went off on a preaching tour.

In 1743 Elizabeth gave birth to their son in London. Whitefield was away preaching in Northampton. They named him John and Whitefield pronounced at John’s baptism at the Moorfields Tabernacle in London that John would grow to be a great preacher of the gospel. He was to be disappointed. His son was weak and died aged 4 months at the Bell in Gloucester. It is speculative to suggest that this was partly caused by Whitefield driving a carriage containing himself and Elizabeth into a ditch while Elizabeth was heavily pregnant. His preparation for his infant son’s funeral was to preach till he heard the tolling of the church bell. They were to have no further children, though Elizabeth wrote to a friend that she was remaining in London because she had in the previous 16 months suffered four miscarriages. She was to become pregnant yet again, and the pregnancy appears to have reached full term, but Whitefield never mentions a child and it is presumed it was stillborn. The constant itinerating took its toll on her and she remained in the chapel house in London while Whitefield ‘ranged’ in Britain and America.

Elizabeth died on 9 August 1768 after a short illness. Whitefield preached from Romans 8:20 at her funeral, and Elizabeth was buried in the vaults of Whitefield’s Tottenham Court Road Chapel. It was where he planned to be buried if he died in Britain. At the end of the 19th century the Chapel was falling down and all those interred there, except Augustus Toplady, were moved to Chingford Mount cemetery in north London, not far from where the notorious Kray twins are buried. The rebuilt Chapel was destroyed by the last V-2 rocket to land on central London in 1945.

Wales

Whitefield’s first contact with the evangelicals in Wales was a letter written to Howell Harris in December 1738. Griffith Jones, Llanddowror, had been operating circulating schools and instructing people in the Scriptures. The work was carried on by Harris. Harris had been converted in 1735 and had begun open air preaching as his bishop would not ordain him. As a ‘layman’ he could not officially preach, so he referred to his preaching as ‘exhorting’. Whitefield met Harris for the first time in Cardiff on 7 March 1739. Whitefield refused to shake hands with Harris until he gave a positive answer to the question, ‘Do you know your sins are forgiven?’.

Methodism in Wales developed with Harris, Daniel Rowlands, William Williams and others who held to Calvinistic principles.12 A joint association between English and Welsh Calvinistic Methodists was formed which first met at Watford, near Caerphilly, in 1743, and Whitefield was elected as the first moderator.

In 1768 six students were ejected from St Edmunds College, Oxford, for being Methodists. Whitefield wrote a complaint against their treatment, but it was to no avail. This led the Countess of Huntingdon to open a training college for gospel ministers at Trevecca, a quarter of a mile north of Howell Harris’s home (the present Coleg Trevecca). The lease on the Trevecca College property expired in 1792 and it relocated to Cheshunt in north London. It moved again in 1906 to Cambridge and was merged into Westminster College Cambridge in 1967.

Scotland, Cambuslang

Whitefield corresponded with several people in Scotland, including the Erskines. The Erskines had separated from the Church of Scotland and formed The Associate Presbytery. In a letter to Ebenezer Erskine, Whitefield explained why he could not solely join himself to The Associate Presbytery, and was concerned, as an ‘occasional preacher’ to spread the gospel to everyone. On his first visit to Scotland, arriving at Edinburgh on 30 July 1741, Whitefield called on the Erskines in Dunfermline, north of Edinburgh. He found that this was not to be a time of fellowship, but of correction. He must renounce Anglicanism and become a Presbyterian, adopting the Westminster Confession and the Solemn League and Covenant. In addition he must only preach for them. Why? ‘Because we are the Lord’s people.’ Whitefield wisely replied that it was those outside the church who needed to hear the gospel, and that he was not so concerned about matters of church government. This did not please The Associate Presbytery at all. One of their number, Adam Gib, the following year preached a sermon and published an extended version denouncing Whitefield. It was entitled ‘A Warning against countenancing the Ministrations of Mr. George Whitefield, published in the New Church at Bristow, upon Sabbath, June 6, 1742’.

In July 1742, Whitefield visited the village of Cambuslang, south-east of Glasgow where he had met the Church of Scotland minister, William M’Culloch, the year before. It was here that unprecedented scenes occurred when Whitefield preached in the open air at a natural amphitheatre close to the church building. It was reckoned that 30,000 were present over several days. The revival had started before Whitefield arrived, but his preaching fanned the flames.13

The Great Awakening

In America in 1740 Whitefield began a preaching tour northwards. With publicity and distribution of printed sermons and notices in the press, the public was aware that he was coming and where he would be preaching. But unusual effects attended his services, whether within church buildings or in the open air. Many people who had come merely out of curiosity found themselves gripped by his preaching and many professed faith in Christ as a consequence. Everywhere he went this seemed to happen. Even ministers who had been preachers of the doctrines of grace professed themselves converted under his ministry.14

Passing through Northampton, Massachusetts, Whitefield met and preached for Jonathan Edwards. Observing the relationship between Edwards and his wife made Whitefield desire a wife, and prompted the proposal mentioned earlier. Edwards was impressed with Whitefield’s passion, but was less keen on his demanding conversion experiences and an appeal to emotions.

This insistence on the New Birth led to a division between ‘New Lights’ – those who supported Whitefield – and ‘Old Lights’, who did not. One example of an ‘Old Light’ is Jedidiah Andrews, writing to a friend in 1741:

A prevailing rule to try converts is that if you don’t know when you were without Christ and unconverted, etc., you have no interest in Christ, let your love and your practice be what they may; which rule is as unscriptural, so I am of the mind will cut off nine in ten, if not ninety-nine in a hundred, of the good people in the world that have a pious education.

For Whitefield and his supporters, a Christian home, while a blessing, did not guarantee salvation, and all must be born again. Included among the ‘New Lights’ were Gilbert Tennant and his family.

Voice

Whitefield would have had a Gloucester accent, very different from what is now considered ‘received pronunciation’ (also known as ‘BBC English’). His early theatrical practice prepared him for projecting his voice. But even though he had a well-trained voice it must have been one of immense power. Even allowing for some exaggeration in the size of the crowds gathering to hear him, Whitefield was able to speak and be heard while speaking for extended periods, often over an hour. His final sermon lasted two hours. When Benjamin Franklin heard the reports of Whitefield’s preaching that were coming across from England, at first he refused to believe that it was possible for such crowds to hear the unaided human voice. When Whitefield arrived in Philadelphia, Franklin was among his auditors. As Whitefield preached from the balcony of the old courthouse, Franklin conducted an experiment. He walked away from Whitefield towards his print shop in Market Street until the noise of the traffic and general bustle drowned out Whitefield’s voice. He then estimated the area of a semi-circle with Whitefield at its centre. Allowing two square feet per person he realised that the numbers quoted concerning Whitefield’s English congregations were possible.

Whitefield also had a way of speaking. It was said that Whitefield could make his congregation laugh or cry depending on how he pronounced the word ‘Mesopotamia’. David Garrick, the leading actor of the day, said he would pay 100 guineas (£105) if only he could say ‘Oh!’ like Mr Whitefield. These statements have led some to suggest that Whitefield’s success was solely down to well-honed acting skills. Secular academia finds no place for the supernatural work of God, so such an approach is not surprising. But those who believe in the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit can see that, while God used all of Whitefield’s abilities, Whitefield had no ability to change the hearts of men and give them new life in Christ.

Slavery

Georgia was founded as a non-slave colony. But it was also the most southerly and hottest. It proved difficult for white Europeans to cope with the summer heat and work the land. Observing the slave states to the north flourishing economically, Whitefield argued that slavery should be permitted in Georgia also. His arguments were eventually accepted by the Georgia Trustees and slavery was legalized in 1751. This has been a stain on Whitefield’s name ever since. In mitigation, he was possibly ignorant of the cruelty of the transatlantic trade. Writing in 1751 to a friend he justified his position in the following way:

As for the lawfulness of keeping slaves, I have no doubt, since I hear of some that were bought with Abraham’s money, and some that were born in his house. — And I cannot help thinking, that some of those servants mentioned by the Apostles in their epistles, were or had been slaves. It is plain, that the Gibeonites were doomed to perpetual slavery, and though liberty is a sweet thing to such as are born free, yet to those who never knew the sweets of it, slavery perhaps may not be so irksome. However this be, it is plain to a demonstration, that hot countries cannot be cultivated without negroes. What a flourishing country might Georgia have been, had the use of them been permitted years ago? How many white people have been destroyed for want of them, and how many thousands of pounds spent to no purpose at all? Had Mr Henry been in America, I believe he would have seen the lawfulness and necessity of having negroes there. And though it is true, that they are brought in a wrong way from their own country, and it is a trade not to be approved of, yet as it will be carried on whether we will or not; I should think myself highly favoured if I could purchase a good number of them, in order to make their lives comfortable, and lay a foundation for breeding up their posterity in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. You know, dear Sir, that I had no hand in bringing them into Georgia; though my judgement was for it, and so much money was yearly spent to no purpose, and I was strongly importuned thereto, yet I would not have a negro upon my plantation, till the use of them was publicly allowed in the colony. Now this is done, dear Sir, let us reason no more about it, but diligently improve the present opportunity for their instruction. The trustees favour it, and we may never have a like prospect. It rejoiced my soul, to hear that one of my poor negroes in Carolina was made a brother in Christ. How know we but we may have many such instances in Georgia ere it be long?15

While arguing in favour of the principle of slavery he wrote to slave owners deploring the way they practiced slavery. He did not regard people with darker-coloured skin as being in any way inferior. He often preached to groups of slaves. In 1740 he purchased property in Philadelphia with a view to starting a school for the poor, including negroes, and a meeting place for his supporters. The project failed, but in 1749 Whitefield’s friend Benjamin Franklin took over the premises and founded a college which, in time, became the University of Pennsylvania.

Selina, Countess of Huntingdon

Selina was converted under John Wesley’s ministry, but later attached herself to Whitefield, and used her wealth and influence in support of his ministry. Socially, Great Britain was a very stratified society, and it was necessary for people to ‘know their place’ and be deferential towards their ‘elders and betters’ who had ‘better breeding’. This is well-illustrated by the Duchess of Buckingham’s reply to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon’s invitation to come and hear Whitefield preach:

I thank your ladyship for the information concerning Methodist preachers; their doctrines are most repulsive, and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks, and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.

It was because of his social standing that Whitefield was often quite obsequious in writing to the Countess. It was to her that he left Bethesda to look after in his will.

Death

Whitefield crossed the Atlantic thirteen times. He was a workaholic. He often said ‘I had rather wear out, than rust out.’ By the time he was fifty-one he looked an old man. Whitefield left England for the last time in September 1769. He spent the previous weeks preaching farewell sermons in various places. Some of these were taken down in shorthand and published. Whitefield deplored this as he had no opportunity to correct the text. His literary executor and first biographer, John Gillies, tried to buy up the whole print run and have them pulped, but without success. In the early 19th century these were added to the ‘official sermons’ published by Gillies as part of Whitefield’s Works under the title Sermons on Important Subjects. Other sermons had been published during the course of his ministry, but these were not collected together till this century.

Itinerary of his final weeks

In the last weeks of his life, Whitefield, who had never been a well man, found his bodily weakness an increasing problem. His solution to any health problem was most usually to travel and then preach. Accordingly, he sailed from New York on 31 July 1770 to Newport, Rhode Island, arriving on the morning of 3 August. He preached almost every day, except for a few days when he was too ill, roaming through north-east Massachusetts before arriving at Exeter, New Hampshire. Here he preached from a plank between two barrels on 2 Corinthians 13:5, ‘Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith’. Some hearers reckoned it to be his best ever sermon.

As he stood to preach someone said to him, ‘Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.’ To which answered, ‘True, Sir:’ but turning aside, he clasped his hands together, and, looking up, spoke, ‘Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.’

He rode 30 miles to Newburyport, arriving at the parsonage of First Presbyterian Church. Exhausted, he went up to bed, but the press of people at the door still wished to hear him. So he preached from the top of the staircase with candle in hand until the candle burned out. He went to bed, but woke in the night struggling for breath. He believed it was asthma, but it was most likely heart failure. His friends tried everything to relieve his symptoms, but by 6am on 30 September 1770, nearly 3 months short of his 56th birthday, they realized that he had at last passed into the presence of the Saviour he loved and had served. The funeral was attended by thousands. His body was buried in the crypt under the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, from which he had been due to preach the day he died. In recent years a plaque has been added with Whitefield’s chosen epitaph:

I am content to wait for the day of judgement for the clearing up of my character: and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, ‘here lies G.W. what sort of a man he was the great day will discover’.

News received in England

It took until 5 November for the news of Whitefield’s death to reach London. There was great mourning wherever the news spread. A great number of people counted Whitefield as their spiritual father and they mourned his loss. The London funeral took place at Tottenham Court Road Chapel on 18 November 1770. The Chapel was draped with black material as a sign of mourning, and it was not taken down for six months afterwards. The funeral sermon was preached by John Wesley, as requested by Whitefield. In his will he directed that mourning rings should be purchased for John and Charles Wesley. Though they still had serious differences of belief between them, Whitefield had been quite insistent before he died that Wesley was the man to preach the funeral sermon in England.

Aftermath

One of Whitefield’s biographers, Robert Philip, relates a story about Whitefield’s left forearm having been removed from his grave and brought to England.16 It was eventually returned and reunited with the rest of the body. The small wooden box it was returned in can still be seen in the First Presbyterian Church building. However, one of his thumbs was also removed, and is in the archive of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Harvard Medical School has a rib labelled ‘George Whitefield’.

While leading an army to fight the French, Benedict Arnold opened the grave and took Whitefield’s clerical bands and cuffs, cut them up and gave each of his men a piece, in the apparent belief that this would help them in their fight. They lost!

Legacy

Whitefield is an encouragement to us to press on in the work of the gospel, trusting God alone for blessing – a man who used the means that God gave him; a man who was large-hearted and catholic in spirit, concerned with what unites Christians rather than with that which divides. He proved that a Calvinistic theology is no barrier to effective evangelism.

A man once said ‘The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him. By God’s help, I aim to be that man.’ The man who said those words cannot have heard of George Whitefield.

Notes

    • Life and Times of George Whitefield
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      The following is closely based on an article published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume 18, number 2 (Summer 2014), with selected references. The Trust’s publications on Whitefield include The Life and Times of George Whitefield by Robert Philip,1 George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore, Volumes 12 and 2,3 and Select Sermons of George […]

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      George Whitefield

      Volume 1: Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival

      by Arnold Dallimore


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      The following is closely based on an article published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume 18, number 2 (Summer 2014), with selected references. The Trust’s publications on Whitefield include The Life and Times of George Whitefield by Robert Philip,1 George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore, Volumes 12 and 2,3 and Select Sermons of George […]

    • George Whitefield

      George Whitefield

      Volume 2: Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival

      by Arnold Dallimore


      price $38.00 $34.20
      Avg. Rating

      Description

      The following is closely based on an article published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume 18, number 2 (Summer 2014), with selected references. The Trust’s publications on Whitefield include The Life and Times of George Whitefield by Robert Philip,1 George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore, Volumes 12 and 2,3 and Select Sermons of George […]

    • Select Sermons of George Whitefield

      With an account of his life by J.C. Ryle

      by George Whitefield


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      The following is closely based on an article published in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume 18, number 2 (Summer 2014), with selected references. The Trust’s publications on Whitefield include The Life and Times of George Whitefield by Robert Philip,1 George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore, Volumes 12 and 2,3 and Select Sermons of George […]

  1. C. H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, Volume 1 The Early Years (Revised edition, London: Banner of Truth, 1962), p. 348.
  2. The earlier date is that for the Old Style or Julian Calendar. There was an eleven day diffrence between this and the Gregorian Calendar adopted by Great Britain and its colonies in 1752.
  3. Robert Philip, The Life and Times of George Whitefield, p. 17.
  4. The edition most commonly available is that published by The Banner of Truth Trust in 1960 [currently out of print]. This edition is based on that of William Wale, 1905.
  5. John Gillies, Memoirs of the Life of the Reverend George Whitefield, MA (London, 1772), quoted in Dallimore, George Whitefield, Volume 1, pp. 263-4.
  6. Wesley’s Journal for Saturday 31 March, 1739.
  7. The name ‘Burnell’ is given in Gillies, op. cit., p. 104, but Dallimore questions that this was her maiden name (George Whitefield, Vol. 2, p. 101).
  8. See The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, 2 Volumes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008).
  9. See Arthur Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival (London: Banner of Truth, 1971 [out of print]).
  10. E.g. Mr. Treat, ‘a Preacher of the Doctrines of Grace for some Years’, George Whitefield’s Journals, op. cit., p. 407; ‘two Ministers with Tears in their Eyes, publickly confessed, that they had lain Hands on two young Men without so much as asking them, “whether they were born again of God, or not?” . . . [Mr. Noble said] “I have been a Scholar, and have preached the Doctrines of Grace a long Time, but I believe I have never felt the Power of them in my own Soul,”’ ibid., p. 482.
  11. From a letter of 22 March, 1751 in The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, M. A., Volume 2 (London, 1771), pp. 404-5 (Letter DCCCLXXXVII).
  12. The Life and Times of George Whitefield, pp. 550-1.

Digby L. James is Pastor of Quinta Independent Evangelical Church, Shropshire, United Kingdom, where he has served since 1990. Dr James became interested in the life and ministry of George Whitefield in 1977 and began working on reprinting Whitefield’s works. He published a CD-ROM of Whitefield’s Works in 2000, and presently he is editing a new, more complete edition of Whitefield’s Journals.

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