Today, three hundred years ago, on December 16, 1714, was born the man Martyn Lloyd-Jones said was “beyond any question, the greatest English preacher who has ever lived”. The great Bishop J. C. Ryle had said, “No Englishman … dead or alive, has ever equaled him.”
George Whitefield became famous for his highly dramatic style of preaching, aiming at the heart and mind of the working class man, as he taught what the Bible said. He did not merely want to interest or amuse. He wanted people to feel that their souls were at stake.
He also employed the latest communications technology – cheap print and newspapers – to publicise his ministry and itinerary and the gospel he preached. The American publisher of his sermons, Benjamin Franklin, did not believe, but loved to hear Whitefield because his conviction was so clear.
He preached not only in church pulpits, but also to massive crowds of thousands in the outdoors. His first outdoor sermon was delivered at the age of just 24 to coalminers near Bristol, England. He preached to prisoners in jails, but also to lords and ladies. He would go anywhere to preach the gospel of God’s grace, of justification from our sins in Christ alone. Despite the dangers of sailing in those times and with only average health, he crossed the Atlantic thirteen times to bring the gospel to the American colonies.
Yet despite his entrepreneurial methods, he firmly believed in the power of the Holy Spirit, and that conversation was only ever due to God’s electing grace. This was something that led to deep disagreement with John Wesley, his older contemporary in outdoors preaching, the father of Methodism, who sadly denounced him over this.
Like all Christian leaders, he had his blind spots. His relationship with his wife was limited by relentless travels. And in his 30s, he agreed that perhaps some of his earlier preaching had been over the top and overly harsh; more of his spirit than the Spirit of God.
His greatest blindspot was his support of race-based slavery. In the colony of Georgia, he advocated slavery in order to make the impressive orphanage he ran more affordable, and so to care for greater numbers. So when it was legalized there he became a slave owner. Yet he also infuriated slave-owners by insisting on both evangelizing and educating the black slaves. He insisted they had souls, something others denied. He sowed the seeds of emancipation since the gospel said that in Christ they could become children of God, which would mean that they were brothers and sisters to the owners (Gal 3:28). Others could see this would also undermine the whole system. And it is said that when he died in America, he was mourned most by black Americans. Yet he himself remained blind to the contradiction of buying and selling slaves.
By 1740, when George Washington was just 8, he had become the most famous man in America. One biographer, Harry Stout, styled him as America’s first cultural hero. His latest biographer, Thomas Kidd, argues he was the key figure in the first generation of Anglo-American evangelical Christianity. Certainly he preceded Jonathan Edwards (John Piper’s theological hero), who wept at his preaching, as the leader of the Great Awakening.
His life was one of almost daily preaching. Sober estimates are that he spoke about 1,000 times every year for 30 years, sermons, lectures, and talks. That included at least 18,000 sermons and 12,000 talks and exhortations.
I know no other reason why Jesus has put me into the ministry, than because I am the chief of sinners, and therefore fittest to preach free grace to a world lying in the wicked one.
Sources: I am indebted to the following articles for my very derivative work!
- John Piper, “I will not be a velvet-tongued preacher“
- Thomas Kidd, “America’s Spiritual Founding Father: Whitefield’s Life and Legacy, Credo Magazine, 4/3 July 2014, pp20-27
- God’s Anointed Barnstormer: Lee Gatiss explains the Holy Violence of Whitefield’s Preaching, Credo Magazine, 4/3 July 2014, pp14-18
The edition of Credo Magazine referenced just above featured more articles on Whitefield (link here to ISSUU and PDF options)