My preparations for the Desiring God National Conference this month and the Pastors’ Conference in February flowed together while I was reading about Benjamin Franklin’s appreciation for George Whitefield.
My task at the NatCon is to speak on the question, “Is There Christian Eloquence?” My task at the Pastors’ Conference is to speak on the life and ministry of George Whitefield.
What I saw this week is that Whitefield’s gifts of “eloquence” pose the very problem I must deal with at the NatCon. He was so good, you could like his sermon while not believing a thing he says.
For example, in the spring of 1740 Whitefield was in Philadelphia preaching outdoors to thousands. Benjamin Franklin attended most of these messages. Franklin, who did not believe what Whitefield was preaching, commented on these perfected sermons:
His delivery...was so improved by frequent repetition, that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music. (emphasis added) (Harry Stout, The Divine Dramatist, 104)
Here was preaching that was so well-delivered you could like it enough to ignore it’s convicting truths. What should I say about this? More: What should I do about it? Paul said,
Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.... My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1Corinthians 1:17; 2:4-5)
Was Whitefield right to perfect his delivery to the point where unbelieving Benjamin Franklin would enjoy it like a piece of music?
Pray for me. This is not an academic issue for a preacher.
P. S. Lest the generation of younger preachers who don’t give a fig for eloquence think they have this one solved, beware. There is an “eloquence” of “hip” and “dress” and “slang” and “savvy” and “casual” and the “appearance of artlessness” that can have the exact same mesmerizing effect in our day that Whitefield’s eloquence had in his: People like it without sharing any of the convictions.