The facts about George Whitefield’s preaching as an 18th-century itinerant evangelist are almost unbelievable. Can they really be true? Judging by multiple attestations of his contemporaries — and by the agreement of sympathetic and unsympathetic biographers— they seem to be so.
From his first outdoor sermon on February 17, 1739, at the age of 24 to the coalminers of Kingswood near Bristol, England, until his death 30 years later on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts (where he is buried), his life was one of almost daily preaching. Sober estimates are that he spoke about 1,000 times every year for 30 years. That included at least 18,000 sermons and 12,000 talks and exhortations.1
Speaking More Than Sleeping
The daily pace he kept for 30 years meant that many weeks he was speaking more than he was sleeping. Henry Venn, vicar of Huddersfield, who knew Whitefield well, expressed amazement for all of us when he wrote,
Who would think it possible that a person . . . should speak in the compass of a single week (and that for years) in general forty hours, and in very many, sixty, and that to thousands; and after this labor, instead of taking any rest, should be offering up prayers and intercessions, with hymns and spiritual songs, as his manner was, in every house to which he was invited.2
Make sure you hear that accurately. Many weeks he was actually speaking (not preparing to speak, which he had virtually no time to do) for sixty hours (60, not 16). That’s almost six hours a day, seven days a week, on the slower weeks, and over eight hours a day, seven days a week on the heavier weeks.
Preaching, Preaching, Preaching
I found no references in all of my reading to what we today would call vacations or days off. When he thought he needed recuperation he spoke of an ocean voyage to America. He crossed the Atlantic 13 times in his life — an odd number (not even) because he died and was buried here, not in England. The trips across the Atlantic took 8–10 weeks each. And even though he preached virtually every day on the ship,3 the pace was different, and he was able to read and write and rest.4
But on land, the preaching pace was unremitting. Two years before he died at the age of 55, he wrote in a letter, “I love the open bracing air.” And the following year, he said, “It is good to go into the highways and hedges. Field-preaching, field-preaching forever!”5 Day after day all his life, he went everywhere preaching, preaching, preaching.
Speaking to Thousands
And keep in mind that most of these messages were spoken to gatherings of thousands of people — usually in difficulties of wind and competing noise. For example, in the Fall of 1740, for over a month he preached almost every day in New England to crowds up to 8,000 people. That was when the population of Boston, the largest city in the region, was not much larger than that.6
He recounts that in Philadelphia that same year on Wednesday, April 6, he preached on Society Hill twice in the morning to about 6,000, and in the evening to near 8,000. On Thursday, he spoke to “upwards of ten thousand,” and it was reported at one of these events the words, “‘He opened His mouth and taught them saying,’ were distinctly heard at Gloucester point, a distance of two miles by water down the Delaware River.7 [Do you see why I say such things are near unbelievable?] And there were times when the crowds reached 20,000 or more.”8 This meant that the physical exertion to project the voice to that many people for so long, in each sermon, for so many times every week, for thirty years, was Herculean.
One Scarcely Interrupted Sermon
Add to this the fact that he was continually traveling in a day when it was done by horse or carriage or ship. He covered the length and breadth of England repeatedly. He regularly traveled and spoke throughout Wales. He visited Ireland twice, where he was almost killed by a mob from which he carried a scar on his forehead for the rest of his life.9 He traveled 14 times to Scotland and came to America 7 times, stopping once in Bermuda for 11 weeks — all for preaching, not resting. He preached in virtually every major town on the Eastern Seaboard of America. Michael Haykin reminds us, “What is so remarkable about all of this is Whitefield lived at a time when travel to a town but 20 miles away was a significant undertaking.”10
J. C. Ryle summed up Whitefield’s life like this:
The facts of Whitefield’s history . . . are almost entirely of one complexion. One year was just like another; and to attempt to follow him would be only going repeatedly over the same ground. From 1739 to the year of his death, 1770, a period of 31 years, his life was one uniform employment. He was eminently a man of one thing, and always about his Master’s business. From Sunday mornings to Saturday nights, from 1 January to 31 December, excepting when laid aside by illness, he was almost incessantly preaching Christ and going about the world entreating men to repent and come to Christ and be saved.11
Another 19th-century biographer said, “His whole life may be said to have been consumed in the delivery of one continuous, or scarcely interrupted sermon.”12
A Phenomenon in Church History
He was a phenomenon not just of his age, but in the entire 2000-year history of Christian preaching. There has been nothing like the combination of his preaching pace and geographic extent and auditory scope and attention-holding effect and converting power. Ryle is right: “No preacher has ever retained his hold on his hearers so entirely as he did for thirty-four years. His popularity never waned.”13
His contemporary Augustus Toplady (1740–1778) remembered him as “the apostle of the English Empire.”14 He was “Anglo America’s most popular eighteenth-century preacher and its first truly mass revivalist.”15 He was “the first colonial-American religious celebrity.”16 Eight years of his life were spent in America. He loved the American ethos. He was more American in his blood than he was English.
America’s First Celebrity
Harry Stout points out, “As tensions between England and America grew [Whitefield] saw he might have to choose. Wesley would remain loyal to England, and Whitefield could not. His institutional attachments and personal identification with the colonies were stronger than his loyalty to the crown.”17
Estimates are that 80% of the entire population of the American colonies (this is before TV or radio) heard Whitefield at least once. Stout shows that Whitefield’s impact on America was such that
he can justly be styled America’s first cultural hero. Before Whitefield, there was no unifying inter-colonial person or event. Indeed, before Whitefield, it is doubtful any name other than royalty was known equally from Boston to Charleston. But by 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.18
William Cooper who died when Whitefield was 29 already called him “the wonder of the age.”19
Preaching Was Everything
This was all the effect of the most single-minded, oratorically enthralling, thunder-voiced devotion to daily evangelistic preaching that history has ever known. Preaching was everything. I think most of his biographers would agree (to quote Stout) that Whitefield
demonstrated a callous disregard for his private self, both body and spirit. The preaching moment engulfed all, and it would continue to do so, for in fact there was nothing else he lived for. . . . The private man and the family man had long since ceased to exist. In the final scene, there was only Whitefield in his pulpit.20
Natural and Spiritual Power
What shall we make of this phenomenon? What was the key to his power? At one level, his power was the natural power of eloquence, and at another it was the spiritual power of God to convert sinners and transform communities.
There is no reason to doubt that he was the instrument of God in the salvation of thousands. J. C. Ryle said,
I believe that the direct good which he did to immortal souls was enormous. I will go further — I believe it is incalculable. Credible witnesses in England, Scotland, and America have placed on record their conviction that he was the means of converting thousands of people.21
Whitefield was the main international instrument of God in the first Great Awakening. No one else in the 18th century was anointed like this in America and England and Wales and Scotland and Ireland. This preaching was not a flash in the pan. Deep and lasting things happened.
His Effect on Edwards and Wilberforce
In February of 1740, Jonathan Edwards sent an invitation to Whitefield in Georgia asking him to come preach in his church. On October 19, Whitefield recorded in his journal, “Preached this morning, and good Mr. Edwards wept during the whole time of exercise. The people were equally affected.”22 Edwards reported that the effect of Whitefield’s ministry was more than momentary — “In about a month there was a great alteration in the town.” 23
The impact of Whitefield, the Wesleys, and the Great Awakening in England changed the face of the nation. William Wilberforce, who led the battle against the slave trade in England, was 11 years old when Whitefield died. Wilberforce’s father had died when he was 9, and he went to live for a time with his aunt and uncle William and Hanna Wilberforce. This couple was good friends with George Whitefield.24
This was the evangelical air Wilberforce breathed even before he was converted. And after his conversion, Whitefield’s vision of the gospel was the truth and the spiritual dynamic that animated Wilberforce’s lifelong battle against the slave trade. This is only one small glimpse of the lasting impact of Whitefield and the awakening he served.
So I do not doubt that Henry Venn was right when he said, “[Whitefield] no sooner opened his mouth as a preacher, than God commanded an extraordinary blessing upon his word.”25 So at this level, the explanation of Whitefield’s phenomenal impact was God’s exceptional anointing on his life.
His Natural Oratorical Gifts
But at another level, Whitefield held people in thrall who did not believe a single doctrinal word that he said. In other words, we have to come to terms with the natural oratorical gifts that he had. How are we to think about these in relation to his effectiveness? Benjamin Franklin, who loved and admired Whitefield26 — and totally rejected his theology — said,
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.27
Virtually everyone agrees with Sarah Edwards when she wrote to her brother about Whitefield’s preaching.
He is a born orator. You have already heard of his deep-toned, yet clear and melodious voice. O it is perfect music to listen to that alone! . . . You remember that David Hume thought it worth going 20 miles to hear him speak; and Garrick [an actor who envied Whitefield’s gifts] said, ‘He could move men to tears . . . in pronouncing the word Mesopotamia.’ . . . It is truly wonderful to see what a spell this preacher often casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible.28
And then she raised the question that has caused so much controversy around Whitefield in the last 15 years. She says,
A prejudiced person, I know, might say that this is all theatrical artifice and display; but not so will anyone think who has seen and known him. He is a very devout and godly man, and his only aim seems to be to reach and influence men the best way. He speaks from the heart all aglow with love, and pours out a torrent of eloquence which is almost irresistible.29
Harry Stout, professor of history at Yale, is not as sure about the purity of Whitefield’s motives as Sarah Edwards was. His biography, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitfield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, is the most sustained piece of historical cynicism I have ever read. In the first 100 pages of this book, I wrote the word cynical in the margin 70 times.
“The Consummate Actor”?
But the challenge needs to be faced. And I think if we face it head on, what we find is something deeper than what Stout finds. Stout contends that Whitefield never left behind his love for acting and his skill as an actor which was prominent in his youth before his conversion. Thus he says the key to understanding him is “the amalgam of preaching and acting.”30 Whitefield was “the consummate actor.”31 “The fame he sought was . . . the actor’s command performance on center stage.”32 “Whitefield was not content simply to talk about the New Birth; he had to sell it with all the dramatic artifice of a huckster.”33 “Tears became Whitefield’s . . . psychological gesture.”34 “Whitefield became an actor-preacher, as opposed to a scholar-preacher.”35
And, of course, this last statement is true, in one sense. He was an actor-preacher as opposed to a scholar-preacher. He was not a Jonathan Edwards. He preached totally without notes,36 and his traveling pulpit was more of a tiny stage than it was a traditional pulpit.37 Unlike most of the preachers in his day he was full of action when he preached. Cornelius Winter, Whitefield’s young assistant in later years, said,
I hardly ever knew him go through a sermon without weeping . . . sometimes he exceedingly wept, stamped loudly and passionately, and was frequently so overcome, that, for a few seconds, you would suspect he never could recover; and when he did, nature required some little time to compose himself.38
And another contemporary from Scotland, John Gillies, reported how Whitefield moved with “such vehemence upon his bodily frame” that his audience actually shared his exhaustion and “felt a momentary apprehension even for his life.”39
Therefore, in one sense, I do not doubt that Whitefield was “acting” as he preached. That is, that he was taking the part of the characters in the drama of his sermon and pouring all his energy into making their part real. As when he takes the part of Adam in the Garden and says to God, “If thou hadst not given me this woman, I had not sinned against thee, so thou mayest thank thyself for my transgression.”40
Why Was He Acting?
But the question is: Why was Whitefield “acting”? Why was he so full of action and drama? Was he, as Stout claims, “plying a religious trade”?41 Pursuing “spiritual fame”?42 Craving “respect and power”?43 Driven by “egotism”?44 Putting on “performances”45 and “integrating religious discourse into the emerging language of consumption”?46
I think the most penetrating answer comes from something Whitefield himself said about acting in a sermon in London. In fact, I think it’s a key to understand the power of his preaching — and all preaching. James Lockington was present at this sermon and recorded this verbatim. Whitefield is speaking.
“I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ ‘Why my Lord,’ says Butterton, ‘the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’”
“Therefore,” added Whitefield, ‘I will bawl [shout loudly], I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.”47
This means that there are three ways to speak. First, you can speak of an unreal, imaginary world as if it were real — that is what actors do in a play. Second, you can speak about a real world as if it were unreal — that is what half-hearted pastors do when they preach about glorious things in a way that says they are not as terrifying and wonderful as they are. And third is: You can speak about a real spiritual world as if it were wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real (because it is).
Out-Acting the Actors
So if you ask Whitefield, “Why do you preach the way you do?” he would say: “I believe what I read in the Bible is real.” So let me venture this claim: George Whitefield is not a repressed actor, driven by egotistical love of attention. Rather, he is consciously committed to out-acting the actors because he has seen what is ultimately real.
He is acting with all his might not because it takes greater gimmicks and charades to convince people of the unreal, but because he had seen something more real than actors on the London stage had ever known. For him the truths of the gospel were so real — so wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real — that he could not and would not preach them as though they were unreal or merely interesting.
Acting in the Service of Reality
This was not a repressed acting. This was a released acting. It was not acting in the service of imagination. It was acting in the service of reality. This was not rendering the imaginary as real. It was rendering the super-realness of the real as sheer awesome, breathtakingly real. This was not affectation. This was a passionate re-presentation — replication — of reality. This was not the mighty microscope using all its powers to make the small look impressively big. This was the desperately inadequate telescope bending every power to give some small sense of the majesty of what too many preachers saw as tiresome and unreal.
There is no disagreement that God uses natural vessels to display his supernatural reality. And there is no disagreement that George Whitefield was a stupendous natural vessel. He was driven, affable, eloquent, intelligent, empathetic, single-minded, steel-willed, venturesome, and had a voice like a trumpet that could be heard by thousands outdoors — and sometimes at a distance of two miles. All of these, I venture to say, would have been part of Whitefield’s natural gifting even if he had never been born again.
Whitefield Born Again
But something happened to Whitefield that made all these natural gifts subordinate to another reality. It made them all come into the service of another reality — the glory of Christ in the salvation of sinners. It was the spring of 1735. He was 20 years old. He was part of the Holy Club at Oxford with John and Charles Wesley, and the pursuit of God was all discipline.
I always chose the worst sort of food. . . . I fasted twice a week. My apparel was mean. . . . I wore woolen gloves, a patched gown, and dirty shoes. . . . I constantly walked out in the cold mornings till part of one of my hands was quite black. . . . I could scarce creep upstairs, I was obliged to inform my kind tutor . . . who immediately sent for a physician to me.48
He took a break from school, and there came into his hands a copy of Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Here is what happened, in his own words:
I must bear testimony to my old friend Mr. Charles Wesley, he put a book into my hands, called, The Life of God and the Soul of Man, whereby God showed me, that I must be born again, or be damned. 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. [Scougal] says, a man may go to church, say his prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet, my brethren, not be a Christian. How did my heart rise, how did my heart shutter, like a poor man that is afraid to look into his account-books, lest he should find himself a bankrupt: yet shall I burn that book, shall I throw it down, shall I put it by, or shall I search into it? I did, and, holding the book in my hand, thus addressed the God of heaven and earth: Lord, if I am not a Christian, if I am not a real one, for Jesus Christ’s sake, show me what Christianity is, that I may not be damned at last. I read a little further, and the cheat was discovered; oh, says the author, they that know anything of religion know it is a vital union with the son of God, Christ formed in the heart; oh what a way of divine life did break in upon my poor soul. . . . Oh! With what joy — Joy unspeakable — even joy that was full of, and big with glory, was my soul filled. 49
The power and depth and the supernatural reality of that change in Whitefield is something Harry Stout does not sufficiently reckon with. What happened there was that Whitefield was given the supernatural ability to see what was real. His mind was opened to new reality. Here is the way he described it.
Above all my mind being now more opened and enlarged, I began to read the holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light, and power from above. I got more true knowledge from reading the book of God in one month than I could ever have acquired from all the writings of men.50
This means that Whitefield’s acting — his passionate, energetic, whole-souled preaching — was the fruit of his new birth, because his new birth gave him eyes to see “life and light and power from above.” He saw the glorious facts of the gospel as real. Wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real. This is why he cries out, “I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.”
None of his natural abilities vanished. They were all taken captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified.”51
Fighting Pride, Confessing Foolishness
Of course he fought pride. Who doesn’t fight pride — pride because we are somebody, or pride because we want to be somebody? But what the record shows is that he fought this fight valiantly, putting to death again and again the lure of the vanity of human praise. “It is difficult,” he said, “to go through the fiery trial of popularity and applause untainted.”52
“Commendations,” he wrote to a friend, “or even the hinting at them, are poison to a mind addicted to pride. A nail never sinks deeper than when dipt in oil. . . . Pray for me, dear Sir, and heal the wounds you have made. To God alone give glory. To sinners nothing belongs, but shame and confusion.”53
He confessed publicly the foolishness and mistakes of his earlier years.54 He confessed to a friend in 1741, “Our most holy thoughts are tinctured with sin, and want the atonement of the Mediator.”55 He cast himself on the free grace that he preached so powerfully:
I am nothing, have nothing, and can do nothing without God. What although I may, like a polished sepulcher appear a little beautiful without, yet within I am full of pride, self-love and all manner of corruption. However, by the grace of God I am what I am, and if it should please God to make me instrumental to do the least good, not unto me, but unto him, be all the glory.56
Making Real Things Real
So Whitefield had a new nature. He had been born again. And this new nature enabled him to see what was real. And Whitefield knew in his soul: I will never speak of what is real as though it is imaginary. I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher. He would not abandon acting. He would out-act the actors in his preaching, because they became actors to make imaginary things look real, and he became the preacher-actor to make real things look like what they are.
He didn’t pause in his preaching to have a little drama off to the side — like some preachers do today, a little skit, a little clip from a movie — that would have missed the whole point. Preaching was the play. Preaching was the drama. The reality of the gospel had consumed him. That was the witness. The preaching itself had become the active word of God. God was speaking. Reality was not simply being shown. Reality was happening.
Not Acting in the Theatrical Sense
What this means is that in the end, Whitefield’s “acting” was not acting in the theatrical sense at all. If a woman has a role in a movie, say, the mother of child in a burning house, and as the cameras are focused on her, she is screaming to the firemen and pointing to the window in the second floor, and we all say she is acting. But if a house is on fire in your neighborhood, and you see a mother screaming to the firemen and pointing to the window in the second floor, nobody says she’s acting. Why not? They look exactly the same.
It’s because there really is a child up there in the fire. This woman really is the child’s mother. There is real danger that the child could die. Everything is real. And that’s the way it was for Whitefield. The new birth had opened his eyes to what was real, and to the magnitude of what was real: God, creation, humanity, sin, Satan, divine justice and wrath, heaven, hell, incarnation, the perfections of Christ, his death, atonement, redemption, propitiation, resurrection, the Holy Spirit, saving grace, forgiveness, justification, reconciliation with God, peace, sanctification, love, the second coming of Christ, the new heavens and the new earth, everlasting joy. These were real. Overwhelmingly real to him. He had been born again. He had eyes to see.
When he warned of wrath, and pleaded for people to escape, and lifted up Christ, he wasn’t play-acting. He was calling down the kind of emotions and actions that correspond with such realities. That’s what preaching does. It seeks to exalt Christ, and describe sin, and offer salvation, and persuade sinners with emotions and words and actions that correspond to the weight of these realities.
If you see these realities with the eyes of your heart, and if you feel the weight of them, you will know that such preaching is not play-acting. The house is burning. There are people trapped on the second floor. We love them. And there is a way of escape.
The Preciousness of “the Doctrines of Grace”
Let’s be more specific. What did George Whitefield see as real? Unlike so much preaching today, the preaching of the 18th-century awakening — including the evangelistic preaching of Whitefield and Wesley — was doctrinally specific and not vague. When you read the sermons of Whitefield, you are struck with how amazingly doctrinal they are.
What Whitefield saw within months after his conversion was the preciousness and power of the “doctrines of grace.”57 What was real for him was classical evangelical Calvinism. “From first to last,” Stout says, “he was a Calvinist who believed that God chose him for salvation and not the reverse.”58 J. I. Packer observes that “Whitefield was entirely free of doctrinal novelties.”59
Embracing the Calvinistic Scheme
His guide as he read the Bible in those formative days was not John Calvin but Matthew Henry.60 “I embrace the Calvinistic scheme,” he said, “not because Calvin, but Jesus Christ has taught it to me.”61 In fact, he wrote to John Wesley in 1740, “I never read anything that Calvin wrote.”62
He believed these biblical truths — which he sometimes called “the doctrines of the Reformation” — did the most to “debase man and exalt the Lord Jesus. . . . All others leave free will in man, and make him, in part at least, a Savior to himself.”63 And not only did that diminish the work of the Savior; it made our position in Christ insecure.
The Link Between Election and Perseverance
What Whitefield saw as real with his new eyes was the link between election and perseverance. God had chosen him unconditionally, and God would therefore keep him invincibly. This was his rock-solid confidence and a fire in his bones and the power of his obedience. He wrote in 1739 from Philadelphia,
Oh the excellency of the doctrine of election, and of the saints’ final perseverance, to those who are truly sealed by the Spirit of promise! I am persuaded, till a man comes to believe and feel these important truths, he cannot come out of himself; but when convinced of these, and assured of the application of them to his own heart, he then walks by faith indeed, not in himself but in the Son of God, who died and gave himself for him. Love, not fear, constrains him to obedience.64
And a year later he wrote to John Wesley, “The doctrine of election, and the final perseverance of those that are truly in Christ, I am ten thousand times more convinced of, if possible, then when I saw you last.”65 He loved the assurance he had in the mighty hands of God. “Surely I am safe, because put into his almighty arms. Though I may fall, yet I shall not utterly be cast away. The Spirit of the Lord Jesus will hold, and uphold me.”66
Telling the Gospel with All His Might
And he didn’t just quietly enjoy these realities for himself; he preached them with all his might in his evangelistic efforts. He said to Wesley, “I must preach the Gospel of Christ, and this I cannot now do without speaking of election.”67 In his sermon based on 1 Corinthians 1:30 called “Christ the Believer’s Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption,” he exults in the doctrine (remember he is lifting up his voice to thousands):
For my part I cannot see how true humbleness of mind can be attained without a knowledge of [the doctrine of election]; and though I will not say, that every one who denies election is a bad man, yet I will say, with that sweet singer, Mr. Trail, it is a very bad sign: such a one, whoever he be, I think cannot truly know himself; for, if we deny election, we must, partly at least, glory in ourselves; but our redemption is so ordered, that no flesh should glory in the Divine presence; and hence it is, that the pride of man opposes this doctrine, because, according to this doctrine, and no other, “he that glories must glory only in the Lord.”
But what shall I say? Election is a mystery that shines with such resplendent brightness, that, to make use of the words of one who has drunk deeply of electing love, it dazzles the weak eyes even of some of God’s children; however, though they know it not, all the blessing they receive, all the privileges they do or will enjoy, through Jesus Christ, flow from the everlasting love of God the Father.68
Offering Jesus Freely to Every Soul
And Whitefield reminds Wesley — and us — in a letter of 1741, “Though I hold particular election, yet I offer Jesus freely to every individual soul.”69 Indeed Whitefield does not hide his understanding of definite atonement or irresistible grace as he pleads with men to come to Christ. In a sermon on John 10:27–28 called “The Good Shepherd,” he speaks clearly of the particular sense in which Christ died for his own,
If you belong to Jesus Christ, he is speaking of you; for says he, “I know my sheep.” “I know them”; what does that mean? Why, he knows their number, he knows their names, he knows every one for whom he died; and if there were to be one missing for whom Christ died, God the Father would send him down again from heaven to fetch him.70
And then he mounts his passionate plea on the basis of irresistible sovereign grace:
O come, come, see what it is to have eternal life; do not refuse it; haste, sinner, haste away: may the great, the good Shepherd, draw your souls. Oh! If you never heard his voice before, God grant you may hear it now. . . . O come! Come! Come to the Lord Jesus Christ; to him I leave you. . . . Amen.71
The Prominence of Justification
Among the doctrines of the Reformation that filled his great evangelistic sermons the most prominent was the doctrine of justification. His signature sermon, if there was one, seemed to be “The Lord Our Righteousness” based on Jeremiah 23:6. He never elevated justification to the exclusion of regeneration and sanctification. In fact, he was explicit in his effort to keep them in balance:
We must not put asunder what God has joined together; we must keep the medium between the two extremes; not insist so much on the one hand upon Christ without, as to exclude Christ within, as evidence of our being his, and as a preparation for future happiness; nor on the other hand, so depend on inherent righteousness or holiness wrought in us, as to exclude the righteousness of Jesus Christ without us.72
The Glory of Jesus’s Obedience Imputed
But O how jealous he is again and again to press home to the masses the particularities of this doctrine, especially the imputation of Christ’s obedience. He lamented in one sermon,
I fear they understand justification in that low sense, which I understood it in a few years ago, as implying no more than remission of sins; but it not only signifies remission of sins past, but also a federal right to all good things to come. . . . As the obedience of Christ is imputed to believers so his perseverance in that obedience is to be imputed to them also.73
Never did greater or more absurdities flow from the denying any doctrine, than will flow form denying the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness.74
The world says, because we preach faith we deny good works; this is the usual objection against the doctrine of imputed righteousness. But it is a slander, an impudent slander.75
Relentlessly Devoted to Good Deeds
And, indeed, it was a slander in the life of George Whitefield. Whitefield was relentless in his devotion to good deeds and his care for the poor — constantly raising funds for orphans and other mercy ministries.76 Benjamin Franklin, who enjoyed one of the warmest friendship’s Whitefield ever had, in spite of their huge religious differences, said, “[Whitefield’s] integrity, disinterestedness and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work, I have never seen equaled, I shall never see excelled.”77
In other words, Whitefield’s impassioned belief in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness did not hinder the practical pursuit of justice and love, it empowered it. This connection between doctrine and practical duties of love was one of the secrets of Whitefield’s power. The masses believed, and believed rightly, that he practiced what he preached. The new birth and justification by faith made a person good.
A Contradictory Figure
But it didn’t make a person perfect. It didn’t make Whitefield perfect. In fact, one of the effects of reading history, and biography in particular, is the persistent discovery of contradictions and paradoxes of sin and righteousness in the holiest people.
Whitefield is no exception and he will be more rightly honored if we are honest about his blindness as well as his doctrinal faithfulness and goodness. The most glaring blindness of his life — and there were others — was his support for the American enslavement of blacks.
Before it was legal to own slaves in Georgia, Whitefield advocated for the legalization with a view to making the orphanage he built more affordable.78 In 1748, he wrote to the trustees of Bethesda, the name of his orphanage and settlement,
Had a Negro been allowed, I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans, without expending about half the sum which hath been laid out. . . . Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without negroes [sic] are allowed. . . . I am as willing as ever to do all I can for Georgia and the orphan house, if either a limited use of negroes is approved of, or some more indentured servants sent over. If not, I cannot promise to keep any large family, or cultivate the plantation in any considerable manner.79
In 1752 Georgia became a royal colony. Slavery was now legalized, and Whitefield joined the ranks of the slave owners that he had denounced in his earlier years.80
Ardent Slave Evangelist
That in itself was not unusual. Most of the slaveholders were professing Christians. But in Whitefield’s case things were more complex. He didn’t fit the mold of wealthy, Southern plantation owner. Almost all of them resisted evangelizing and educating the slaves. They knew intuitively that education would tend toward equality, which would undermine the whole system. And evangelism would imply that slaves could become children of God, which would mean that they were brothers and sisters to the owners, which would also undermine the whole system. That’s why the apparent New Testament tolerance of slavery is in fact a very powerful subversion of the institution.
Ironically, Whitefield did more to bring Christianity to the slave community in Georgia than anyone else.81 Whitefield wrote letters to newspapers defending the evangelism of slaves and arguing that to deny them this was to deny that they had souls (which many did deny). Harry Stout observes: “In fact, the letters represented the first journalistic statement on the subject of slavery. As such, they marked a precedent of awesome implications, beyond anything Whitefield could have imagined.”82
Whitefield said he was willing to face the “whip” of Southern planters if they disapproved of his preaching the new birth to the slaves.83 He recounts one of his customary efforts among the slaves in North Carolina on his second trip to America:
I went, as my usual custom . . . among the negroes belonging to the house. One man was sick in bed, and two of his children said their prayers after me very well. This more and more convinces me that negro children, if early brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, would make as great proficiency as any among white people’s children. I do not despair, if God spares my life, of seeing a school of young negroes singing the praises of Him Who made them, in a psalm of thanksgiving. Lord, Thou has put into my heart a good design to educate them; I doubt not but Thou wilt enable me to bring it to good effect.84
Gary B. Nash dates “the advent of black Christianity” in Philadelphia to Whitefield’s first preaching tour. He estimates that perhaps 1,000 slaves heard Whitefield’s sermons in Philadelphia. What they heard was that they had souls just as surely as the white people. Whitefield’s work for the slaves in Philadelphia was so effective that Philadelphia’s most prominent dancing master, Robert Bolton, renounced his old vocation and turned his school over to blacks. “By summer’s end, over 50 ‘black Scholars’ had arrived at the school.”85
Sowing the Seeds of Equality
From Georgia to North Carolina to Philadelphia, Whitefield sowed the seeds of equality through heartfelt evangelism and education — blind as he was to the contradiction of buying and selling slaves.
Whitefield ended his most famous sermon, “The Lord Our Righteousness” with this appeal to the blacks in the crowd:
Here, then, I conclude; but I must not forget the poor negroes: no, I must not. Jesus Christ has died for them, as well as for others. Nor do I mention you last, because I despise your souls, but because I would have what I shall say make the deeper impression upon your hearts. O that you would seek the Lord to be your righteousness! Who knows but he may be found of you? For in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female, bond nor free; even you may be the children of God, if you believe in Jesus. . . . Christ Jesus is the same now as he was yesterday, and will wash you in his own blood. Go home then, turn the word of the text into a prayer, and entreat the Lord to be your righteousness. Even so. Come Lord Jesus, come quickly in all our souls. Amen. Lord Jesus, amen, and amen!
This kind of preaching infuriated many slave owners. One wonders if there was a rumbling in Whitefield’s own soul because he really did perceive where such radical evangelism would lead. He went public with his censures of slave owners and published words like these: “God has a quarrel with you” for treating slaves “as though they were Brutes.” If these slaves were to rise up in rebellion, “all good Men must acknowledge the judgment would be just.”86
This was incendiary. But it was too early in the course of history. Apparently Whitefield did not perceive the implications of what he was saying. What was clear was that the slave population loved Whitefield. For all his imperfections and blindness to the contradiction between advocating slavery and undermining slavery, when he died it was the blacks who expressed the greatest grief in America.87 More than any other eighteenth century figure, Whitefield established Christian faith in the slave community. Whatever else he failed in, for this they were deeply thankful.88
A Sinner Fit to Preach Free Grace
So the greatest preacher of the 18th-century, perhaps in the history of the Christian Church, was a contradictory figure. There was, as he himself so freely confessed, sin remaining in him. And that is what we have found in every human soul on this earth — except one. Which is why our lives are meant to point to him. His perfect obedience, not ours, is the foundation of our acceptance with God. If then, our sin, as well as our righteousness, can point people away from ourselves to Christ, we will rejoice even as we repent.
“I know no other reason,” Whitefield said, “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.”89
* * *
2 J. I. Packer, “The Spirit with the Word: The Reformational Revivalism of George Whitefield,” in: Honouring the People of God, The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I . Packer, Vol. 4 (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 1999), p. 40.
3 Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitfield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 59.
4 Dallimore, Whitefield, II, p. 284.
5 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 30.
6 Mark Noll, The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 52.
7 Dallimore, Whitefield, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1970), p. 480.
8 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, pp. 31–32.
9 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 209.
10 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 33.
11 Select Sermons of George Whitefield With an Account of his Life by J. C. Ryle (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958 with Ryle’s Life written in 1873), pp. 21–22.
12 Dallimore, Whitefield, II, p. 522.
13 Select Sermons, p. 32.
14 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 23.
15 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. xiii.
16 Ibid., p. 92.
17 Ibid., p. 261.
18 Harry Stout, “Heavenly Comet,” Christian History, 38 (1993), p. 13–14.
19 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 23.
20 Stout, Divine Dramatist, pp. 276–277.
21 Select Sermons, p. 28.
22 Dallimore, Whitefield, I, p. 538.
23 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 126.
24 John Pollock, Wilberforce (London: Constable and Compnay, 1977), pp. 4–5.
25 Select Sermons, p. 29.
26 Franklin’s comment in a letter about Whitefield was, “He is a good man and I love him.” Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 233.
27 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 204.
28 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, pp. 35–37.
30 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. xviii.
31 Ibid., p. 42.
32 Ibid., p. xxi.
33 Ibid., p. 40.
34 Ibid., p. 41.
35 Ibid., p. xix.
36 Dallimore, Whitefield, II, p. 225.
37 See a picture in Dallimore, Whitefield, II, between pages 303–304, and see a picture of an example of his preaching in Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 96.
38 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 41. Winter also said, “My intimate knowledge of him admits of my acquitting him of the charge of affectation.” Eric Carlsson, review of Stout, Divine Dramatist in TrinJ, No. 2, Fall, 93, p. 241.
39 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 141.
40 Select Sermons, p. 165. The sermon is “Walking with God.”
41 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. xvii.
42 Ibid., p. 21.
43 Ibid., p. 36.
44 Ibid., p. 55.
45 Ibid., p. 71.
46 Ibid., p. xviii.
47 Ibid., pp. 239–240.
48 Ibid., pp. 25–26.
49 From a sermon in 1769. Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, pp. 25–26.
50 Select Sermons, p. 15.
51 Carlsson, review of Stout, Divine Dramatist in TrinJ, No. 2, Fall, 93, p. 244.
52 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 68.
53 Ibid., p. 83.
54 Dallimore, Whitefield, II, pp. 168, 241.
55 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 50.
56 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 103.
57 He used the term freely for the fullness of the Reformation, Calvinistic teaching about salvation by sovereign grace. Writing on February 20, 1741, to Anne Dutton, he refers to his settlement in Georgia and says, “My family in Georgia was once sadly shaken, but now, blessed be God, it is settled, and, I hope, established in the doctrines of grace.” Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 127. On his second trip to America, he was critical of many pastors saying, “Many ministers are so sadly degenerated from their pious ancestors, that the doctrines of grace, especially the personal, all-sufficient righteousness of Jesus is but too seldom, too slightly mentioned.” Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 97.
58 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. xxiii.
59 Packer, “The Spirit with the Word,” p. 56.
60 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 26.
61 Packer, “The Spirit with the Word,” p. 47.
62 Dallimore, Whitefield, I, p. 574.
63 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, p. 76.
64 Ibid., pp. 71–72.
65 Ibid., p. 113.
66 Ibid., p. 76.
67 Dallimore, Whitefield, II, p. 41.
68 Haykin, ed., Revived Puritan, pp. 97–98.
69 Ibid., p. 145.
70 Select Sermons, p. 193
71 Ibid., p. 199. See p. 112 for another illustration of how he pleads with people even while drawing their attention to the fact that they cannot change themselves.
72 Ibid., p. 106.
73 Ibid., p. 107.
74 Ibid., p. 129.
75 Ibid., p. 189.
76 “[Whitefield] was doctrinally pure in his insistence that salvation came only through God’s grace, but he was nevertheless [sic] deeply involved in charitable work, and his year-long tour through America was to raise money for an orphanage in Georgia. He raised more money than any other cleric of his time for philanthropies, which included schools, libraries, and almshouses across Europe and America.” Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 110.
77 Carlsson, review of Stout, Divine Dramatist in TrinJ, No. 2, Fall, 93, p. 245.
78 “Whitefield spent much of his time in the South actively promoting the legalization of slavery in Georgia.” Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 198.
79 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 199.
80 “There was no longer a need for the South Carolina plantation. All resources were transferred to Bethesda, including a force of slaves for whom, Whitefield rejoiced, ‘Nothing seems to be wanted but a good overseer, to instruct the negroes in selling and planting.’” Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 218.
81 Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 101.
82 Ibid., p. 123.
83 Ibid., p. 100.
84 Ibid., p. 101.
85 Ibid., pp. 107–108.
86 Ibid., pp. 101–102.
87 Ibid., p. 284.
88 A 17-year-old black Boston servant girl named Phyllis Wheatley wrote one of his most famous elegies:
Hail happy saint on thy immortal throne!
To thee complaints of grievance are unknown:
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng.
Thy lessons in unequal’d accents flow’d!
While emulation in each bosom glow’d;
Thou didst, in strains of eloquence refine’d
Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.
Unhappy we, the setting Sun deplore:
Which once was splendid, but it shines no more;
He leaves the earth for Heaven’s unmeasure’d height:
And worlds unknown, receive him from our sight;
There WHITEFIELD wings, with rapid course his way,
And sails to Zion, through vast seas of day. (Stout, Divine Dramatist, p. 284)
89 Haykin, editor, Revived Puritan, pp. 157–158.