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Studies in Church History: George Whitefield

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Artist Name - Studies-in-Church-History-George-Whitefield

Studies in Church History

This is the first in a series of articles that I am planning to do called Studies in Church History. From time to time I will post these short biographies for your encouragement in the faith. I believe that the study of Church History can serve us here in the present as we take inspiration, encouragement and even correction from the men and women who have gone before us. The Kingdom of God didn't start with us, the church has been gaining ground in this world for almost two thousand years now. We would do well to consider that great cloud of witnesses that have served the Lord in past generations, and follow their example as we follow Christ today.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

Of all the great preachers and missionaries of history, there is no one that I love more than George Whitefield. To put it in the most scholarly of terms, he's just the best. I know, I know, that's a bold claim. But what I mean to say is that George Whitefield is unlike anyone else I've read about. He is exemplary in so many ways: his zeal for advancing the gospel, his evident humility and love, his tireless efforts to win souls, his powerful preaching, his range and reach, both in how much ground he covered geographically, and in how many people he could physically preach to at a given time, and the abundant blessing that God gave to his ministry. There really is no one like Whitefield in history.

I have been personally shaped by the example of this 18th Century evangelist. I read Arnold Dallimore's great biography of Whitefield when I was eighteen or nineteen years old. And it couldn't have come at a better time. Whitefield's zeal and resolve for the worldwide spread of the gospel, became my own. One of the marks of his influence on me is in the naming of my oldest son, Peter Whitefield. I believe every believer would do well to come under this man's godly influence. And so, let me introduce to you in this small biography, the reverend George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), the great evangelist of the 18th Century English revival, and one of the leading preachers of the Great Awakening in America.

George Whitefield was an unlikely candidate to lead a revival that would touch two continents. He lost his father at age two and endured poverty, sickness and his mother's unhappy second marriage, all while being raised around the questionable environment of the family's tavern. However, he had developed an interest in spiritual things and at seventeen he left for Pembroke College, Oxford. Near the end of his first year he joined a group of other religiously devout students at the invitation of Charles Wesley. This "Holy Club," as they were mockingly called by others, disciplined themselves towards holiness, believing that these good works would place them on the path to heaven. But after more study, Whitefield discovered that salvation was a gift from God that could never be earned through self-effort. He later said of this time, "God showed me that I must be born again, or be damned! I learned that a man may go to church, say prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian". So, "in utter desperation and in rejection of all self-trust, he cast himself on the mercy of God through Jesus Christ" (Dallimore, p.17).[1]He was 21 when this great change happened.

Upon being converted, Whitefield's reading of the Word and his time in prayer became rich with joy and life. In those early days it was his practice to be on his knees at 5 am with his Bible, Greek New Testament and a copy of Matthew Henry's commentary, praying over every line and word as he communed with his Lord. The next year he was ordained in the Church of England as a minister, and soon after he also became a missionary to the American colony of Georgia. As he waited for his ship to leave for his first of seven trips to North America, he began to preach in various places around London. He preached with such remarkable power and effectiveness that it was clear that God was doing something special in England.

While away in Georgia, his sermons were published and circulated widely back in England, so that by his return, his popularity had actually grown, not diminished, in his absence. Often the church buildings could not hold the crowds. This fact, combined with the Church of England's increasing criticism of his fervency and zeal, led him to a transition in his ministry where he began open air preaching. In England at the time, the poor and working-class people had virtually no church, no gospel, and we're biblically illiterate. Whitefield broke the ice on a cold February day to a group of two hundred coal miners in South Wales. Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of Jesus who was a friend of publicans and sinners, and came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Dallimore, p.47). As he preached, the miners were so affected by the gospel that streams of tears left white troughs on their coal-blackened faces. Hundreds of them were brought under deep conviction and were thoroughly converted.

After this, Whitefield began holding some thirty open air meetings a week, preaching multiple times a day. Sometimes the crowds reached 20 or 30 thousand people. Benjamin Franklin, a personal acquaintance of Whitefield's, one time took the pains to measure out one of his Philadelphia crowds. He measured that Whitefield's voice could be heard by 30,000 persons, that is, about three acres packed. These congregations "before the electrical amplification of sound, were undoubtedly the largest ever reached by a human voice in all history." (Dallimore p. 56)

Whitefield's own statement about his ministry was this: "The whole world is now my parish. Wheresoever my Master calls me I am ready to go and preach the everlasting Gospel." Whitefield would proclaim the gospel tirelessly for over three decades without much or any respite. During his ministry, Whitefield's bold preaching woke up multitudes of people on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, there was an entirely revived spiritual climate. His open air preaching came to the masses like rain to thirsty ground. As he preached many people – from the very poor to the elite – were deeply changed. On the other side of the Atlantic, God used Whitefield in America to bring about one of the largest scale revivals that the world has ever seen, The Great Awakening. Tens of thousands were saved, hundreds of new churches were planted, and Christian ministries begun. One said it seemed as if "all the world were growing religious", you could scarcely walk down the street without hearing hymns being sung.

In September of 1770 Whitefield preached a powerful, two-hour sermon based on the text, "Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith." As he climbed the stairs to go to bed that evening a large group of people came into the home and earnestly requested that he preach to them. So, "he paused, candle in hand, and preached Christ till the candle burned out in its socket and died away." (Dallimore p.195) Like the candle, his own life was reaching its end. At seven the next morning George Whitefield died, entering the Rest to which he had pointed countless souls.

John Wesley said of Whitefield at his funeral, "Have we read or heard of any person, who called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners to repentance…who has been the blessed instrument of bringing so many sinners from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God?" (Ryle p.47)[2] George Whitefield was truly a remarkable man that the Lord used to change the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We would do well to follow his example of love, of zeal, of steadfastness, and of faith. May God see fit to raise up more men like Whitefield, and bring about revival, even another Great Awakening.

If you would like to learn more of George Whitefield I would recommend the following books:

Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield:
Abridged version.
Full 2 Volume version.

J.C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century.

Stephen Lawson, The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield.

Bibliography:

Dallimore, Arnold, George Whitefield: God's Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century,Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 1990.
Ryle, J.C., Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century,Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, UK, 1979.

[1] Dallimore, George Whitefield: God's Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century, 17.

[2] Ryle, J.C., Christian leaders of the 18th Century, 47. 

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Comments 1

Guest - Tom Hardy

on Saturday, 11 May 2024 14:04

Hi Pastor
For a while now, Vince has been sharing your blogs.
I really look forward to them now and I thought I would encourage you along those lines.
I am a fan of biographies such a George Whitefield, whom you featured this month.
Perhaps the first one I ever read, was one on George Muller, who in my opinion, when it came to prayer and loving people, is not equaled.
I have read Hudson Taylor, CH Spurgeon and a few others.

Hearing what you said about George Whitefield, made me want to purchase the book you talked about.
Thank you
Tom Hardy

Hi Pastor For a while now, Vince has been sharing your blogs. I really look forward to them now and I thought I would encourage you along those lines. I am a fan of biographies such a George Whitefield, whom you featured this month. Perhaps the first one I ever read, was one on George Muller, who in my opinion, when it came to prayer and loving people, is not equaled. I have read Hudson Taylor, CH Spurgeon and a few others. Hearing what you said about George Whitefield, made me want to purchase the book you talked about. Thank you Tom Hardy
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Tuesday, 16 July 2024