Outrageous Mercy

The Glory of God in the Gospel-Centered Life

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George Whitefield, 18th Century Celebrity

George Whitefield, 18th Century Celebrity

THE GREAT AWAKENING OCCURRED IN 1740-42. It was the greatest outpouring of spiritual power since the first century. It occurred simultaneously in Britain, the Thirteen Colonies, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. During this event, George Whitefield, our subject, was the greatest celebrity in the American Colonies. In his book, George Whitefield, Thomas Kidd cites a routine example.

 “John Marrant, a free African American apprentice and musician, was living in Charleston when he first encountered George Whitefield, who was in the city on his final visit to America. Like many others, Marrant came to Whitefield’s meeting not as a religious seeker, but to see what was happening and perhaps to have some fun at [Whitefield’s] expense. “Passing by a large meeting house I saw many lights in it, and crowds of people going in,” Marrant recalled. A companion told him that “a crazy man was [preaching] there.” His rascally friend said he would go in with him, but only on the condition that Marrant interrupt the meeting by blowing his French horn. “I liked the proposal well enough,” Marrant said, so they pushed through the doors into the crammed audience. Marrant was taking his horn off his shoulder just as Whitefield named his text. Looking directly at Marrant, the aged itinerant pointed at him and quoted Amos 4:12, “Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel.” The Word came with such ferocious power that it knocked Marrant down, and he lay “speechless and senseless” for half an hour. When he came to, people were giving Marrant smelling salts and throwing water on his face. Whitefield continued preaching. “Every word I heard from the minister was like a parcel of swords thrust into me,” Marrant said. “I thought I saw the devil on every side of me. I was constrained in the bitterness of my spirit to [shout] out in the midst of the congregation.” This disturbed other listeners, so people carried Marrant into the vestry, where Whitefield came to see him after the service. The itinerant said, “Jesus Christ has got thee at last.” Marrant soon broke through to conversion, becoming one of the most remarkable evangelical preachers of the era.”[2]

Most Christians today have heard of Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. But, in mid-eighteenth-century George Whitefield (pronounced Whit-field) was the transatlantic celebrity of whom everyone had heard. Because he did not start a denomination, found a college, or publish a distinctive theology, few know much about him today, but according to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, he was probably the greatest man that preached in the English language. His preaching initiated the Great Awakening. As we have noted, probably the G.A. was the greatest revival in history. 

Just as Jonathan Edwards was the intellectual center of the Great Awakening and John Wesley was the great organizer, so George Whitefield was the conduit through whom the Holy Spirit’s Fire uniquely touched the masses. Who he was, and why he is important to today’s Christian, is the subject of this article. 

Youth

George was born to a tavern keeper in Gloucester England in 1714. He was the youngest of seven children. His father died when he was two. His widowed mother survived by operating the Bell Inn. In his youth, George participated in several plays, and he displayed a remarkable talent for acting and theatrics. However, most of the time he served his mother by helping her take care of the Inn.

 Recognizing his special talents his mother enrolled him at Oxford. Since she had little money, George worked his way through college as a servant (Servitor) to the wealthier students. 

At age 19 he met John Wesley, eleven years his senior, and joined Wesley’s “Holy Club.” His relationship with John filled a void left by his absent biological father. 

During his early Oxford years (age 18-20) he strived through personal merit to earn God’s acceptance. He visited prisoners, fasted himself into emaciation, fed the poor, and spent long hours in prayer. But his inability to meet his own standards only increased his feelings of unworthiness and amplified his strivings after God’s acceptance. 

Towards the end of this period, he read a book by the Puritan, Henry Scougal. Titled The Life Of God in the Soul of Man, it was about the free grace of the gospel. When he saw this everything changed. He was just approaching his 20th birthday. Upon reading Scougal, he recalled, a

“ray of divine light was instantaneously darted in upon my soul, and from that moment, but not until then, did I know that I must be a new creature.”[3]

The contrast between this newly discovered liberty and, his youthful strivings to earn God’s acceptance, greatly enhanced both the depth and the duration of His spiritual joy. 

“Of all the band of Oxford Methodists,” wrote J.C. Ryle, “none seems to have got hold so soon of a clear view of Christ’s gospel as [Whitefield] did, and none kept it so unwaveringly to the end.”[4]

Over and over, he wrote that he was “full of the Holy Ghost” or felt “joy in the Holy Ghost” for hours on end. On May 6, [1735] he exulted that he experienced “joy in the Holy Ghost—Grace, Grace, Free Grace.”[5]

For the remaining 34 years of his life, God’s free, unmerited grace was the central theme of his preaching. 

His Preaching

It was 60 years since the end of Puritanism. In Whitefield’s day there was little interest in Christianity or spiritual things. Anglican Priests read dry sermons in cavernous cathedrals to 50 or 60 listeners. Deism and agnosticism possessed the hearts of most: Gambling and drunkenness were epidemic. 

However, nations tremble when God fuses great oratorical gifts with spiritual power. Whitefield possessed both in abundance. He discovered it suddenly and dramatically. 

At the end of his senior year at Oxford (1736), he returned home to Gloucester to regain his health. On June 20 he was ordained. On June 27 a polite crowd gathered for his first sermon. He was a mere youth of 21. He later wrote in his diary: 

“Last Sunday I preached my first sermon…Curiosity drew a large crowd…The sight at first over-awed me…As I proceeded, however, I perceived the fire kindled… I trust I was enabled to speak with some degree of gospel authority.”[6]  

 “Some discomfited audience members jeered at him for coming on so strong, but most seemed awed (or “struck,” as Whitefield put it). Afterward, some complained to the bishop—the man who had just ordained Whitefield—that the boy’s preaching had driven fifteen overwrought people “mad.” [The Bishop is reputed to have wished that they stay in this state of “madness” until at least the following Sunday.] Whitefield was not concerned, though. He was delighted. “Glory! Glory! Glory!” he wrote.”[7]

The “fire” he referred to in his diary was the presence and power of God. He would become very accustomed to it for it would accompany his work in varying degrees from that day forward. 

George Whitefield was the first celebrity in the Thirteen Colonies

Next, he filled a Tower of London pulpit for two months. The effects were the same. Word spread quickly and vast crowds thronged wherever young George was to preach. What was the secret of this boy-preacher’s popularity? It was simple: God was there. It is easy to draw a crowd, and persecutors, when the felt presence and power of God accompanies a ministry. 

Love for the Lost

In 1738 George spent a year as a missionary in Savanah, Georgia, then returned to England to resume his ministry. 

Once home he was in constant demand and preached as often as fifteen times per week—sometimes for up to two hours. About this time, he heard about the thousands of miners and factory workers in his hometown area (Bristol, Gloucester) who had no knowledge of Christ. He could not proclaim the Good News to them because they would not attend a church. Since they would not come to him, he decided to go to them. But, to do this he had to preach in the open air—an act socially unacceptable to stuffy 18th century English. 

After much prayer he spoke to about 100 miners by the road as they were trudging to the mines in the early morning light. The effect was electric. These men had never heard the good news or known the power of God. Tears stained their coarse, coal-grimed cheeks. Word spread, and within a few days he was speaking each morning in the open air to crowds averaging 5,000. Thus began Whitefield’s ministry of field preaching—a radical and controversial idea in the 18th century.  About this time John Wesley came down from London to visit him. 

Outdoor Preaching

“Upon arrival, Wesley began to realize what a sensation “dear brother” Whitefield’s preaching had created. That Sunday morning, Whitefield preached at a bowling green to a crowd, according to Wesley’s estimate, of up to seven thousand. At noon he preached to the same-sized audience in Kingswood; at five, Whitefield drew a titanic throng of thirty thousand to a mount at Rose Green. The next day, the itinerant left Bristol. “I have seen none like him,” wrote the flabbergasted Wesley. 56”
— George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father by Thomas S. Kidd

For the rest of his life he preached in churches or fields—wherever anyone would listen—to crowds of up to 20,000 and more, with tremendous power and affect. Remember, he had no microphone to amplify his voice. He spoke in Summer and Winter, in rain and heat. He often had to shout through the wind, the rain, the hecklers, and other distractions, but God used him greatly. 

As he prepared to depart from Boston in 1740 a crowd of 23,000 gathered to hear him on Boston Commons. This is amazing because at that time the population of Boston was less than 15,000. It was the largest outdoor gathering to date on U.S. soil.

Persecutions and Labors

Great spiritual power always comes with great opposition. His life was not easy. The religious establishment detested his emphasis on the necessity of new birth. Everywhere church doors began to shut to his ministry. Preparing to preach at St. Mary’s church in Islington, U.K., for example, the rector informed him that he could not use the pulpit, so George announced that he would preach from a tombstone in the adjoining graveyard. An immense crowd emptied the church to listen. Mockers often threw rotten vegetables and dung, while brawlers tried to shout him down. Once he narrowly escaped a fatal stabbing while sleeping. Another time an Irish mob tried to kill him. 

Persecutors would come to throw feces or dead cats at him. They would blow horns and mock him, but he persisted. He was true servant of God.

Political Cartoon Mocking Whitefield

The London Newspapers constantly mocked and ridiculed him. 

He traveled constantly. He visited Scotland fourteen times, Ireland twice, and went to Wales numerous times. In a day when it took 2 to 3 months to cross the Atlantic in cold, leaky, smelly ships—he went to the New World seven times to preach the good news. 

The greatest impact of his ministry took place in the thirteen colonies. In fact, he was the first national celebrity in North America. Scholars estimate that he preached 18,000 sermons in his lifetime—an average of ten sermons a week for the duration of his ministry, 34 years. It is impossible to calculate the number converted by his incessant fruitful labors, but they were in the hundreds of thousands. 

Because single men were distrusted, he married an English widow, but it was a mistake. His ministry was conducive to marriage. His wife gave birth to a son, John, who died a few weeks later. He should have remained single. 

The amazing thing is that, given these exertions, he lived to age 55—literally preaching himself to death. On the day before his death—weak, sick, and exhausted—he preached a field sermon in New Hampshire. “Lord, I am weary in your work,” he prayed, “but I am never weary of your work.” Then he ascended the scaffold. For five minutes he stood silently before the crowd gathering his strength. Then he preached with great power for two hours. The effect on the hearers was great. He died that night of an asthmatic attack. 

Lessons from Whitefield’s life

The first great lesson we learn from Whitefield is the necessity of preaching. Although we believe in preaching, it is customary for today’s evangelical to not value the need for the spiritual power that changes people’s lives. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones defined preaching as truth on fire. The fire is not in the minister. There are many preachers with great pulpit eloquence that lack any spiritual fire. The spiritual fire is a gift that often accompanies revival.

Jesus, Peter, and Paul spent most of their time preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit. Preaching was their great passion and occupation. Why? Because preaching coupled with the power of the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, encourages God’s people, and kindles the faith that transforms lives.

Whitefield Preaching

Second, Whitefield’s life demonstrates the effectiveness of God’s power. When Billy Graham visited Spokane a few years ago he filled Joe Albi stadium, but it took several months of organization, advertising, and planning to get that done. We honor and love Billy Graham. He would have done anything to have experienced the power that accompanied Whitefield.

But Whitefield’s work was different. He drew vast crowds with no advance organization, relying simply on the tangible presence of God. 

A good example is the diary of Nathan Cole, a Connecticut farmer. [8] In 1740 Cole was working in his field when a horseman galloped down the road calling out that Whitefield would be preaching at Middletown, CT. at 10:00 AM. Cole dropped his tools, ran home frantically to tell his wife to hurry and get ready, 

“Then I ran to my pasture for my horse with all my might, fearing I would be too late.” He put his wife on the horse, and running beside her, they fled to town with all their might. They “feared lest they would be too late to hear the sermon.” On both sides of the road the fields were deserted, everyone having hurried to town ahead of them. 

When he arrived, Nathan stood in a vast throng before a hastily erected wooden platform to hear the 26-year-old preacher. 

“A young, slim, slender youth before some thousands of people with a bold, undaunted countenance.” I entered “into a trembling fear before he began to preach. For he looked as if he was clothed with authority from the Great God”. 

If you have ever experienced God’s tangible power and life changing presence in the proclamation of God’s word, you know how Cole felt. Nothing can explain the urgency of Cole and his neighbors but God’s presence and power. 

The church today does not need more organization or better programs. We don’t need more seminary degrees. We need the felt power and tangible presence of the living God in our ministries today as it often was in days of old. The good news is that no culture is so far gone that God cannot revive it if this power visits us.

This column has just scratched the surface of the life and times of George Whitefield. For further reading see Christian History Magazine, Issue 38. Or read John Pollock’s George Whitefield and the Great Awakening, or Arnold Dallimore’s, George Whitefield in 2 Volumes. 

Another excellent work is Stephen Lawson, George Whitefield. Thomas Kidd, whom I have quoted extensively, George Whitefield, America’s spiritual founding Father. For more on the Great Awakening read The Great Awakening by Tracy or Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century, by JC Ryle, or the many other fine books and articles on this subject. 


[1] This article was first published in Enrichment Journal, Winter of 2003, pg 112 

[2] Kidd, Thomas S.. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (p. 248). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Kidd, Thomas S.. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (p. 28). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Christian Leaders Of The 18th Century, J.C. Ryle, Banner of Truth, 1978, pg 34

[5] Kidd, Thomas S.. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (p. 35). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] The Journals of George Whitfield, Italics mine.

[7] Kidd, Thomas S.. George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (p. 38). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[8] John Pollock, George Whitefield and The Great Awakening, ( Lion, 1972) , pg 164,65

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This blog is about the gospel and how it influences every aspect of Christian life. Many Christians here the word, “gospel,” and think, that’s for beginners. I want to move on to the deeper truths. But this kind of thinking is a problem. Properly understood the gospel is the deepest truth in scripture. If you knew nothing about the Bible but the gospel, but knew it really well, you would have all the knowledge necessary for a life of godliness.

The gospel reconciles Old Testament and New. It is the center of the Bible. The Old Testament demonstrates the need for it . The Old Testament predicts it. Then the four gospels record the life and death of Jesus, the Messiah, which is the gospel. Last, the epistles look back on the gospels interpreting and applying them.

The gospel is also about ultimate issues. A display of the glory of God is God’s purpose for creation and redemption. The cross of Christ, the center of the gospel, is the greatest display of God’s glory in human history. It also displays the bankruptcy of man. In sum, the cross glorifies God and humbles humanity, and this is how it should be.

The gospel informs how married couples should relate, how they should raise their children, how they should relate to other Christians, why they should evangelize, and how they should conduct themselves in the market place. It’s all there for those who have eyes to see.

The gospel is the heart and soul of the Christian worldview. It explains how we got here, why life is often problematic, and the glorious hope that God has set before all true Believers.

These subjects and others, this blog will explore. Occasionally we will address culture and politics, but the main subject will be the gospel and its application.

If you have questions or concerns my email bfarley48@gmail.com

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