When the Lord places His hand on a person’s life, they are never the same again. God put His hand on George Whitefield, the effects were so strong; we can still feel them to this day over 200 years later. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones said Whitefield was the greatest preacher England ever produced. Spurgeon told his students that if he could model his life after anyone it would be George Whitefield. We in the United States could never calculate the impact his ministry had in early Colonial America. It was his powerful, sin-convicting preaching that influenced much of the Great Awakening.
Whitefield kept a relentless schedule during his 34 years of public ministry. It is estimated he preached between 40 to 60 hours each week, delivering some 18,000 sermons. Missionary work was very close to the evangelist’s heart. He took 7 mission trips to America, preaching up and down the east coast from Boston to Georgia. He took 3 preaching tours to Ireland and 14 trips to Scotland. Thousands upon thousands would gather to hear him in Great Britain. Benjamin Franklin, a close friend, estimated that when Whitefield preached outdoors, some 30,000 people could hear him.
He was born in Gloucester, England on December 16, 1714. His family owned the Bell Inn, however, his father passed away when George was only two years old. Eight years later his mother remarried a man named Capel Longden. Home life for George and it caused him to rebel in nearly everything. His mother ended up leaving Longden 5 years into the marriage.
In 1733, while enrolled at Oxford University, God began to awaken his heart through the help of new friends, the Wesley brothers. He had already committed to pray three times per day as well as fasting weekly and while he was doing other “religious exercises”, it felt as though something more was missing. He asked John Wesley if he could borrow a book, the classic, “Life of God in the Soul of Man” by Henry Scrougal. From this book, Whitefield says he learned, “I must be born again, or be damned.”
In the Spring of 1735, George Whitefield repented of his sin and confessed Jesus Christ becoming “Born Again.” He continued to grow in his walk with Christ. Matthew Henry’s Commentary was a valuable tool in the early years of learning how to walk with God.
It didn’t take long before Whitefield knew he was called to ministry. Friends and family were astonished at his first sermon. It seemed that Scripture poured out of him. Clearly Whitefield was born to do this. At one point he wrote , “Heavenly Father, for Thy dear Son’s sake, keep me from climbing.” This kind of humility would be a characteristic that would mark his entire ministry. Soon, thousands came to hear him, packing churches throughout London and Bristol. Even though he was enjoying a great deal of success in England, Whitefield felt a calling to visit the newly settled colony of Georgia. His voyage was delayed but he was able to use that time to publish 6 of his sermons which ended up sweeping Great Britain. In 1938 he was able to set sail for the new world.
He spent 3 months proclaiming the Gospel in America and God blessed with multitudes coming to Christ. Little did he know how much things had changed for him in England. The popularity he had enjoyed before coming to America had dissipated. Although he had been ordained in the Church of England, it seemed churches were closed to his ministry. Over time, he realized how the Sovereign hand of the Lord was pushing outside of churches to minister in open fields to common, everyday people. Remarkably, thousands came out to hear him until eventually tens of thousands came!
In August of 1739, Whitefield returned to America and found great success. This is when he met the influential Benjamin Franklin, and they became good friends often corresponding with one another. His preaching itinerary took him up and down the East coast. He prayerfully opened an orphanage called Bethesda in Georgia that was a life-long project he labored extensively over.
While his ministry in the colonies thrived, it seemed his ministry in England continued to suffer. Returning home in 1741, he got the shocking news that John Wesley had published a great deal of criticism about his ministry, publically attacking him for preaching the doctrines of grace. Most people know the Wesley’s were Armenians and Whitefield was a Calvinist. Nevertheless, Whitefield tried his best to keep the feud a private matter. While church history honors both Whitefield and Wesley, things could have been handled in a much better way. The important thing is that we, the church of today, learn from this example that brothers in Christ can disagree without being disagreeable. One of the greatest lessons I have learned in my pastoral ministry is that God blesses some people I disagree with!
The life of Whitefield was marked by humility. His supporters begged him to retaliate and defend himself, but the wise and mature Calvinist simply said, “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified…Let us look above names and parties; let Jesus be our all in all…I care not who is uppermost. I know my place…even to be the servant of all.” He also wrote, “Oh, that I may learn from all I see to desire to be nothing and to think it my highest privilege to be an assistant to all but the head of none.” That my friend is humility.
Whitefield had the right perception concerning the Body of Christ and the many differences that can often separate and divide our fellowship. He said, “…I will strengthen the hands of all of every denomination that preach Jesus Christ in sincerity.” Now I am not an ecumenical pastor who believes that anyone with the name “Christian” is all inclusive. I believe that Christians who differ in issues of eternal security, baptism, tongues, spiritual gifts can still have spiritual fellowship through the redemption and rich grace of Jesus Christ. People who do not believe in the deity of Christ, the blood atonement, grace by faith and the authority of Scripture I could not fellowship with nor labor with. Those issues are non-negotiable doctrines.
A good current example is Rob Bell’s latest book, “Love Wins.” I have encouraged my congregation to steer clear of this dangerous work. Rob Bell is teaching universalism, that everyone will ultimately be redeemed and go to Heaven. If every person will one day end up in Heaven, then why would Christ have to die?
The point is this, Christians, the people of God, can enjoy fellowship and even labor together although we do not agree on each point of doctrine. I have always said that if two people think exactly alike then one is not thinking! Next month we will explore John Wesley’s life and in June, we will discuss Charles Simeon. Wesley and Simeon are marvelous examples of how Armenians and Calvinist can work together in Evangelicalism and still glorify God.
Toward the end of his life his health grew worse, yet he continued to travel and preach. He once had to travel to Holland to allow his health to recovery. After many more trips and countless sermons, he decided to sail once more to the American colonies.
His battered, weakened body barely made it to America for his final mission trip in 1769. He was very ill when he arrived. Beginning in 1790, he preached his last itinerary to large crowds as people flocked to hear him from city to city. He preached his final sermon on September 29, 1770. He died the following morning in the church’s parsonage in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he is buried today. Over 6,000 people attended his funeral.
To learn more about Pastor Chad Roberts, visit www.preachingchristchurch.com
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