Biographical Sketch: George Whitfield

 

I love biographies.  If you know me at all, you know that I am a book worm to the -inth degree.  

Biography and history books are my nearly daily food.  The people I read about were almost always universally brilliant thinkers, disciplined laborers, and gave extreme passion and zeal to whatever their hands were on, and there is much to learn from them.

And as a pastor, you may think that this means I only read biographies on Christians, far from it.  There is much value in reading widely across the spectrum.

Also, when you are reading such biographies, what happens is that you get a glimpse and a picture of a specific time period.  If the author writes well, you will learn much about the world around them.  They will draw it and illustrate it and put you in your imagine into that time period, and you will often learn even much of present day times that were influenced or changed by the time period you are reading.

So I currently have a multi-year project of biography reading ahead of me, and I figured that this churches podcast could be a great way of sharing little biographical sketches with you concerning these men and women that I am reading about.  Now, this project is specifically geared to leaders inside of the church throughout church history in the past 2,000 years.  Why share it here?  With the hopes that you will learn yourself, be challenged by the stories you hear, and hopefully fill this new church plant with continued passion and zeal for the Good News of Jesus.

So today, we are going to be looking at the life of George Whitfield.  

 

Who was George Whitfield? 

 

He was born in Glousester, England on December 16, 1714.  The interesting thing to note about this time period is that, yes, Whitfield was a protestant and England was a protestant nation, that is, in the tradition of the reformers from a few centuries prior that swept across Europe.  Yet, just like in many times through church history, the church had become dry, lacking any sort of real Gospel preaching, or preaching concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus, and had become somewhat of a conformed religious group that was lacking any sort of evangelistic fervor.  So much so that, in England as well as in the American colonies at the time, it was not an uncommon practice for the church of England to ordain men who were explicitly, by their own confession, not actually Christian.  Also, if you attempted to buck up against the English church and preach outside of their walls, develop a new liturgy outside of their prayer book, or essentially partake in unofficial ministry not ordained by the Church of England, you could be ostracized, and even penally punished, doing jail time or worse.  This was the situation that John Bunyan found himself in within the boundaries of England some decades before Whitfield’s time, the author of the famous Pilgrim’s Progress.  These Christians in England were known as the nonconformists.  They are what drove many to seek freedom from this harsh treatment in the New World of the American colonies, but if you read in history, sadly they became the same as those they ran away from, forcing their version of Christianity on others and persecuting others, even to death.  Just think of the Salem Witch Trials - just one example.

Nevertheless, this was Whitfield’s world that he was born into.  And in his lifetime, he would bring much change to it. 

Early Life

He was born into an average family, his father dying when he was young.  His family were managers of an inn, and he spent much of his time as a youth working at that inn.  Yet, as time went on, he was afforded the chance to attend Oxford University in England when he became of age.

Conversion into the Faith

Upon attending Oxford, Whitfield joined what was known as the Holy Club - a strict Christian religious group on campus who all committed to a very disciplined life circling around various spiritual disciplines as fasting, prayer, scripture reading and the like.  Through this Holy Club, Whitfield met two men who would remain, often simultaneously, his best of friends and also his worse of enemies - John and Charles Wesley.  The Wesley’s were brilliant men, both of leadership capabilities, full of charisma.  And they originally helped to organize this Holy Club at Oxford.

Now, by a sovereign work of the Spirit of God and through a special book called “The Life of God in the Soul of Man” by Henry Scougal (a book that is still available today that I highly recommend you read), Whitfield through this nearly exclusive ritual-based spiritual group that was not focused on the state of the heart before God, but rather only on their actions, Whitfield discovers what it meant to be born again.  After incredible struggle and great difficulty, he becomes a genuine Christian through this club.  He later recounted this event:

 

"God was pleased to remove the heavy load, to enable me to lay hold of His dear Son by a living faith, and by giving me the Spirit of adoption, to seal me even to the day of everlasting redemption.  O! with what joy - joy unspeakable - even joy that was full of and big with glory, was my sould filled, when the weight of sin went off, and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God, and a full assurance of faith broke in upon my disconsolate soul! Surely it was the day of mine espousals - a day tobe had in everlasting remembrance!  At first my joys were like a spring tide, and overflowed the banks! (Dallimore, pg. 77)

Now after his conversion, to condense this story, he becomes officially ordained as a priest in the church of England.  Mind you at this time he was barely 20 years of age.  

Upon his ordination, he tries his hand at preaching.  It began small, especially in Bristol, England, but soon he began preaching at services in London.  Before he knew it, massive throngs of people began showing up.  This very young man soon began drawing crowds of thousands upon thousands.  Before he knew it, he quickly became immensely famous for his oratory abilities, and it seemed that God was genuinely using him for ministry on a scale not seen ever before in England.

 

Ministry Years

In his period, Whitfield found himself scarcely able, at any hour of the day, to keep people out of where he slept, as people were seeking him for prayer and spiritual counsel.  He essentially quickly became this type of celebrity figure, and for this young man, he was rocked and jarred by it all and did not know quite what to think of it.  As he ministered, it was said that his voice was able to carry in an open field as far as two miles.  He later found himself preaching in open fields to as many as 10, 20, and if some of the numbers written are believed to not have been exaggerated, 30,000 at one time.  He also spent much time in the American colonies, building an orphanage in the colony of Georgia, and he even spent some time preaching in our state of New Jersey, not very far from here at the Old Tennants church in Freehold.

Now, there is much to be said about Whitfield’s life.  It was essentially full of non-stop ministry, daily, and he would often labor so hard as to drive himself to a sick bed for months on end.  Then, often still sick, he would rise and keep preaching, praying to God for strength.

He eventually did get married, although he lost his first born son just four months after he had been born, followed by many failed miscarriages.  When he was in the American colonies, his preaching, joined on the coattails of the famed ministry in New England, Jonathan Edwards, helped to spur on what is now known as the Great Awakening.  Hundreds being baptized in a short amount of time.  Thousands continually thronging to hear the preaching of the Gospel everywhere he went.  Even Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, a man who did not embrace the Christian doctrines, became a close friend of Whitfield and even printed many of his sermons.  Whitfield indirectly also began the famous school of what is now known as the University of Pennsylvania - a statue of him still stands on campus today. 

Now, why is all of this worth noting, worth reading about?  The fact is this:  Whitfield’s sermons are not of extraordinary depth.  His sermons are, in their printed form, “classic” sermons still read and often studied today.  They are good sermons, highly evangelistic in nature, but not shallow by any means.  Yet, people continually wrote of his “organ-like” melodic voice that was strong and powerful enough to bring the masses to tears as they heard his words, and the Spirit of God used Whitfield to draw thousands upon thousands to himself.  

Mind you, the extent and breadth of his ministry is what makes him so astounding a figure.  Most weeks during the heights of his ministry, he preached 60 hours, actually spoke and preached 60 hours, with little to no time for preparation.  He continually traveled back and forth between the American colonies and England.  He daily preached, preached, preached, preached.  And thousands and thousands always drew to hear him.  It was a true revival, the likes of which we can scarcely imagine today taking place.  Imagine such a preacher on one of our shore towns - it would mean, if we consider percentage of our population as to the percentages of his day as well from a town who attend his preaching, Point Pleasant would have 10,000 -  15,000 people all standing outside in Community Park day after Day after day listening to Whitfield preaching.  it is hard to fathom such an event in today’s terms.  He didn’t stop.  He labored and labored, and his passion never waned.  The likes of his kind had never been seen before in church history, nor since.  

What was his message?  That was my question as I read through his biography.  It is an extraordinary story.  He suffered great persecutions from the church of England and its adhereants, his friends John and Charles Wesley embraced a different theological system than his own, and began publicly attacking Whitfield during one intense season in his life.  Yet throughout his ministry he maintained a somewhat simple message that still amazes me today:  it is the message of a new birth.

The idea of the church of England, although not in its entirety, had such a difficult time with Whitfield’s preaching is that 1) he was driven outdoors because eventually no one in England would provide him with a pulpit to preach on, 2) his message seemed to draw people to feel actual emotion towards Jesus and the Good News.  Some people became a little too emotional, and rumors of fanaticism raged.  Yet as a whole, they were the few.  Whitfield’s ministry seemed to actually produce lasting fruit, and it also gave birth to many amazing leaders such as John Cennick and others who co-labored with Whitfield.

Learning from Whitfield's Life

What we can sum up from his life are a few things:

1)  He gave his all to the ministry.  For many years of his ministry, even into his married life, he didn’t have a home.  He was a true iternit preacher, traveling from place to place, sleeping in borrowed bed after another.  He wasn’t a wealthy man, nor did he really profit much from his preaching.

2)  He was not a perfect man - he even at one point owned slaves in America, although he treated them well and in an early phase in his life, wanted to start a preaching and residential ministry for african slaves in the colonies because he cared about them - but he never rejected the idea of slave ownership.  Yet, an imperfect man he was, he still nevertheless was used greatly by God.

3)  He preached the simple, timeless message the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the necessity of New Birth.  Read any of his sermons - you will be moved by the simplicity of his message, the clarity of the Gospel, and his power through the words on the page.

My question I’ve been asking myself often is this:  Would it be possible for another Whitfield ministry to take place today?  Another Awakening of sorts?  Reading this story, it almost seems fantastical. Yet, it happened.  And it is in the annuals of church history. It shows that even in the most unlikeliest of times, God can bring about a massive move of his Spirit that can bring in untold numbers to the faith - and launch movements and institutions that can forever bring change to this world.  

May we hear a story like George Whitfield, and pray not necessarily for another George Whitfield - but rather for such a new work of his Spirit to take place today.  It could happen… let’s continue to talk about Jesus, his grace through his Good News that is available for us all, and the necessity of a new birth as found on John chapter 3.