THE ANGEL’S VOICE: THE LIFE OF GEORGE WHITEFIELD

“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 weeks, sixty, and that to thousands…” Rev. Henry Venn (Quoted in multiple sources.)

In 33 years of preaching, George Whitefield preached 30,000 times. That is 2-3 times per day for his entire life. Approximately 10 million people heard him speak in person. Along with numerous other preachers, among whom he was the most prominent, God used Whitefield to change the English-speaking world.

Rev. 14:6-7 And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; 7 and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory…”

God made Whitefield as if to prefigure the future angel He would send to the world. In that way and according to His plan, God revitalized whole countries in the English-speaking world of the 18th century through the work of preachers among whom Whitefield was chief.

For this biography I leaned chiefly on Robert Philip’s The Life and Times of George Whitefield. Other sources such as Dallimore’s brief, one volume work and single chapters in Murray’s Heroes were very helpful.

The Life of George Whitefield

  1. 1714 December 16, George Whitefield was born to well to do parents in Great Britain.
  2. The youngest of 7 children, his father died when he was two.
  3. As a child, he would act in plays with unusual skill in drama.
  4. 1732 Because the family business suffered, he was forced to enter Oxford by serving other rich students.
  5. 1733 He joined the Holy Club started by John and Charles Wesley brothers. John was 11 years older and Charles 7 than Whitefield.
  6. Through the influence of the club, he practiced the most intense discipline hoping to save his soul.
  7. He stopped eating fruit and gave that money to the poor. Journals
  8. “I chose the worst sort of food… My apparel was mean [plain].”
  9. When not fasting, he ate sugarless tea and coarse bread.
  10. Charles Wesley invited him to breakfast and loaned him Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man.
  11. 1735 After months of doubt, fear, and fasting, he was converted at 20 years age of after reducing himself to a sickly condition.
  12. 1736 He was ordained at 21, 14 months after conversion, and preached his first sermon in the Anglican Church.
  13. Almost immediately other churches requested him to come preach there as well.
  14. Before he was 23 he had decided to be a missionary to America, and he was preaching more than 5 times every week.
  15. 1738 First tour of America.
  16. 1739 When the ministers will not open up their churches for him after he returns from the US, he stands in the fields.
  17. He was led by Howell Harris in this practice and he in turn led both Wesley’s.
  18. “It was a brave day for England when Whitefield began field preaching.” Spurgeon
  19. “Prayer meetings were for Whitefield… the finishing school of his ministerial education. … God hangs the greatest weights on the smallest wires.” Robert Philip
  20. He preaches for 20,000 poor laborers at a place called Moorfields.
  21. 1739 Second preaching tour in America.
  22. He meets Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards.
  23. Miraculous interest in the colonies. Nathan Cole wrote his famous account. (Murray’s biography of Edwards, 163-164)
  24. Edwards’ account of Whitefield. (Ibid., 162)
  25. 1740 Begins plans for an orphanage.
  26. 1741 Controversy with John Wesley over election.
  27. The separation was initiated by Wesley, but 10 years later, they were able to minister together again.
  28. 1741 November, 26 years old marries 36 year old Elizabeth James—“No beauty, youth, or riches…”
  29. He had already been rejected by a girl who testified that she could not take the difficult life he was called to.
  30. He met and married Mrs. James within one week preaching twice per day the first week he was married.
  31. After their first week together he left to preach in London.
  32. 1741-1742 Revival at Cambuslang, Scotland.
  33. 1742 Preaches again at Moorfields at 6:00 am (often he preached there at 5:00 am.).
  34. He chose Moorfields at this time because it had a great fair with entertainment distracting men from thinking about their souls.
  35. “I was honored with having a few stones, dirt, rotten eggs, and pieces of dead cats thrown at me, whilst engaged in calling them from their favourite but lying vanities.” Journals
  36. His opponents sent a man with a drum, another with a trumpet, and several with whips.
  37. One playwright wrote a perverse play that attacked his character and played it all through Great Britain.
  38. Popular songs were written to mock him, and he would often hear children singing these songs.
  39. 1743 Trial at Hampton: Whitefield finally prosecuted those who were persecuting them.
  40. At Hampton, they had thrown a Mr. Adams into the sewage pit twice because of his preaching. Many others were assaulted as well.
  41. This kind of treatment fills his life and the other early Methodists who called sin by its name and boldly preached the new birth.
  42. 1743 He begins the first Methodist denomination (before Wesley).
  43. 1744 His four-month old son dies.
  44. 1744 Whitefield is attacked by two assassins who beat him.
  45. 1744-1748 He preaches in America for the third time.
  46. 1748 For rest, he traveled to Bermuda, but preaches twice per day for a month.
  47. His sermons ranged from 1 to 3 hours. People stood to listen or sat on the ground because they were overwhelmed with God and truth.
  48. 1751-1752 Fourth preaching tour of America.
  49. 1752-1754 Preaching tour through the British aisles.
  50. 1754-1755 Fifth trip to America.
  51. 1755-1763 Preaching tour through the British aisles.
  52. 1757 While preaching in Ireland, merely “a few stones and clods of dirt were thrown” at him during the sermon. But afterward when he tried to leave hundreds of Catholics hit him with stones and beat him until he nearly died.
  53. 1763-1765 Sixth trip to America.
  54. 1768 His wife Elizabeth Whitefield dies at 63.
  55. 1769-1770 Seventh visit to America.
  56. 1770 30 September: He died when he was 55.
  57. He preached the day before his death on 2 Cor. 13:5 and several said it was the best sermon he ever preached.
  58. He preached again at home while trying to make it to bed.
  59. He asked John Wesley to preach at his funeral, and Charles Wesley wrote a 536 line poem in honor of his friend.

Lessons from Whitefield’s Life

  1. Self-denial marked his life from his childhood to death.
  • He made it to Oxford by serving rich boys.
  • He gave away his furniture even though he had little left to use.
  • The immense wealth that passed through his hands did not allow him to buy his own home.
  • The other Methodists were known for sacrificial living as well.
  • He usually rose at 4:00 am, and he sometimes preached his first sermon by torchlight at 5:00 am.
  • Before conversion, he woke up early, read many books, and refused games, all hoping to work for his salvation.
  • After conversion, he began studying the Bible on his knees.
  • Often he studied at 4 or 5:00 am. So intense were his early years of study that most of his preparation for future sermons came from that early preparation.
  • He commonly preached in snow, rain, hail, and while rocks were flying.
  1. In an age filled with nominal Christianity, he insisted on both true doctrine and an experience of a changed life.
  • “What I have been chiefly concerned about is, lest any should rest in the bare speculative knowledge, and not experience the power of [the doctrines of grace] in their own hearts.”
  • “I find no such enemies to the cross of Christ, as those who keep up the form of religion, and are orthodox in their notions, but are ignorant of an experimental acquaintance with Jesus.”
  • Though great crowds came to hear him, he wrote, “I have always found awakening times like spring times; many blossoms, but not always so much fruit.”
  • On his second visit to America in particular, he seemed to assume pastors were unconverted unless they gave evidence otherwise.
  1. Preachers should pray and hope for spiritual power when they preach.
  • What can explain the numbers who came to hear him over the span of decades? Many times his congregation was estimated at over 20,000 people, and once a historian said 80,000.
  • God gave Whitefield a trumpet for a voice—incredibly made for open air preaching.
  • “No phrase appears so often in his journals as, ‘preached with much power; with some power.’” Philip
  • Cambuslang revival: He preached three times on the day of his arrival in Scotland.
  • The last sermon ended after 11:00 pm.
  • Then his friend began preaching.
  • That weekend he preached to 20,000 people in a field, “In my prayer the power of God came down and was greatly felt. In my two sermons, there was yet more power.”
  • “You might have seen thousands bathed in tears…”
  • On Sunday the entire day was filled with preaching and the Lord’s Table.
  • “People sat unwearied till two in the morning.”
  • Those scenes stayed with his ministry and other Methodist preachers for 30 or more years.
  • The chief marks of revival under Whitefield (Philip, 149):
    • A melting down of all classes and ages in concern for their salvation.
    • An absorbing sense of eternal realities.
    • Self-abasement and self-condemnation.
    • Secret and corporate prayer.
    • Concern for the souls of others.
  1. God uses broken tools.
  • Whitefield was a baby-baptizing Anglican.
  • He did not fight to end the slave trade. Instead he purchased slaves.
  • With such a busy schedule, he did not spend much time with his family.
  • When he had a chance to support the conservatives in Scotland, he chose a more ecumenical path that greatly discouraged and distracted the evangelicals.
  • He admits later in life “I have likewise too much made impressions my rule of acting.”
  • Yet regardless of these errors, divine power attended his ministry for decades.
  1. Jesus Christ’s honor and the souls of men were the supreme objects of his affections.
  • “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” Cornelius Winter (Whitefield’s assistant during his later years.)
  • Whitefield while preaching: “You blame me for weeping; but how can I help it, when you will not weep for yourselves, although your own immortal souls are on the verge of destruction, and, for aught I know, you are hearing your last sermon, and may never more have an opportunity to have Christ offered to you?” Quoted by Spurgeon in Lectures
  1. He held the same doctrine, practice, and schedule for his entire Christian life.
  • He arrived at conversion and field preaching early in life.
  • From that time to the end of his life he was known for preaching the new birth.
  • Though Charles Wesley changed his doctrine to become more Biblical, Whitefield is practically the same from the beginning to the end.
  • His life repeats the same themes for 34 years: preaching, travel, persecution, and popularity.
  • His schedule of early rising and often preaching was held nearly without any interruption his entire life.

Conclusion

  • God chose to reveal Himself to this man and through him to a number of nations.
  • Shortly after Whitefield’s death, the violent revolution erupted in France.
  • However, England was spared at least in part owing to the evangelical awakening led chiefly by Whitefield
  • That same awakening bore fruit in the modern missions movement when Carey left England in 1792, just 22 years after Whitefield’s death.
  • It is not too much to find a line of gracious providence from those who have been converted in the last 100 years among the Tsongas and Vendas back to Whitefield’s powerful preaching.
  • May we not then pray and hope for such power again?

 

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