I should probably mention that this is a series of classes I am teaching on Church History from roughly the mid-1700s through roughly the mid-1800s. Last week's class was largely about John Wesley and, realizing that Whitefield was getting the short end of the stick, this week I devoted a whole class to the subject of Whitefield. So, there is some context you might be missing if you weren't at the previous week's class, but anyway, here are my notes from this week:
In the autumn of 1740, a there was a great stir in the American colonies. If you had lived in the colonies at that time, perhaps you would have heard of the leaders of this man's movement's recent mission in Georgia although the unfortunate scandal of one of his co-workers, John Wesley, undermined that effort. You'd probably have heard about Revival in England, in the Church of England of all places and how he was preaching to groups so large that they had to hold meetings out of doors. Certainly you'd have heard one of the most unconventional aspects to his coming visit, that he had sent along copy, an advertisement, to create a stir, for the local ministers to read from the pulpit. Certainly you would have seen similar techniques used to promote books or plays or musicians before, but never for a spiritual event. You've also read about his visit in the newspapers, including advertisements for books by or about him. Also for books that George Whitefield approved of.
You'd probably heard ringing endorsements of this great public speaker from some of the most famous men in the colonies. Men as vastly different as Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards were excited over the upcoming tour. Early in Whitefield's visit, you would have heard the story told far and wide about the thousands of people who packed into a church to hear George Whitefield preach. The church was so crowded that the balcony began to give way and the people panicked. They stampeded. Some jumped from windows. Five people died and many were injured. Whitefield, after those in need were treated, moved the meeting outside where the stunned crowd of thousands heard him “improve the Lord's awful judgment.” He mainly preached out of doors for the rest of his visit.
The governor of Massachusetts also dined with Whitefield, and attended several of his services, sometimes spotted weeping openly for joy and repentance from Whitefield's preaching. On Whitefield's final Sunday in the colonies, 20,000 people turned out to hear him preach. It was the biggest gathering in the history of this continent up to that point. America had been visited by its first “star.”
I think we shall see that the influence that George Whitefield's visit had on the America to come extends much further than the Great Awakening and the effects much more abiding in the national consciousness.
Whitefield was a born actor and public speaker. Benjamin Franklin said that during one of Whitefield's sermons, Franklin had walked away from the crowd until he could not hear Whitefield's voice clearly anymore, then calculated the circumference around Whitefield from where Franklin stood, and concluded that over 30,000 people could easily have heard Whitefield speak. Whitefield often spoke of the emotional life of biblical characters in the passage he was exegeting, often acting out scenes from scripture. It's said that seldom did he preach without weeping at some point and the multitudes would follow suit. He was young, firey, and flying in the face of authority figures in his native England. Truly this was a hero for this young America.
One of the interesting, populist bents of Whitefield's preaching was what was called an inverted jeremiad. Up to this point, New England preachers had railed against their unconverted parishioners. Whitefield was suggesting that the tables be turned. A spiritual people should challenge the authority of insufficiently spiritual clergy.
One day Whitefield was walking with Jonathan Edwards to a speaking engagement when another pastor came up and told Whitefield he thought that a minister did not need to be converted himself to be an effective minister. He cited the famous Puritan Solomon Stoddard who was a successful minister even before he became truly converted. This choice in examples was probably meant to ratchet up the awkwardness of the conversation as Stoddard was Edwards' grandfather. Whitefield stood his ground and said that a minister absolutely must be converted to properly lead his flock.
As Providence would have it, when they arrived at the speaking engagement, a large number of well known clergy from New England were in attendance. Whitefield decided to change the topic of his sermon to the need for the clergy to be truly converted. He pulled no punches. He said “One of the reasons the church in New England is so dead is because dead men preach to them.”
Whitefield traveled and preached constantly on his visit, often preaching several times a day to packed crowds. His journey on horse back from New York City to Charleston made a new record of being the longest such trip undertaken up to that point in North America by a white man. The crowd at Jonathan Edwards' church wept bitterly over themselves when Whitefield reminded them from the pulpit of the intensity of their revival as recent as 1734. Edwards himself wept at the clearly renewed revival. The flame Whitefield had reignited spread through the town more fervently than before. By December, Edwards wrote to Whitefield with great joy that revival had spread to the youth of the community, including some of his own children whom he said were clearly “savingly brought home to Christ.”
Whitefield was impressed that the Edwards children were, in his words “not dressed in silks and satins, but plain, as become the children of those who, in all things, ought to be examples of Christian simplicity.” Whitefield had complained that the people of Boston were too wealthy, too worldly and to married to the pride of life. Women wore jewelry and flashy clothes to church. “The little infants who were brought to baptism, were wrapped up in such fine things, and so much pains taken to dress them, that one would think they were brought thither to be initiated into, rather than to renounce, the pomp and vanities of this wicked world.”
This visit was around the time the Wesleys breaking with Whitefield was going on back in England over Whitefield's Calvinism. Whitefield was one of the loudest proponents of Methodism in the world at the time, which we remember from last week was a pietistic movement. In one's behavior, Methodism demanded sacrifice of all worldly pleasures in order to better serve Christ. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Whitefield had earlier tried to follow in the footsteps of Paul and be celibate and unmarried. But with his meteoric rise to fame and the great crowds of admirers that followed, he thought it best if he married, following instead the Pauline admonishment that “it is better to marry than to burn.”
Earlier Whitefield had proposed to a lady in England emphasizing in his letter that nothing could hold the marriage together but the mutual love of Christ and that a wife should not cause a pastor to preach one sermon less than he would have otherwise. She turned him down.
Whitefield married another Christian lady on his return to England who was willing to agree to his standard.
It's a little strange that of all of the famous men before the Revolution in America, Edwards and Whitefield did not become close, but Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin became very close friends. Although vastly different in spiritual views, the two had much in common. They were both innovators and invented completely new concepts within their calling or, in Franklin's case perhaps more accurately, profession. Both played upon the possibilities of an awakening commercial age. Both rebelled against old, established, hierarchical authorities and institutions. Each would give voice to concepts that would mobilize the public. At one point, Franklin even suggested to Whitefield that the two of them found a colony in what would become Ohio.
Whitefield was born in 1714. He was the son of a widow who kept an inn. He was educated at Oxford. Whitefield cam from a poor family, so he didn't have the means to pay his tuition. When he enrolled at Oxford he enrolled as a servitor. There was sort of a caste system at Oxford, servitor being the lowest rank. He received free tuition, but was sort of a servant to other, higher ranking students. He would be in charge of their schedules (including waking them in the morning), pressing their clothes, polishing their shoes, even doing their homework in some cases. Yeah, and this was not only condoned by Oxford at the time, but instated by them.
As we saw last week, he was a member of the Holy Club which John Wesley started. He took over as leader of the Holy Club when the Wesleys went to Georgia. Whitefield was ordained into the Anglican church. It was in England that he began his unorthodox practice of open-air preaching.
Whitefield founded several churches. He was known to have been a rare white preacher to preach to slaves (although he also owned slaves later in life.)
He visited America seven times and, in days when trans-Atlantic voyages were very long and dangerous, he made the trip 13 times (he died in Massachusetts.) He also traveled to preach in Bermuda, Scotland, Holland, Gibraltar, and Ireland. It is said that throughout his life he preached over 18,000 sermons (many of which are still in print. I know Banner of Truth has a collection of his sermons in print.) He is buried in a crypt in Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I usually try to end these character sketches with some information about their death, but there is very little recorded on Whitefield's. I was also unable to uncover any information on why he is buried in a Presbyterian Church, although it would seem that it was another church founded by Whitefield. It is still very active today. But I do know that he was preaching outside the church on the staircase just a few hours before his death.
Next week, we will have a general overview of the Enlightenment, focusing specifically on three people: Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Isaac Newton.