He was born
that didn't reflect Wesley's privilege, yet he evangelized many among the social elite of England. He was
afflicted with a squint so severe that no one know exactly where (or at whom) he was
looking, yet he drew vast outdoor crowds who never took their eyes off him. Benjamin
Franklin, who heard him preach many times in Pennsylvania, declared that he had a
"voice like an organ."
George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England; his remains
are buried in Newburyport, Massachusetts. He voyaged to the New World seven times (a
one-way trip took two months) and was equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic.
Having languished in spiritual emptiness and disquiet for several
years, Whitefields "birth" was aided by the spiritual midwifery of a godly
bishop who directed him to John 7:37: "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me [i.e.
Jesus]." Whitefield exclaimed aloud, "I thirst!" and recalled that
when Jesus uttered these words his struggle was almost over. He realized too that for the
first time in his life he had implicitly renounced any claim upon Gods favour and
explicitly acknowledged his helplessness. Immediately he was granted assurance of his new
nature in Christ and his new standing before God.
The young Anglican preacher was transparent to the message that
had altered him. The day the twenty-two year old was ordained his sermon won over the
hungry even as it antagonized the hardened. On this occasion his opponents complained that
his preaching had driven fifteen people mad. "I hope their madness lasts until next
Sunday," replied the bishop who had sponsored him.
In 1738 he stumbled into a development that was to characterize
the Evangelical Awakening. Standing in the pulpit of the crowded-out church in
he was haunted by the fact that a thousand-plus stood outside, and haunted doubly because
of the reason they were there: they gave off an odour that no one could deny and few would
endure. He told his friend John Wesley of his plan to begin "field-preaching."
Wesley thought the scheme insane (until he had to admit its effectiveness). It was also
illegal since the Conventicle Act permitted outdoor preaching only at public hangings!
Before long, however, a scheduled execution brought it about.
Whitefields heart had been broken by the coalminers at Kingswood, Bristol men
as violent as they were vulgar. Once the date for the hanging had been set the miners
began anticipating the celebrations surrounding the entertainment. When the murder
"cheated" them of their amusement by committing suicide, the miners dug up the
corpse and partied around it.
They and their families were 100 percent illiterate, stuck in a
degradation that defies description. Whitefield walked among them, in full clerical
attire, and began speaking to them from Matthew 5: "Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Thoroughly despised and contemptuously shunned,
these people found in Whitefield someone who loved them and therefore did not fear them.
Grimy with caked-on dirt and coated in coal dust as they were, Whitefield wrote of them in
his diary that as he preached he saw "the white gutters made by their tears down
their black cheeks."
Immediately church authorities arranged for all Anglican pulpits
to be closed to him. He was undaunted. The next Sunday ten thousand people joined
themselves to the Kingswood miners. Opposition intensified. When Whitefield attempted to
visit prisoners in Newgate jail, the Corporation of Bristol suddenly
"remembered" to appoint a prison chaplain! Nonetheless, disadvantaged people
returned his love for them. After hearing Whitefield preach time after time
poverty-stricken miners collected money to build a school for their children: the
impoverished were not to be exploited by the socially privileged!
Yet more than the high-born opposed Whitefield. At Moorfields one
lout climbed a tree overlooking the preacher and urinated at him. Ever the master at
turning opposition into gospel-advantage, Whitefield rhetorically asked the crowd,
"Am I wrong when I say that man is half devil and half beast?" and then
commended anew that gospel whereby anyone at all may become a child of God.
In the New World Whitefield preached form Georgia to New England,
always raising money for the orphanage he had established in Savannah. New York, Boston,
Philadelphia, the Carolinas, Harvard University: all were beneficiaries of his ministry as
he was anything but "the generality of preachers who talk of an unknown and unfelt
Before he died the "threefold cord not quickly broken"
(Whitefield, plus John and Charles Wesley) was reknit. He and the Wesleys had agonized and
grown apart over Whitefields adherence to the doctrine of predestination. When they
were joyfully reconciled he wrote in his diary, "Prejudices, jealousies and suspicion
make the soul miserable."
John Wesley preached at the memorial service which was held for
Whitefield in England. "He had nothing gloomy in his nature," said John,
"being singularly cheerful, as well as charitable and tender hearted." It was
true. When a Quaker had chided Whitefield for wearing full Anglican vestments Whitefield
had replied good-naturedly, "Friend, you allow me my vestments and I shall allow you
your peculiar hat."
When their disagreement had been sharpest concerning
predestination Wesley was asked if he expected to behold Whitefield on the final Day.
"I fear not," John had replied, "for George will be so much nearer the
throne of grace." It was in the memorial sermon that John spoke most succinctly of
his friend: "Can anything but love beget love?"