Whitefield, in October 1740, was preaching across the New England colonies,
at Philadelphia, New York, Long Island, Boston, and Northampton. A young man
longed to hear the great evangelist. Then suddenly one morning a messenger rode
up on horseback to tell him that Mr. Whitefield preached at Hartford yesterday
and was to preach at Middletown that morning at ten o’clock. The man dropped
his hoe in the field and ran home as fast as he could. He ran into the house
and told his wife, “Get ready quick to go and hear Mr. Whitefield at Middletown!”
He ran to the pasture to get his horse. He later said, “I ran with all
my might fearing I should be too late to hear him.”
mounted his horse and pulled his wife up behind him. They had twelve miles to
ride in little more than one hour. They rode as fast as he thought the horse
could bear. And when the horse was out of breath, he got down and put his wife
in the saddle. He told her to ride as fast as she could and not stop or slow
down for him. Then he ran alongside the horse until he was too out of breath
to keep up. Then again mounting the horse with his wife they rode “as if
fleeing for their lives” until time to spell the horse again.
the couple came near the road that runs from Hartford to Middletown, they saw
a cloud or a fog rising in the distance. He thought at first it was coming from
the Connecticut River. As they came nearer, he heard a low rumbling thunder
and soon realized it was the rumble of horses hooves. The cloud was the dust
they were raising.
steady stream of horses appeared, said he, “slipping along in the cloud
like shadows.” As they came closer still, he saw them all lathered from
a long run. There were so many horses and riders one behind the other that there
was hardly a length between them for him to slip in his horse. Every mount seemed
to go with all his might to carry his rider to hear the good news. As they joined
the great cloud of dust and men riding as if in a race, he thought, “Our
clothes will be all spoiled.” Coats, hats, shirts and horses were all the
same color of dust, but they rode on. They went down into a stream, but he heard
no man complain. No one was working in the fields along the whole twelve mile
journey. It seemed that everyone was drawn to hear the slender young preacher.
They came to a meeting house where some three or four thousand were already
gathered. He looked toward the river and saw row boats and ferry boats running
back and forth bringing loads of people.
the preacher came to his appointment. Our witness testified:
my mind and put me in a trembling fear. Before he began to preach he looked
as if he was clothed with authority from the Great God. A sweet solemnity
sat upon his brow. Hearing him preach gave me a heart wound. By God’s blessing,
my old foundation was broken up, and I saw that my righteousness would not
save me. 1
Whitefield was born December 16, 1714 in the Bell Inn, a saloon his father owned
and operated in Gloucester, England. His father died, however, when George was
two years old. The widow tried to keep the business going with the help of George’s
older brothers. When he was fifteen, George, too, pulled out of school to help
draw the brew.
did manage to get a foundation for education, however, and a door opened for
him to take a working scholarship at Oxford’s Pembroke College. There he met
upperclassmen John and Charles Wesley, and joined their Holy Club. All of them
were fanatically devout in their discipline and deeds of charity, yet all alike
were strangers to salvation by grace. George had his awakening while still at
Oxford, but the Wesleys indeed made their mission tour to Georgia and returned
to England before finding saving faith.
college George took holy orders in the Church of England. He wore the gown and
cassock all his days though he was much too ecumenical and too radical for most
of the clergy in the established church. There was also a lot of jealousy toward
this boy wonder who attracted such crowds when he preached. When they refused
their pulpits he began to preach in the fields. Horrors! Who ever heard of such
a thing? Actually, Whitefield had heard that Howell Harris, an unordained Welch
preacher was drawing great crowds in the open air of his native Wales. Whitefield
started a correspondence with him and then went to Wales to visit him. They
toured together; Harris would preach in Welch and then Whitefield in English.
Nevertheless, field preaching was unheard of in England.
first venture into the fields was to the Kingswood coal miners, where men, women
and children toiled in the dark tunnels. On a cold Saturday in February he and
his friends William Sewell and Howell Harris went door to door among the shacks
and invited the rough, ostracized colliers to join them in the field. The text
for this sermon, appropriately enough, was the Lord’s sermon on the mount. Soon
tears were washing courses down the coal-blackened grime of many faces.
recorded in his diary, “Blessed be God that the ice is now broke, and I
have taken to the field! Some may censure me, but is there not a cause? Pulpits
are denied, and the poor colliers ready to perish for lack of knowledge.”
2 He preached to about two hundred that day. Next time it was two thousand,
then five thousand. Eventually he would preach to ten and twenty thousand people
and more in open-air gatherings all over England and the American colonies.
distinguished Whitefield as a preacher? First of all, he cared for people
and they knew it. He felt strong empathy for those who gathered to hear him.
Once he was preaching to ten thousand drawn mostly from their amusement at a
fair. The showmen were not at all happy to have their customers stolen away
by a preacher. They began to throw rocks, dirt clods, rotten eggs and even a
dead cat at the preacher. He took some hits and kept preaching with a bloody
forehead. He noticed a young boy close to him wounded by a stone meant for the
evangelist. He felt for the youngster, and the lad could tell it. After the
three-hour sermon, Whitefield was visiting with a friend when the young fellow
sought him out. Sensitive to the preacher’s concern for his injury, the youngster
testified: “Sir, the man gave me a wound but Jesus healed me; I never had
my bonds broke ’til I had my head broke.” 3
London, he had two regular spaces to gather the multitudes. One was Moorfields,
the “city mall” of seventeenth-century London. Elm trees lined well-drained
walks. By Whitefield’s time, this was the general recreation ground of the city.
The other field was Kennington Commons, a neglected waste and the place of regular
executions. Etchings of the era show gallows with corpses hanging from them.
Whitefield stood at least once beside the gallows and used the setting to make
his appeal more solemn.
of these fields were what genteel society called “the domain of the rabble.”
Many predicted that the preacher would never come out alive. At Moorfields,
the rabble amused themselves by breaking apart a table meant to be his pulpit.
He climbed up on a stone wall in his robe, bands and cassock and preached the
in a very class-conscious culture, Whitefield was an equal-opportunity evangelist.
He denounced the sins of the rich and titled as well as the poor and disenfranchised.
He told them all they needed a savior. The Duchess of Buckingham accepted the
invitation of Lady Huntingdon to come to her manor to hear Whitefield. But she
wrote in a letter her objection to Methodist preachers “perpetual endeavoring
to level all ranks, and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be
told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the
preached with passion. Charles Dargan, in The History of Preaching
described the evangelist’s preaching in terms of “intensity, passionate
fervor, earnestness” 6 Tyerman’s tomes and other
biographers record a letter from Sarah Edwards, wife of Jonathan Edwards describing
Whitefield’s pulpit ministry in their church at Northampton. It is sent to prepare
her brother, Rev. James Pierpont, for Whitefield’s visit to New Haven.
He is a born
orator. You have already heard of his deep-toned, yet clear and melodious
voice. It is perfect music . . . He is a very devout and godly man, and his
only aim seems to be to reach and influence men the best way. He speaks from
a heart all aglow with love, and pours out a torrent of eloquence which is
almost irresistible. 7
had a consuming passion for souls. He dealt with pastoral and ethical concerns
in some sermons, but he was an evangelist all his days. He made the gospel message
plain and he pleaded with his hearers to come to Christ. He seldom preached
without tears. Critics despised the emotion; the multitudes knew it was coming
from a heart of genuine love for them. Rough men, who never felt anyone cared
for them, at last saw a minister pour out his life for their souls. He was not
ashamed to weep over them.
was not as some evangelists today – all out for souls in their sermons but
only in their sermons. If you spend time with some of them you are amazed that
they never seem to do any personal evangelism. Whitefield said, “God forbid
that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ
to them.” 8 His personal correspondence, likewise,
is salted with the quest for souls. He met Ben Franklin on his first journey
to Philadelphia and agreed to let the young printer publish and market his sermons.
They became lifelong friends. If Franklin never became a Christian it was not
for lack of witness from his friend Whitefield. Late in life, when both men
were famous in America and in England, the evangelist wrote a personal letter
which still pressed the claims of Christ on the American philosopher, statesman,
Dear Mr. Franklin,
– I find that you grow more and more famous in the learned world. As
you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity,
I would now humbly recommend to you your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and
study the mystery of the new birth. It is a most important, interesting study,
and when mastered, will richly repay you for all your pains. One, at whose
bar we are shortly to appear, hath solemnly declared, that, without it, “we
cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.” You will excuse this freedom.
I must have aliquid Christi in all my letters . . . George Whitefield.
was blessed with a tremendous voice for preaching. He had marvelous volume
with vocal penetration and pleasing resonation. One witness said he had “a
clear and musical voice and a wonderful command of it.” 10
Once when the evangelist preached in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin decided to see
if it were possible that newspaper accounts could be accurate in saying twenty-five
thousand heard him in one gathering. Whitefield was preaching from the top of
the courthouse steps in the middle of Market Street. Franklin paced down the
street and determined that the preacher’s voice was distinct until near Front
street where street noises made hearing difficult. Then he calculated the area
of a semicircle with that distance as the radius, allowed two square feet for
each person in the crowd. He determined that he might well be heard by more
than thirty thousand. 11
Whitefield was a persuasive preacher is abundantly demonstrated by the
thousands who responded to his preaching. Wesley, at the death of his evangelist
friend, said tens of thousands were converted under his preaching. Whitefield
could also be persuasive when making an appeal for his orphanage in Georgia.
If I may quote once more the autobiography of his famous-for-thrift friend Franklin
describing a sermon in Philadelphia –
I perceived he
intended to finish with a collection; and I silently resolved he would get
nothing from me. I had, in my pocket, a handful of copper money, three or
four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began
to soften, and concluded to give the copper. Another stroke of his oratory
determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied
my pockets wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all. 12
sermon style was marked by unity and order. Probably his early decision
to preach without notes influenced his move away from the complex, scholastic
structure that was standard for his peers. Sermons that are simple enough for
the preacher to remember without paper are more likely to be plain enough for
the congregation to follow without taking notes. He often stated his main points
in the introduction. For example, a sermon on Acts 3:19 “Repent ye therefore
and be converted . . .”
I will endeavor
to show you,
First, what it
is not to be converted; Secondly, what it is to be truly converted, thirdly,
offer some motives why you should repent and be converted; and fourthly, answer
some objections that have been made against persons repenting and being converted
. . . 13
a defense against charges that he was not an orthodox Anglican, he once summarized
his homiletical theory: “My constant way of preaching is first to prove
my propositions by scripture, and then to illustrate them by the articles and
collects of the Church of England.” 14
was an orator without equal in the pulpit. His delivery was not the classical
oratory with finely-ornamented style, soaring flights of fancy and elegance
of taste. His preaching was marked by biblical content, doctrinal emphasis and
rhetorical simplicity. His delivery, however, was dramatic. Indeed, Harry S.
Stout’s biography calls him The Divine Dramatist and interprets his whole
life and ministry through the lens of an early schoolboy’s fascination with
the stage. Among the admirers of his oratory were Gerrick the actor, Hume the
skeptic, and worldly Lord Chesterfield. This last gentleman was not known for
loss of control, but once was overcome by Whitefield’s dramatic power with narrative
illustrations. A gathering of London’s elite at the estate of Lady Huntingdon
heard the evangelist dramatize a blind man with his cane groping after his little
dog ever nearer a precipice. Lord Chesterfield suddenly shouted aloud: “By
heaven, he’s gone!” 15
the fall of 1770, Whitefield was on an exhausting New England preaching tour,
Boston, Portsmouth, Exeter. When he reached Newbury Port, he was too tired to
get out of the boat. With help, he made it to the parsonage of Old South Church.
As evening came he regained a measure of strength and took supper with his host
family. A crowd began to gather at the door. Some of them pushed on into the
house in hope of hearing his voice again.
am too tired,” Whitefield said “and must go to bed.” He took
a lighted candle and started climbing the stairs. But the sight of the patient
people crowding into the hall and the street was too much to refuse. He paused
on the staircase to say a few words. Soon he was preaching or “exhorting”
as he called these impromptu addresses. He urged them to trust the savior, growing
stronger, then weaker, then stronger again. He preached until the candle burned
down to the socket and flickered out. Then one of the greatest of all preachers
and evangelists went up to bed and died.
preached eighteen thousand times not counting such “exhortations”
as this. J. I. Packer thought these informal addresses would total eighteen
thousand more. 16 Year after year he preached an average
of five hundred sermons. These were not twenty-minute messages but an hour or
two each. He often preached forty hours in a week, sometimes sixty. And this
was besides all else he did in travel and correspondence, in building and promoting
an orphanage, raising funds and supervising the mission work. He made a preaching
tour of England almost every year. He traveled to Scotland fourteen times, to
Ireland three times, and often to Wales. He crossed the Atlantic thirteen times
to and from the colonies. One estimates that he preached to ten million souls
in the three decades of his ministry. Probably no mortal was more used of God
in bringing the Great Awakening to England and America than George Whitefield.
B. Tucker is a preacher, teacher and writer who lives in Shreveport, LA.
Stuart Clark Henry, George Whitefield, Wayfaring Witness. (New York:
Abingdon, 1957), pp. 68-71.
2. Albert D. Belden, George Whitefield–The Awakener: A Modern
Study of the Evangelical Revival (Nashville: Cokesbury, 1930), p. 64.
3. J. P. Gledstone, “George Whitefield,” (London: The Religious
Tract Society, n.d.), 114.
4. ibid, p. 10-11
5. ibid, p. 13.
6. Edwin Charles Dargan, A History of Preaching, Vol. II, (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1970 reprint of 1905 edition), p. 313.
7. Luke Tyerman, The Life of the Rev. George Whitefield, in Two Volumes,
(London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995 reprint of 1876-77 original by Azel, Texas:
Need of the Times), Vol I, pp. 428-29, and Arnold Dallimore, George
Whitefield: Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century
Revival, in Two Volumes, (London: Banner of Truth Trust), p. 538. These
two biographies are the source of most of the basic data in this article.
8. Belden, p. 4.
9. Tyerman II, pp. 283-84. The Latin, aliquid Christi is “Something
10. Belden, p. 81.
11. Henry, p. 163.
12. Tyerman, Vol. I, p. 374. Also revealing of Franklin’s respect for
Whitefield is a letter just ten years before the American Revolution proposing
the evangelist partner with him in establishing a new colony on the Ohio. Harry
S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern
Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 232.
13. Clyde Fant and William Pinson, Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching,
Vol. III, (Waco: Word, 1971), p. 137.
14. Henry, p.136, citing “Answer to the Bishop,” from Whitefield’s
Works, p. 24.
15. Henry, p. 62.
16. J. I. Packer, “Introduction” in Tyerman, Vol. I,