George Whitefield: Evangelist Of The Great Awakening Austin B. Tucker January 1, 2004 George 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.” He 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. When 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. A 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. Soon the preacher came to his appointment. Our witness testified: It solemnized 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 George 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. He 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. After 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. Whitefield’s 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. Whitefield 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. What 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 In 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. Both 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 Gospel. 4 But 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 earth.” 5 Whitefield 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 He 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. Whitefield 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, and scientist. 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. 9 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 That 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 His 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 In 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 Whitefield 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 In 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. “I 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. Whitefield 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. _____________________________________ Austin B. Tucker is a preacher, teacher and writer who lives in Shreveport, LA. _____________________________________ 1. 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 of Christ.” 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, p. i. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.