The dawn of the 18th century saw the arrival of many preachers. Undisputedly, the best among them was George Whitefield. Nicknamed as the ‘Grand Itinerant’, he was the most popular figure of his time. This sketch intends to portray briefly the life and ministry of George Whitefield with special emphasis on his contribution to the Great Awakening in America.
EARLY LIFE AND CONVERSION EXPERIENCE
George Whitefield was born on December 16, 1714 in the Bell Inn at Gloucester, England, the youngest child of Elizabeth and Thomas Whitefield. His father died soon after his birth leaving a widow and seven children behind. While in school, Whitefield showed an insatiable desire for plays and skipped classes to participate in performances. This skill in dramatics was the element that added colour to his preaching pushing him into the ranks of the greatest. Whitefield was not a brilliant student and remained indifferent to classical learning throughout his life. After his schooling, he made his way to Oxford for his sojourn at Pembroke College where he was drawn to the group of pious ‘methodists’ led by the brothers John and Charles Wesley. Whitefield rigourously followed the strict rules of methodist devotions which culminated in a highly personal and emotional conversion experience. He understood the truth that justification was not by works but by grace through faith. The conversion was so real to Whitefield that he never experienced any doubt or lack of assurance of his salvation the rest of his life.
BEGINNING OF GEORGE WHITEFIELD’S MINISTRY
After his conversion, Whitefield determined to use the pulpit to bring others to the saving knowledge of Christ. Soon after his graduation from Oxford, Whitefield was ordained as deacon in the Anglican church in June 1736 at the age of 22. Whitefield showed tremendous poise and authority in the pulpit and became the famous ‘boy preacher’ in London. Crowds started flocking to the churches wherever he preached. The secret of his success was his dramatic preaching with tears, heightened emotions, agitated body movements and powerful messages that captivated his listeners. When Whitefield was away for some time as missionary to Georgia, his enemies manipulated his journals and tarnished his image. With opportunities to preach in churches being closed when he returned back, Whitefield started experimenting with outdoor, extemporaneous preaching in the open fields. It was a courageous decision which turned out to be a resounding success and revolutionized his ministry. Starting off with coal miners in Kingswood he went on to preach in London and shuttled between different places and witnessed a mighty move of the Holy Spirit and scores of conversions.
THE MINISTRY AND THE AWAKENING IN AMERICA
Routinely claimed as the founder of American revivalism, Whitefield was the key figure in the 18th century American revival known as the Great Awakening. During his visit in 1738 to America, Whitefield helped in founding an orphanage for children in Georgia. While his supporters looked at the orphanage project as a sacrifice, his critics labelled it as a fund raising scam.
Ministry in Philadelphia: On October 30, 1739, Whitefield again arrived in Delware exactly an year after his departure last year. He selected Philadelphia as the first American stop from where he had aspirations to launch an extraordinary movement. Whitefield’s ambitious nature can be clearly seen in his approach to evangelism. This preaching tour of 1739-40 of the American colonies was dubbed as the Great Awakening. Soon churches were not able to contain huge crowds and he started ministering outdoors. From Philadelphia to New York his preaching was thronged by crowds often exceeding the population of the whole town. The revival fires produced by his itinerary preaching tours even threatened other forms of secular entertainment in America.
MINISTRY IN ENGLAND
Whitefield’s greatest preaching triumphs were during his whirlwind 39 day tour of New England towns in 1740. The built up anticipation created a lot of enthusiasm and huge expectations from the crowds. Boston was one of the most populous and outwardly religious city in North America. His preaching drew many thousands of people in Boston. He went on to preach even at Harvard which was primarily a seminary for ordinands. After his stint at Boston, revival continued for a year and half and church services overflowed. The awakening at Northampton under Jonathan Edwards happened in 1737. Whitefield entered his territory and poured fresh spiritual fuel on the fire. Edwards himself consented that Northampton was revived by Whitefield’s preaching. He had a phenomenal impact on the churches of America and by 1750 every American viewed Whitefield as their champion.
FURTHER MINISTRY SUCCESS
Whitefield’s ministry success extended all over England, Scotland and Wales. He preached in city after city across Scotland reviving the entire nation. The revivals in Edinburgh and Cambuslang were very powerful. Inspite of his weakening health he remained an itinerant preacher all his life. In the winter of 1749-59, Whitefield preached to huge congregations in England at six every morning. On September 29,1770 he preached his last sermon. The very next day he suffered a severe asthmatic attack and went to be with the Lord at 6 a.m. on September 30 at the age of 56.
AN EVALUATION OF WHITEFIELD’S MINISTRY
On the outside one sees the success and fame of George Whitefield and his grand itinerant ministry. But numerous criticisms were levied against him by his contemporaries and he is dubbed as a controversial character. A balanced approach is required in order to rightly evaluate his ministry success.
Whitefield was severely criticised by his contemporaries for being a self promoting preacher. He even exaggerated his advertisements in periodicals to attract the attention of people. The sceptics denied that revival was a work of God and claimed it as a result of human emotions generated by charismatic preaching. Being a popular figure of his time he is relatively less known in the modern world. Primarily, it is because of his failure to create a lasting institution. John Wesley was a brilliant organizer and nurtured the Methodist society with long term future in mind. But Whitefield did not think about passing on the leadership to the next generation. Also, he was an exceptional preacher but not a profound thinker and did not leave any classical works behind. It is claimed that even his success in American colonies is simply because of his Calvinistic theology and dramatic preaching. The American audience were less familiar with theatre and drama and many were seeing through Whitefield a form of theatre for the first time in their lives. His critics attributed his achievements to human charisma and not the power of God.
Wesley Duewel rightly says, “From his first message after his ordination until the end of his life, he maintained one goal: wining souls.” He was a trailblazer who set precedents for outdoor and open air preaching. This method became a standard in the upcoming evangelical movements. Even the use of media for advertising crusades was something initiated by Whitefield. Although Whitefield was part of the Church of England he was an ecumenical who ministered to all denominations yet again leaving an example for upcoming ministers. Inspite of the sharp criticisms, Whitefield still stands out as a man on fire for God. His preaching revolutionized Britain and America and only eternity will reveal the lasting impact. He was a man of utmost integrity and honesty which made it possible for people to gloss over his mistakes. Unlike other famous showbiz performers Whitefield stayed away from temptations of sex and fame. While it is true that a note of egoism crept into his journals one need to understand that no human being is perfect. Behind his weaknesses and failures shines the grace of God who uses imperfect people.
George Whitefield is indeed a legend and his name lives forever. His marvellous conversion experience started a dynamic ministry that lasted for about 34 years. His contribution to American Great Awakening almost transformed the entire nation. The revival fires generated by his preaching ministry resulted in massive conviction of sin and powerful outpouring of the Spirit sweeping scores of people into the kingdom of God. George Whitefield remained all his life as an instrument in God’s hands and he is a living testimony of what God can do through lives totally yielded and submitted to Him.
Stuart C. Henry, George Whitefield Wayfaring Witness (New York: Abingdon Press, n.d.), 16. Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist (Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 6. Harry S. Stout, “Heavenly Comet,” in Christian History, Issue 38, Vol.12, No.2, June 1993, 10. Ibid. Stout, The Divine Dramatist, 30. Stout, “Heavenly Comet,” in Christian History, 10. Chris Mitchell, “Whitefield, George,” in Who’s Who in Christian History, eds. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), 716. Ibid. Frank Lambert, “Whitefield George,” in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, ed. Timothy Larsen (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 716. Stout, The Divine Dramatist, 87. Stout, “Heavenly Comet,” in Christian History, 11. Ibid. Ibid., 12. John Pollock, George Whitefield and The Great Awakening (Tring: Lion Paperback, 1972), 158. Ibid., 159. Wesley L. Duewel, Revival Fire (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 61. Ibid. Duewel, Revival Fire, 69. Lambert, “Whitefield, George,” in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, ed. Larsen, 719. Mark A. Noll , “Father of Modern Evangelicals?” in Christian History, 43. Stout, The Divine Dramatist, 94. Duewel, Revival Fire, 51. Henry, George Whitefield Wayfaring Witness,179.
By Ashwin Ramani