As I finish out each year, I typically do a missionary biography for our church in order to help us focus on the Great Commission and begin the new year standing upon the shoulders of those who have labored before us. For the 2014 missionary biography, I chose George Whitefield. While it may seem strange to view him as a missionary, in my biographical overview for our church, I sought to focus upon his work in the “new world” of America with the Wesley brothers, orphan care, and his relentless evangelistic preaching.
As we come to the close of 2014 and look over the precipice into 2015, I would like to consider the legacy of Whitefield. What made Whitefield great? According to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “George Whitefield is beyond any question the greatest English preacher of all time.” When we consider the fact that Charles Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers” referred to George Whitefield as the “Chief of Preachers” – we must pause to consider the depth and breadth of his preaching ministry. Those are big words from Lloyd-Jones and Spurgeon. What made the blazing evangelist tick? What pressed his soul toward God and his preaching toward greatness? As I spent a good portion of time in 2014 reading and thinking about George Whitefield, three specific things stand out to me. The greatness of Whitefield is directly connected to his holiness, his doctrine, and his evangelism.
Lesson #1 – Whitefield’s Pursuit of Holiness
George Whitefield was a man who labored to know God. After he was born again, he started reading his Bible on his knees. Whitefield was known for his preaching and his piety. As much as he was known for his thunder and lightning in the pulpit, he was likewise known for his quiet pursuit of God in the early hours of the morning. Born just over 50 years after the “Great Ejection” of the Puritan pastors from their pulpits in 1662, it was as if God planted another Puritan in the pulpit during an era of dry, cold, and lethargic preaching in England.
Arnold Dallimore describes Whitefield’s longing for God as he writes:
We can visualize him at 5 in the morning in his room over Harris’s bookstore. He is on his knees with his Bible, his Greek New Testament, and a volume of Matthew Henry spread before him. With intense concentration he reads a portion in English, studies its words and tenses in the Greek, and then considers Matthew Henry’s exposition of the whole. Finally comes his unique practice of “praying over every line and every word” in both the English and Greek, feasting his mind and his heart upon it till its essential meaning has become a part of his very person.1
As we prepare to welcome in 2015, we must consider our own pursuit of holiness. What does our Bible reading, meditation, and memorization look like? What can we learn from George Whitefield regarding Bible reading that may help us in this upcoming new year? I think from a pragmatic standpoint, Whitefield’s commitment to rise early and immerse himself in God’s Word is commendable. Additionally, a good reading plan can assist in this endeavor to read through the entire Bible in 365 days. You can locate the plan that I typically follow and that many in our church follow at the bottom of our church’s website (PraysMill.com). You may find another plan that works well for you linked here on the Ligonier site for your review. However, the point is quite obvious. Nobody can rise in holiness if he is unwilling to be immersed in God’s Word.
The reason that Whitefield’s pursuit of holiness stands out to me is likewise connected to his prayer life. It was not an uncommon thing for this great preacher to be completely exhausted from preaching (he preached approximately 1,000 sermons per year for 30 straight years), but stay up until midnight or 1am in prayer with God. Whitefield understood the importance of spending time with God. Whitefield recorded the following in his journal:
I give to Him my soul and body to be disposed and worn out in His labours as He shall think meet. I do hence resolve, by His assistance…to lead a stricter life than ever, to give my self to prayer and the study of the Scriptures…. God give me my health, if it be His blessed will…. I give myself wholly to Him.2
Lesson #2 – Whitefield’s Doctrine
Unfortunately most of us have heard of traveling evangelists who have majored on the minors, preached proof texts out of context, and left the congregants without adequate spiritual food. That was not to be said of George Whitefield. Although he was not the expositor that John Calvin was nor was he the theologian that Jonathan Edwards was, he was a deeply rooted doctrinal evangelist who had something to say. Whitefield understood that preaching was God’s intended means of awakening dead sinners to life and it was likewise God’s intended means of growing His church in spiritual maturity.
J. C. Ryle, the great preacher from church history describes Whitefield’s preaching:
Few men, perhaps, ever gave their hearers so much wheat and so little chaff. He did not get up to talk about his party, his cause, his interest or his office. He was perpetually telling you about your sins, your heart, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the absolute need of repentance, faith, and holiness, in the way that the Bible presents these mighty subjects. “Oh, the righteousness of Jesus Christ!” he would often say: “I must be excused if I mention it in almost all my sermons.” Preaching of this kind is the preaching that God delights to honour. It must be pre-eminently a manifestation of truth.3
George Whitefield was a Calvinist before Calvinism was cool. He claimed that he had never even read John Calvin prior to embracing the doctrines of grace. He told people that he got them from Christ and His Word. The preaching and ministry of George Whitefield was saturated with the deep wells of sound doctrine. He was not satisfied with getting up before people and “talking” or “entertaining” from the sacred desk of God. His goal was to bring people to know God and to know Him more intimately.
Looking forward into 2015, we could learn from Whitefield. Doctrine matters. We live in a day of shallowness from the pulpit. Pragmatics overshadow doctrine in our church growth saturated culture. It really does matter what we use to attract people into the front door of our church building. Our appetite for God’s Word and sound doctrine is crucial to our personal growth and the growth of our church.
Lesson #3 – Whitefield’s Evangelism
History is replete with the thundering voice of Whitefield that continues to echo to us today. The pointed truth is clear. The world has not forgotten Whitfield. He possessed a powerful preaching voice that was once heard thundering down the river 2 miles from the field where he preached. He could preach to thousands without the aid of a microphone. In fact, once in Scotland, he preached to nearly 100,000 people and it’s believed that 10,000 of those people turned to Christ and were saved. To put that into perspective, 3,000 souls were saved when Peter preached at Pentecost! I was having lunch with Steven Lawson one day and he said to me, “If I could be anyone in church history, I would be George Whitefield.” As it turns out, he was working on his excellent book on Whitefield and it was the first sentence of his preface. However, it wasn’t just the preaching of Whitefield that caught the attention of Steven Lawson. He was likewise captivated by Whitefield’s evangelistic zeal.
George Whitefield’s heart was broken for broken people. George Whitefield once said, “O Lord, give me souls or take my soul!” He was not searching for the high class of society or merely those who could help fund his ministry endeavors. He trusted God in those matters. His heart was fixated upon the depravity of humanity and the need for Jesus in England, across Europe, and across the sea to America.
Whitefield would travel across the Atlantic Ocean from England to America 7 times. This would result in 13 voyages across the Atlantic. He would die in America during his final preaching tour. The sacrifice of time for souls is apparent in Whitefield’s commitment. At a time when his popularity was reaching a high point in England, he did the unthinkable. He got on a ship and sailed across the sea to America to evangelize the eastern coast of the new world. He would spend 3 to 4 months on the ship each time he crossed the Atlantic. This was no Disney cruise ship. His time on the boat would be tiresome and dangerous.
Whitefield was perhaps the greatest English preacher in church history, but with the notoriety came opposition. When Whitefield entered the fields to preach, it was common for people to throw stones, slanderous phrases, and dead cats upon him. Nevertheless he would press on to preach Christ. He would make his way through the field to a wooden structure or platform. He would look into the faces of the people and say, “I have come today to talk to you about your soul.” His voice would thunder across the fields to thousands. In a manner that did not involve manipulation, gimmicks, or pulpit trickery, Whitefield called sinners to repentance in Jesus Christ without giving an alter call. Hundreds of thousands of sinners were saved through his preaching. God blew the winds of the Great Awakening through this man’s powerful preaching.
Whitefield was once recorded as saying the following:
I offer you salvation this day; the door of mercy is not yet shut, there does yet remain a sacrifice for sin, for all that will accept of the Lord Jesus Christ. He will embrace you in the arms of his love. O turn to him, turn in a sense of your own unworthiness; tell him how polluted you are, how vile, and be not faithless, but believing. Why fear ye that the Lord Jesus Christ will not accept you? Your sins will be no hindrance, your unworthiness no hindrance; if your own corrupt hearts do not keep you back nothing will hinder Christ from receiving of you.4
As we plan ahead for 2015, let us plan to be zealous in our evangelistic efforts. Too often Arminians criticize Calvinists for not being evangelistic enough and zealous enough for lost souls. While that may be an unfair criticism, Arminians and Calvinists alike should look to the Calvinistic evangelist George Whitefield as a worthy example to follow in our desire to reach unbelievers with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Whitefield is dead. His voice is but a soft echo from the pages of history. God has placed us here at the end of 2014 and perhaps God will grant us more time in 2015. What will we do with it? Will we strive for greater holiness? Will we search the Scriptures and seek to know God more intimately? Will we weep for the lostness of our city, our neighborhood, and the nations? Let us look back at Whitefield and look onward toward Christ.
For His eternal glory,
Pastor Josh Buice
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1. Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival Vol. 2, (Westchester, Illinois: Cornerstone Books, 1979), p. 22.
2. George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Journals, (PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), p. 60.
3. J. C. Ryle, Five Christian Leaders. “Estimation of Whitefield’s Ministry.” (PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1960).
4. Ernest Reisinger, “What Should We Think of Evangelism and Calvinism.” The Founder’s Journal, Issue 19/20.