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Torchbearers of the Truth: George Whitefield (1714-1770)

J Brown, Peterhead

On 9th May, 1738 a vessel arrived in the Savannah River in the new colony of Georgia. It had been a lengthy voyage and no doubt all on board looked forward to setting foot on shore. Among the passengers was a young man of 23 years arriving in America for the first time. George Whitefield had already made his mark as a preacher and many had been astonished that he should leave England to sail to distant and primitive Georgia, but the Wesleys had encouraged him to come to help the Christian mission there and he had felt called to go. It was to be the first of seven visits to British North America, no mean feat almost a century before the advent of a regular steamship service on the North Atlantic, or the building of the speedy clipper ships that rivalled the earlier steamers. The merchant vessels of Whitefield’s day were in the main bluff bowed, deep drafted, and unable to sail close to the wind, resulting in long passages especially west-bound. His sea voyages and other travels evidenced a passion to preach the gospel, and led to George Whitefield becoming the first transatlantic evangelist, a torchbearer in the Old Country and in New England too.

The early life of Whitefield gave no hint of his illustrious future. He was born on 16th December, 1714 in the Bell Inn, Gloucester, where his father was innkeeper. The year had seen the death of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, and the accession of the Hanoverian King George I, but close to its end the birth of George Whitefield would prove to be an event significant in the spiritual realm. We may discern that God’s ways are behind the scenes, but He moves all the scenes which He is behind, and we can ponder the import of that in our nation’s history. When he was 12 years old George was sent to St Mary de Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester, where he gained a reputation for oratory and acting - and for truancy. Later he persuaded his mother that he should leave school, thinking his education would be of little use to him, and for some time he worked in the inn. Happily, he listened to good advice, reversed his earlier decision and returned to the Grammar School to prepare to go up to Pembroke College, Oxford. At university he met Charles Wesley, became acquainted with the Holy Club, and was drawn away from former sinful associates. It was a turning point in his life leading to his conversion in 1735 when he put his whole trust in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ rather than upon the practices of the Holy Club. In after years he said, "I know the place. Whenever I go to Oxford I cannot help running to the spot where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me, and gave me the new birth". Following ordination in June, 1736 he preached for the first time in the ancient church of St Mary de Crypt in Gloucester where he had grown up. Whitefield was diligent in study, earnest in prayer and soon he was called to London to act as a supply minister and began preaching with power to large congregations.

His first visit to Georgia followed this period, but by December, 1738 Whitefield was back in London. He was dismayed to find many churches and pulpits closed to him as his clear preaching of the doctrines of justification by grace through faith alone, and the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, had offended many. This led directly to open air preaching, and on 17th February, 1739 at Kingswood Hill, a coal mining district near to Bristol, he preached to around 200 rough and ready miners. Soon a large number were professing salvation and demonstrating the reality of their profession by changed lives. Whitefield declared, "Having no righteousness of their own to renounce they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was friend to publicans and came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance". Soon he was preaching to thousands in fair weather and foul. It is recorded that crowds often stood in the rain listening, and that the melody of their singing could be heard two miles away. Some opposed and scorned, and Whitefield records, "I was honoured with having stones, dirt, rotten eggs and pieces of dead cats thrown at me". More polite opposition came from the Bishop of London, who denounced Whitefield and his preaching, but the Great Awakening had begun, and the light of the gospel blazed forth upon a scene of appalling moral and spiritual darkness. Considering the state of society in the early eighteenth century one can see parallels with the present. The concept of truth received by revelation was utterly rejected by many who asserted that truth was only to be found through reason. The Church of England was afflicted with various heterodoxies, and the consequence of it all was rank unbelief, which inevitably led to immorality, corruption, and crime. Many were sucked into a vortex of materialism, avarice and corruption, or of debauchery, drunkenness and vice in which gratification of the basest desires stripped men and women of every vestige of decency, and ruined both mind and body. The preaching of Whitefield and others led to deliverance for thousands who believed the gospel, repented, and trusted the Lord Jesus Christ. Staid and unregenerate clergy criticised what they regarded as the excesses of revivalism, unable to recognise real work being wrought through the power of the Spirit of God.

Revival was soon to be seen in an even more remarkable way in New England. In August, 1739 Whitefield departed on his second voyage to America, arriving this time in Philadelphia where he preached to large numbers from the balcony of the Court House. After visiting New York he journeyed south through Maryland and Carolina to Georgia. Having been deeply concerned for homeless children, he founded an orphanage in Savannah named Bethesda. In September, 1740 he sailed north to New England. The well-known Jonathan Edwards had been preaching in Rhode Island to great effect, but the arrival of Whitefield brought an unprecedented wave of blessing to the colony. He preached on Boston Common to the largest crowds that had yet assembled there. At Old North Church thousands were turned away so he took the message out of doors. It was the same at Salem and at Northampton, Massachusetts where he preached in Edward’s church. In all these places revival continued for months after Whitefield returned to England.

Soon after his return he visited Scotland for the first time. In Glasgow many were brought under deep conviction as he preached. At Cambuslang he addressed his largest ever audience, estimated as 100,000. We may wonder whether so many could hear, but Whitefield possessed a powerful voice and spoke with clarity and conviction. He preached in Wales where he met Elizabeth James, an older widow whom he married in November, 1741. Their only son John was born in 1743 but died only four months of age. In 1756 he visited Ireland where he suffered violent opposition. One Sunday afternoon while preaching near Dublin, stones and dirt were thrown at him. A mob gathered and some fled the scene, leaving him to walk nearly half a mile alone while rioters threw showers of stones upon him until he was covered in blood. He was able to stagger to a minister’s door where he found shelter. He often said, "We are immortal till our work is done".

And so Whitefield laboured with energy and enthusiasm, God using him in a mighty way for His glory and the blessing of countless souls throughout Great Britain and North America.

Late in 1769 he sailed for Georgia to arrange for the orphanage in Savannah to be converted to Bethesda College. In the spring of 1770 he travelled on to New England. At every place he was warmly received, crowds flocking to hear him preach. In Boston he was ill for a time but became able to continue further and at length arrived in Newburyport, Massachusetts on 29th September where he had supper with Rev Jonathan Parsons. He went to bed unwell and by 2am he was struggling to breathe. He died early on Sunday, 30th September, and was buried beneath the pulpit of the Old South Presbyterian Church of Newburyport.

Whitefield was certainly a great preacher, but equally his Christ-like spirit caused him to be greatly esteemed by his contemporaries. John Wesley exclaimed, "Oh, what has the church suffered in the setting of that bright star which shone so gloriously in our hemisphere. We have none left to succeed him; none of his gifts; none anything like him in usefulness".

To be continued.

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