George Whitefield is a well-known figure who has been assessed from a number of different vantage points. Recent scholarship assesses the supposed impact he had upon commerce, the development of the “religious celebrity” persona, and in fostering conditions that would lead to the American Revolution. Thomas Kidd comes at Whitefield from another angle in his George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father: while not discounting the arguments of other approaches wholesale, he thinks that these “do not really focus on Whitefield’s primary significance or the way he viewed himself.” Kidd argues that “George Whitefield was the key figure in the first generation of Anglo-American evangelical Christianity,” and his biography seeks to place him “fully in the dynamic, fractious milieu of the early evangelical movement.” Eschewing both naive hagiography and cynical contempt, Kidd presents a balanced view of Whitefield both in his strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.
Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England on December 16, 1714. His father died when he was two years old, and his mother was an innkeeper. He attended school when he was twelve years of age and would go on to attend Oxford in order to become ordained as a minister in the Church of England. While at Oxford, he entered into a season of spiritual testing that comprised his “conversion travail,” which would terminate in his being born again. Along the way he befriended Charles and John Wesley, who helped shape his pietistic emphases, which were also been fostered by devotional books like Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and Joseph Alleine’s An Alarm to Unconverted Sinners. By the time of Whitefield’s graduation from college, many of his fundamental theological commitments and emphases that would later characterize and drive his ministry were already in place.
Upon his graduation from Oxford, Whitefield was ordained and began preaching. Soon his fame spread throughout London, and crowds would gather to hear him preach. He decided to travel to America after John Wesley invited him to engage in mission work in Georgia. His popularity in England increased in the months before his departure as he preached at more and more venues, and when he left for America he was more famous than ever. When he preached, “people from a variety of denominations—Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians in addition to Anglicans—pressed in to hear him.” The inter-denominational evangelical movement was beginning to take shape, flocking around “the first celebrity pastor of the modern era.” In America and in England, Whitefield engaged in much preaching, often in the open air to crowds of thousands. He proclaimed man’s sin and need for redemption, the necessity of the new birth, and the salvation available to all through faith in Christ.
As his ministry progressed, his theological emphases and methods of ministry alienated some Christians, especially within his own Anglican pale. Opponents and moderates alike expressed concerns about “enthusiastic excesses” that Whitefield’s preaching often resulted in and encouraged. Whitefield initially was fairly dismissive and even combative against such critiques. Even when Jonathan Edwards, one the foremost defenders of the first great awakening, cautioned against Whitefield’s tendency to question the salvation of ministers who disagreed with him, it seemed to Edwards that Whitefield “kept their friendship at arm’s length from that point forward.”
By the end of his ministry, however, Whitefield became more moderate himself. He acknowledged his errors in jumping to conclusions about people’s spiritual states, he at times adopted a style “too apostolical,” and was “bitter in [his] zeal.” He attempted to repair breaches that had been made between himself and other ministers and associates—not least between himself and John Wesley. By the end of his ministry he had preached to hundreds of thousands of people and had traversed the Atlantic with a far greater frequency than the majority of his contemporaries. He died in Newburyport, Massachusetts on September 29, 1770.
After Whitefield’s death, Benjamin Franklin remarked concerning him: “His integrity, disinterestedness, and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work, I have never seen equaled, I shall never see exceeded.” Whitefield’s productivity and passion were simply astounding. Undergirding his energy and accomplishments were a number of theological convictions and emphases, three of which are considered here.
Necessity of the New Birth
Kidd notes in his section on Whitefield’s baptism as an infant that many Anglicans “believed that baptism was directly connected to this new birth, which would normally follow baptism as part of a believer’s maturing devotion to God.” Whitefield, however, would come to “sharply distinguish” new birth from baptism. For Whitefield, the new birth was “a discernible, sometimes torturous experience of renouncing sin and turning to God for forgiveness in Christ.” Whitefield conceives of his own conversion as taking place after he had been in church for many years, and even after he had gone to college in pursuit of ordination. His new birth experience takes place after months of spiritual agony and wrestling, coupled with ascetic practices. Whitefield himself gives an idealized example of the “wrenching experience” that he held the new birth is and ought to be.
Whitefield did not want people to presume upon their baptism or their participation in the church that they are ipso facto born again. The necessity of the new birth would arise as a consistent theme in his preaching. In his first sermon he insisted that participating in church gatherings, enlivening each other, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs does not necessarily save: the “one way now to heaven” is to enter through the “narrow passage of a sound conversion.” On a return trip from America, Whitefield wrote to his Savannah followers, “reminding them of ‘that one thing needful [Luke 10:42], of that new birth in Christ Jesus, that ineffable change which must pass upon our hearts before we can see God.’” For Whitefield, the new birth was so crucial that he calls it the “one thing needful” that his followers need to bear in mind.
His emphasis on the new birth also called attention to his understanding of human depravity and the Spirit’s work in changing hearts. Whitefield had a strong sense of the human depravity. He knew it from his own experience: “I was conceived and born in sin; … in me dwelleth no good thing by nature.… If I trace myself from my cradle to my manhood, I can see nothing in me but a fitness to be damned.” In order for a sinner to repent, a work of God by the Holy Spirit is needed; otherwise, man in their lost state become “sunk into the nature of the beast and the devil.” Whitefield additionally emphasized the subsequent role of the Spirit in imparting joy and delight to believers.
Sovereignty of God
Whitefield’s views on the new birth and human depravity naturally lead to another conviction—namely, that of the sovereignty of God. Unless God changes the heart of man, man will never choose God. Unlike many modern evangelistic appeals that present a basically frustrated God who tries to save man but who must in the end bow to man’s free will, Whitefield’s evangelistic appeals were based on a big, sovereign, all-powerful God. Whitefield was convinced that “a recovery of robust Calvinist teaching was essential to a renewal of pure gospel preaching.” Later in his ministry he came to insist that “he could no longer preach the gospel without referring to predestination and election.” To him, God’s sovereignty was not a theological side-topic to be debated, but a component of the gospel message to be heralded.
In addition to the content of his sermons, Whitefield’s Calvinistic commitments surface clearly in his long-standing disagreements with the Wesley brothers. At a certain point in his ministry John Wesley began to “declaim against predestination and Calvinism, and to teach that Christians could achieve a state of sinless perfection in this life.” Whitefield desired no break of fellowship between himself and Wesley, and at first urged him merely to “be but silent about the doctrine of election and final perseverance.” When Wesley continued his public declamations and continued to push Whitefield to abandon his Calvinistic views, Whitefield was lead to oppose him more forcefully, publishing a letter in response to an anti-Calvinistic sermon preached by John Wesley. Wesley thought that if it is true that God has only elected to save a certain number of people, then preaching is vain. This idea is reflected in contemporary Arminian evangelism as well: the only point in calling people to believe is if it is all up to them, and God cannot do anything but offer opportunities. Whitefield, on the other hand, held that “the preaching of the gospel was God’s means of saving the elect.” Since neither the preacher nor the hearer knows who the elect are, this necessitates a universal offer of the gospel to all without distinction, confident that the Lord will graciously apply it and effectually save whom he wills, granting faith and repentance.
Free Offer of Salvation by Faith Alone
Whitefield’s Calvinism bolstered and undergirded his free offer of salvation to all through faith in Christ alone, which constitutes another theological conviction of his ministry. If Whitefield thought preaching and seeking to persuade his hearers to submit and respond to divine truth were unnecessary or useless, he would not have devoted his life to this very task. The two themes of God’s absolute sovereignty and human responsibility come together in Whitefield’s theology and preaching.
Whitefield proclaimed that “salvation came by grace alone, through faith alone, and that good works were a by-product of true conversion.” In the course of preaching this gospel in Britain and in the continents he received opposition. An Anglican commissary, Archibald Cummings, critiqued Whitefield for distinguishing faith and obedience and teaching that salvation comes by faith apart from works. Cummings held that faith “had to include sincere obedience,” and thought that good works were a condition to salvation. Another pamphlet accused Whitefield both of antinomianism—since, after all, he preached justification by faith alone, which must mean he thought “that believers had no obligation to obey God at all”—and also of legalism—since he taught that good works necessarily flow from salvation. For Whitefield to be falsely accused of opposite errors suggests that he must be doing something right.
Strengths and Weaknesses
One strength of Whitefield’s preaching is that he rightly emphasized the necessity of conversion in the midst of a “cultural Christianity” environment that often drifted towards nominalism. As soon as the church begins to presume upon externals and neglect the need for genuine repentance and faith, the church is in need of a John the Baptist to be raised up to declare to her: “Do not presume to say you have Abraham as your father; bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (see Matt 3:7–10). Whitefield himself modeled this emphasis upon the internal heart change by his impassioned and earnest form of discourse. Unlike many other preachers in his day, his demeanor matched his message. Lastly, his preaching was doctrinally sound and was characterized by what are now recognized as key evangelical teachings: God-centeredness, man’s sinfulness, the reality of heaven and hell, the need for conversion, justification by faith alone through Christ alone, and penal substitutionary atonement, to name a few.
A strength can also become a weakness, however. Whitefield displays a tendency, and helped promulgate a tendency, to over-emphasize the affections. This over-emphasis manifests itself in various forms. Dramatic conversion accounts became normative, or at least more highly venerated than children raised in Christian homes who cannot remember a time when they did not love and trust Christ. Conversion itself came to be viewed as normally entailing an extended time of emotional and spiritual wrestling, lasting weeks, months, or even years. Some conversion accounts betray an unhealthy introspection, as people are more concerned with looking inside of themselves for signs of experiential knowledge and inward peace and assurance than looking up and out of themselves to Christ, the Savior of all who draw near to God through him. They began looking at themselves-looking-at-Christ rather than simply looking at Christ.
Whitefield appears to have also placed an undue emphasis upon his audiences’ reaction to his sermons. He gauged his success by the presence or lack of extraordinary responses, many of which crossed into enthusiastic excess. “Shrieking, crying, weeping and wailing … heard in every corner”—that’s what he was looking for, and when it did not happen, he felt dejected. Such dramatic responses can indeed be the result of the Spirit’s genuine work, as Jonathan Edwards argued, but they should not be sought after directly, nor treated as the measure of success. Indeed, a church culture that puts such an emphasis on seeking after these external, abnormal reactions is in danger of being led astray into soul-endangering fanaticism, and away from the peaceful and quiet life to which Christians are called to aspire (1 Tim 2:2; 1 Thess 4:11) and from the decency and good order requisite in churches (1 Cor 14:40).
Whitefield himself recognized some of these shortcomings in his ministry, which is actually the first ministry principle that I take away from him. One of Whitefield’s strengths is that he was willing to learn as he went on. Though he once dismissed and turned a cold shoulder to even his more sympathetic and moderate critics, he himself became more moderate in the end. While maintaining his key theological convictions, he put aside his “theological brawling, calling out unconverted ministers, fostering church splits, and reporting messages given him by the Holy Spirit.” In a new edition of his journals that he published later in life, he wrote: “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged and acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in giving characters, both of places and persons.… I find that I frequently wrote with my own spirit, when I thought I was writing and speaking by the assistance of the spirit [sic] of God.”
This reminds us that we are all theologians in via. We are on our way, and our theologies and approaches to ministry, while possibly right in fundamental respects, in many other respects have some growing up to do, in ways of which we are currently unaware. We must be humble enough to recognize and retract past mistakes and wrongdoings, rather than sticking to our guns no matter what, more out of a concern to save face than to seek truth.
Another important lesson from Whitefield is that the head and the heart go together; they ought not be separated. Those who are familiar with Whitefield’s passionate preaching may be surprised to find when they read his sermons that he preached doctrinally meaty sermons. Whitefield himself was a “thoroughly educated man,” possessing “much more classical learning than typical evangelical pastors do today.” At the same time, as Kidd comments, “He never countenanced anti-intellectualism; he just did not believe that the mind alone could carry a person to a saving faith.”
Finally, Whitefield’s ministry teaches us that the word does the work. For all of Whitefield’s legacy, for all of his accomplishments, for all of the historical impact that secular historians assess that he had, at the end of the day, George Whitefield was a preacher. He travelled about preaching the word of God, and the word proved itself to be truly living and active in the effect that it had (Heb 4:12). If we have anything to learn from Whitefield, it is that it is high time for us to lay aside all of our gimmicks, all of our technological enhancements and clever inventions that we think will attract more people in or keep them there. Instead of all of that, we must trust that the word of God’s grace is more than sufficient to build up believers and give them the inheritance among those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32).
Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 3.
Ibid., 128. These are Kidd’s words.
Ibid., 9, 11.
See ibid., 72.
“Most true believers, he contended, could remember the moment of their conversion, just as they would remember their own wedding” (ibid., 164). Thankfully, Kidd does say “most,” and so leaves open the possibility that some may not. But Whitefield’s emphasis falls ever on the “most,” leaving those with “boring” testimonies to wonder if they are missing out on something. Parents begin to treat it as a given that their children will walk away from the faith or live in blatant hypocrisy for years before they have a climatic, dramatic, emotional encounter, in a context that is in all likelihood utterly divorced from their upbringing.
See ibid., 131 for examples of the kind of conversion stories I have in mind in the last two sentences.