George Whitefield: Hero of the Christian Faith
By Alexander Samuels
George Whitefield is one of my heroes of the Christian faith. After the apostles and before the advent of radio and television, George Whitefield was probably the greatest evangelist who ever lived - and he may be to this day. His tremendous ability to preach was seen as an anointing from the Holy Spirit. In a time when there were no . . . microphones and sound systems, he spoke to and could be heard by thousands.
George Whitefield was born on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England. It is estimated that he ministered in Great Britain some 24 years and in the American colonies about nine years.
While attending Pembroke College at Oxford Whitefield met John and Charles Wesley. He was converted in 1735 and eventually ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He soon began to preach with what can only be called "the power of the Holy Spirit" to huge crowds throughout England. Many believed he had the voice of an angel, while others commented it was like the roar of a lion. Either way, great crowds came to hear him - crowds so large that there were no churches large enough to hold them.
The Wesley brothers had invited Whitefield to come to America, where their ministry in Georgia was failing. But when Whitefield finally arrived, the Wesley brothers had already returned home to England. Nevertheless, Whitefield loved Georgia and began a successful ministry there. He helped to open schools and start an orphanage to which he ministered by providing finances for the rest of his life.
When Whitefield returned to England, he found that many churches were now closed to him because of his association with the Wesleys and with the Methodist societies. Where he did preach, however, so many came to hear him that there were no buildings large enough to accommodate them. Outside the city of Bristol, Whitefield preached for the first time in the open air on February 17, 1739. In a short time he was preaching to crowds of 10,000.
In London he preached on an open piece of land known as Moorfields. At times, crowds of up to 80,000 people would come to hear Whitefield preach for over an hour. He was only 25 years old but his words were so blessed that people would listen as their eyes filled with tears. Large numbers of listeners would fall to the ground and lie there under the conviction of their sins by the Holy Spirit. Whitefield never encouraged this type of exhibition in the crowds that came to hear him, but he left it to God to work conversion in each individual as He saw fit. Whitefield never had an altar call but existing testimonies imply that thousands were converted under his preaching.
Upon returning to America, he spoke to crowds of up to 35,000 in Philadelphia and 20,000 in New York and Boston. He preached four times for Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the first "Great Awakening" in America was underway. Returning to England in 1741, Whitefield learned that John Wesley had discarded Reformed doctrine as the foundation of his faith. Because of this, George Whitefield broke away from the Wesleyan Methodists and was thereafter considered the unofficial leader of Calvinistic Methodism.
Whitefield continued preaching, traveling back and forth between the British Isles and the American colonies. In Cambuslang, Scotland, near Glasgow, he preached to his largest crowd ever, an estimated 100,000 people. In one year he rode over 800 miles on horseback, preaching two to five services a day when possible. His health, however, was deteriorating because of the great physical demands he put upon himself.
In 1769, he made his seventh crossing of the Atlantic to America. On September 29, 1770, he reached the town of Exeter on his way to Boston. A large crowd had gathered there and begged him to preach. He delivered a two-hour sermon titled "Examine Yourselves, Whether Ye Be in the Faith," and then went to the home of the Reverend Jonathan Parsons for dinner and to spend the night. As Whitefield mounted the landing on the stairs with the intention of going to bed, a large number of people entered the house and requested that he preach to them before retiring. This he did until the candle in his hand burned out.
At approximately 7 a.m. on Sunday, September 30, 1770, George Whitefield entered the presence of God to which he had directed so many souls in his lifetime. His life story is a wonderful and encouraging example of what God can accomplish through the faithfulness of one man. I have only shared with you brief excerpts of his biography; for some excellent full-length examples, consider George Whitefield: God's Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century, by Arnold A. Dallimore; George Whitefield and the Great Awakening, by John Pollock; The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelism, by Harry S. Stout; and George Whitefield: Supreme Among Preachers, by J.P. Gledstone. I hope you will consider reading further about this great saint of God.
Alexander Samuels is a regular contributor to Carolina Christian Conservative.