Few believers have inspired me as much as George Whitefield. This is not surprising in light of C.H. Spurgeon’s description of the man who led the Great Awakening in the 18th century:
“There is no end to the interest which attaches to such a man as George Whitefield. Often as I have read his life, I am conscious of distinct quickening whenever I turn to it. He lived. Other men seem to be only half alive; but Whitefield was all life, fire, wing, force. My own model, if I may have such a thing in due subordination to my Lord, is George Whitefield; but with unequal footsteps must I follow in his glorious track.”
What follows are some reasons why I have been so encouraged by, in the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the greatest preacher that England has ever produced, or as David Hume stated, “the most ingenious preacher I ever heard; it is worth going twenty miles to hear him.”
Upon conversion in college, George Whitefield daily visited and ministered to convicts in prison where it was reported the guard dogs feared to enter into because of the fierce rats that infested the place. At age 24, he was preaching to crowds twenty to thirty thousand in attendance often in open fields without the aid of amplifying devices. On average he was preaching forty to sixty hours a week and at the end of thirty years he had preached nearly forty thousand sermons. This schedule took its toll on his health, and after sermons he often had to spit out great amounts of blood due to the blood vessels that had burst in his vocal chords from the strain of having to speak to so large an audience for so long a period.
Though by far the most famous man of his age, speaking regularly to the nobility of England as well as to commoners, slaves in America, and children, Whitefield enjoyed as his favorite meal a cow’s heel in keeping with his personal motto, “Poor, yet making others rich.” An associate mentioned that during the year that he was with him Whitefield slept three or four hours a day and in lieu of sleep was counseling, writing encouraging letters, and on his knees while praying and studying the Bible.
Though slandered by John Wesley for upholding Calvinist doctrines and by many clergy of the established church for his zeal and popularity, Whitefield did not respond in kind but gave up to him and others his various societies and buildings and even the denomination known as Methodism – all of which he had founded – in order to avoid hindering the movement of God that had taken England and the Colonies by storm of which he was principally credited. The fact that 99% of believers today in America have no knowledge of George Whitefield is a testimony to the man’s uncommon humility and desire that the name of Whitefield perish so long as Christ’s name was lifted high.
During his evangelistic outreaches, mobs would sometimes disrupt the sermon by beating the crowd and throwing eggs and dirt at Whitefield. Children with tears in their eyes would often try to shield him from the thrown objects, wishing they could receive the blows for him. One coal-mining town whose inhabitants often raided neighboring places greeted Whitefield with equal animosity. But they were soon drawn to his preaching, and it was reported that a mass of coal-stained faces had streams of water flowing from their eyes. It was observed that Whitefield rarely preached a sermon in which he himself had not wept. What came to be known as the Great Awakening was in large part stirred by the compassionate preaching of George Whitefield. When the flame was dying down in Jonathan Edwards’ own church, Whitefield preached there and Edwards himself was moved to tears.
The Great Evangelist made six Atlantic voyages to America which were often treacherous. During one of his trips, Whitefield ministered to the crew and passengers amidst a particularly terrible voyage such that by the end of the trip, most of the heathen crew had been converted and regular services on deck were conducted. Ministry for Whitefield was his life, not an occupation with a set time and place to “do mission work.”
Whitefield’s integrity, though often maligned by jealous clergy and opponents to his religious fervor, was attested to by none other than Benjamin Franklin, who published Whitefield’s journals and financially supported his work for the establishment of the first house of charity in America where orphans could be raised and educated.
To read the biography of George Whitefield is to read the life of a saint, a man who loved God with all his heart, soul and mind. May God inspire more Whitefields in our generation.
* Note: I am forever indebted to Arnold Dallimore for his two-volume biography on Whitefield published by Banner of Truth, by far my favorite biography. There is also a good abridged version by the same author.