George Whitefield—The Anglican Evangelist

It is wonderful this year to be celebrating the 300th birthday of the great English evangelist, George Whitefield. Whitefield is remembered as a great evangelical. By those who (somewhat mistakenly) consider evangelical religion to have begun only in the 1730s, he is hailed as a founding father of evangelicalism. ((I refer of course to David Bebbington’s classic statement of this thesis in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989). See the devastating reassessment of this position by a wide variety of scholars in Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, eds., The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008).))

His name has been honored and kept alive in recent years by evangelical Baptists and Presbyterians, but he has been strangely undervalued by those in the Church of England itself. Furthermore, his identity as an Anglican has, therefore, been somewhat obscured.

Positively Anglican
Yet Whitefield himself would have identified his churchmanship as classically, positively, “Anglican.” As Jim Packer puts it, “like all England’s evangelical clergy then and since, Whitefield insisted that the religion he modelled and taught was a straightforward application of Anglican doctrine as defined in the Articles, the Homilies and the Prayer Book.” ((J. I. Packer, ‘The Spirit with the Word: The Reformational Revivalism of George Whitefield’ in Honouring the People of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer Volume 4 (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999), 51.)) Or as Arnold Dallimore put it, “He preached nothing but the basic doctrines of the Church of England; in glowing contrast to the majority of the clergy.” ((Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival. Volume 1 (Edin­burgh: Banner of Truth, 1970), 116. On the last point, that the clergy themselves had abandoned the Church’s true doctrine, a classic exposition of this was Jonathan Warn’s The Church of England Turned Dissenter (1740), a book which carried a printed endorsement from Whitefield.))

Reading through Whitefield’s works we can easily observe this confessional slant to his ministry. Here we find quotations from the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, especially where they touch on the doctrines of justification, predestination, original sin, and the place of good works. There are also many allusions to liturgical texts from the Book of Common Prayer, which Whitefield considered to embody the theology of the Articles and indeed of the Bible itself. It was “one of the most excellent forms of public prayer in the world,” he said. ((Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival. Volume 2 (Edin­burgh: Banner of Truth, 1920), 470.)) What was his view of the Church of England? “My dear brethren, I am a friend to her Articles, I am a friend to her Homilies, I am a friend to her liturgy. And, if they did not thrust me out of their churches, I would read them every day.” ((Lee Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield. Volume 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 176.))

The “Homilies” he mentions were set sermons that had been first published under Edward VI in 1547, for use by clergy who were unable or unlicensed to compose their own. They are referred to in the Articles as containing “godly and wholesome doctrine,” and set forth, for the most part, Reformed and Evangelical truths about scripture, salvation, sin, and the sacraments. He planned a cheap edition of a selection of the Homilies, with a hymn and a prayer to accompany each one. He said in the preface he composed for that new edition (which sadly never materialized, as far as I am aware), that if these Homilies were preached more often, those like him who were deemed enthusiasts, madmen, troublers of Israel, and preachers of strange doctrine would be recognised, rather, as steady adherents to the wholesome doctrine of the Church of England. He lamented that they were so poorly known because so seldom reprinted, distributed, or read (by contrast to the Westminster Standards in Scotland, which were “almost in every hand; and so constantly explained and insisted on”). ((See The Works of the Reverend. George Whitefield: Volume IV (London, 1771), 441-444. The Homilies can be found in John Griffiths, ed., The Two Books of Homilies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859), and there is a good critical edition of the first book, and an informative introduction, in Ronald Bond, ed., Certain Sermons or Homilies (1547) and A Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion (1570): A Critical Edition (London: University of Toronto Press, 1987).))

To that end, in the orphan house and school he set up in Georgia, he insisted that not only were the children to learn and repeat the Thirty-nine Articles, but that the Homilies were to be well known too. “The homilies to be read publicly, distinctly, frequently and carefully, every year, by the students, deputed in rotation,” he specified. ((The Works of the Reverend. George Whitefield: Volume III (London, 1771), 499.)) Their education was to be a confessional education, he insisted. Whitefield also insisted on understanding the formularies of the Church in their plain grammatical sense. He had no time for the ambiguous doublespeak of Arminian and other commentators on the Thirty-nine Articles, for example. The original authors of the Anglican confession would not thank men whose “two-fold interpretation” of the Articles “opened a door for the most detestable equivocation.” ((George Whitefield’s Journals (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1960), 429. He is referring primarily to Bishop Gilbert Bur­net, whose infamous 1699 exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles alleged that they were susceptible to both Reformed and Arminian readings at key points. On Burnet’s commentary, and the controversy surrounding it, see Stephen Hampton, Anti-Arminians: The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 28-31.))

The Anglican Doctrine of the Indwelling Spirit
Whitefield often glances at the Articles and Prayer Book in his sermons. Let us examine one sermon in particular to sample his method — his sermon on John 7:37-39, “The Indwelling of the Spirit, the Common Privilege of All Believers.” ((Lee Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield. Volume 2 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 115-128.))

This was preached in Bexley, in Kent. We know from his journal that during 1739 Whitefield had preached there. On one occasion, he been expected to preach, but the local bishop demanded that the vicar deny him the use of the pulpit. So it was a tense period of resistance to his ministry. As he wrote at that time, “If we have done anything worthy of the censures of the church, why do not the Right Reverend the Bishops call us to a public account? If not, why do not they confess and own us?” ((George Whitefield’s Journals, 293.))

So Whitefield was keen, in this atmosphere, to demonstrate that what he was preaching was fully in accord with the official doctrine of the Church of England. This sermon on the Holy Spirit, thought to be a distinctively evangelical doctrine, was a perfect place to demonstrate that harmony. Whitefield once said that “the grand controversy God has with England is for the slight put on the Holy Ghost. As soon as a person begins to talk of the work of the Holy Ghost, they cry, ‘you are a Methodist’: as soon as you speak about the divine influences of the Holy Ghost, ‘O!’ say they, ‘you are an enthusiast.’” ((Eighteen Sermons Preached by the Late Rev. George Whitefield A.M. (London, 1771), 381-382.))

So he begins his sermon on this text by pointing out that those who talk about receiving God’s Spirit “are looked upon by some as enthusiasts and madmen. And by others represented as wilfully deceiving the people and undermining the established constitution of the church.” ((Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield. Volume 2, 115.)) Yet when Jesus spoke of flowing rivers of living water and John explained that this was about the Spirit, “which they that believe on him shall receive,” he was not talking simply about the first apostles, but about all subsequent believers. As a text for Trinity Sunday in the Anglican Church calendar, John 7 was apt to demonstrate that the Trinity was not a complex doctrine designed to confuse us, but a delight and comfort to all the faithful.

Whitefield alludes to the set prayer for the day, the proper preface for Trinity Sunday, and makes it clear that he understands the person of the Spirit to be “consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father and the Son, proceeding from, yet equal to them both.” This is entirely in accord with the Athanasian Creed, appointed to be said or sung that day at Morning Prayer, and with Article 5. The “excellent” Communion Service in the Book of Common Prayer says of those who receive the sacrament rightly that they “dwell in Christ and Christ in them; that they are one with Christ and Christ with them.” So, says Whitefield, “every Christian, in the proper sense of the word, must be an enthusiast” and united to God by receiving the Holy Ghost. ((Ibid., 117, 119.))

“Letter-learned preachers” deny this doctrine in reality, he claims. Yet, he says, “I am astonished that any who call themselves members, much more, that many who are preachers in the Church of England, should dare so much as to open their lips against it.” It is impossible to approve the liturgy of the Church “and yet deny the Holy Spirit to be the portion of all believers.” He goes on to quote various parts of the authorized liturgy which make reference to the Spirit and his indwelling.

For example, the daily absolution asks God to grant his Spirit to the repentant. The collect or set prayer for Christmas Day asks God to “daily renew us by his Holy Spirit.” And in the collect for the day of Pentecost, or Whitsunday, we pray to “rejoice in the comforts of the Holy Ghost.” Both the baptismal formula of Matthew 28 (used in the christening service) and “the grace” of 2 Corinthians 13 (used at the end of Evening Prayer) are explicitly Trinitarian, and show that the Spirit is with us, as we are baptised into his name and his fellowship. ((Ibid., 120.))

Whitefield goes on to make the denial of the indwelling of the Spirit even more uncomfortable for ministers. Quoting the Ordinal, the set services in which they were ordained, he reminds every clergyman that “they trust they are inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost, to take upon them that administration.” As a man is ordained presbyter, the bishop is to say, “Receive the Holy Ghost … now committed unto thee, by the imposition of our hands.” How then can those who insist on the necessity of receiving the Holy Spirit be called “madmen, enthusiasts, schismatics, and underminers of the established constitution”? It is not true of all, but “the generality of the clergy are fallen from our Articles and do not speak agreeable to them, or to the form of sound words delivered in the Scriptures,” he said. For their hypocrisy—“How can they escape the damnation of hell?” ((Ibid., 121. See also his letter in Works: Volume IV, 300, where he also quotes the set hymn for ordinations, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.”))

Later in this same sermon he quotes from Article 9 to establish the doctrine of original sin. But his main use of the formularies has been to demonstrate quite decisively that evangelical doctrine is Anglican doctrine. The conclusion for Whitefield seemed to be that if this is truly so, he should be left unmolested by the authorities to preach and proclaim this doctrine wherever and whenever he saw fit. That may not logically follow, perhaps. There is a case for good order and obedience to it. But he was certainly correct when he concluded that: “Would we restore the church to its primitive dignity, the only way is to live and preach the doctrine of Christ and the Articles to which we have subscribed. Then we shall find the number of dissenters will daily decrease and the Church of England become the joy of the whole earth.” ((Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield. Volume 2, 122.))

Whitefield, therefore, was unashamedly a confessional evangelical. He was delighted not only to prove his evangelical doctrines from the scriptures, but to find them in the confessional documents of the national church, expound them from there, and call those who had subscribed to such standards to preach and live by the same. For him the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer were not dusty relics of a forgotten past. If deployed well, they pointed people to the evangelical gospel, the way of salvation, and the path of life as well as being useful for refuting those who would lead us astray.

Anglican Cavalryman
Whitefield’s paternal grandfather, Andrew Whitefield, had been a successful businessman in Bristol which enabled him to retire early and live the life of a country gentleman. His father too was a businessman and George inherited a certain entrepreneurial streak from these men which made him go looking for opportunities to expand his ministry. Far from taking early retirement, however, he worked himself into an early grave, and died in his mid-50s!

Upon his first return to England from Georgia, George Whitefield found that many pulpits were closed to his fundraising work for the orphanage he supported there, due to his youthful over-exuberance in denouncing the clergy in his early sermons. He took this opportunity to begin a new phase of evangelical mission in this country.

His first step out of the established mould had been to go to Georgia, a brand new colony in America designed to take the poor and criminal elements from England and put them to good use (much as would happen in Australia some time later). Never becoming the incumbent of an ordinary parish, Whitefield was one of those who thrived on the edges of the establishment, and so when itinerant preaching proved more difficult in churches he took to the open air and began to preach anywhere and everywhere he could.

Rather than waiting for people to invite him to preach or hoping that sinners would come to hear, he adopted the more aggressive strategy of going out and calling to them, in the “highways and byways,” rejoicing that this tactic had Gospel precedent and dominical sanction (Luke 14:23). “The world is now my parish” he had declared six weeks after being ordained (antedating Wesley’s now more famous use of this phrase by a month). ((See Boyd Stanley Schlenther, “Whitefield, George (1714–1770)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).)) The grey skies of London, Bristol, and other cities became like the dome of his very own cathedral into which thousands of people poured to hear this curious and dramatic Anglican clergyman.

Augustus Toplady narrates how his hero Whitefield once tried to persuade him to become an itinerant preacher too, encouraging the younger man with promises of greater fruitfulness should he do so. Yet as Toplady told Lady Huntingdon, “I consider the true ministers of God as providentially divided into two bands: viz., the regulars and the irregulars.” Some such as Whitefield were akin to cavalry and others, like him, were more like sentinels or guardsmen watching over a more circumscribed district. ((A. M. Toplady, The Complete Works of Augustus Toplady (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1987), 862.))

Toplady could see the great blessing that the irregular and unusual ministry of men like Whitefield had been, but did not think it was for him, or for everyone; an ordinary Reformed Evangelical parochial ministry within the Church of England structures was just as vital and important as the more high-profile “celebrity” roles.

Yet Whitefield was clearly in his element as an Anglican cavalryman, with a self-endangering and self-sacrificing boldness which earned him the respect of many of his contemporaries. The important thing to notice is that other evangelicals in the Church of England like Toplady, William Romaine, and James Hervey—the regular guardsmen—considered Whitefield no less Anglican for his more irregular tactics. He always remained doctrinally in line with the Anglican heritage even when he was being more adventurous in terms of institutional order. He was not only evangelistically enterprising but also positively Anglican.

Yet even cavalry need to have a settled base camp from which to operate. Eventually this led to Whitefield planting three churches: “The Tabernacle” in East London at Moorfields, a chapel on Tottenham Court Road in the West End, and another “Tabernacle” in Bristol. Add to this the orphanage in Georgia and a school at Kingswood and it is clear that Whitefield had a flair for fundraising and starting new projects, as platforms for gospel ministry. He had great entrepreneurial spirit.

His expertise did not, however, extend to the maintenance of “empire.” In that department he was far outstripped by the imperious John Wesley. He lost the school to Wesley, and the orphanage did not develop as he hoped (see Sermons 57 and 61), being saddled with a huge debt by the time that Whitefield died. Yet it is clear that with his entrepreneurial and radical style of Anglicanism, Toplady was not saying too much when he styled Whitefield, “The apostle of the English empire” as well as “a true and faithful son of the Church of England.” ((‘A Concise Character of the Late Rev. Mr. Whitefield’ in Toplady, The Complete Works, 494.))

Whitefield sought to extend the boundaries of the Church into places where no church buildings had yet been put up, where the ordinary parochial ministry had failed or had not even attempted to reach the populace. He found the harvest was plentiful though the workers were few (Matt. 9:37-38) and obeyed his ordination call (as the Ordinal annexed to the Book of Common Prayer puts it), “to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever … For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood.”

Facing Opposition from Anglican Authorities
Whitefield faced a great deal of opposition from within the Church of England. Naturally, that in itself does not mean that one is not an Anglican, necessarily. What is it that Whitefield was criticized and censured for?

Certainly he was criticized for his doctrine. And we have just seen how he defended himself from such attacks by utilising the official formularies of the Church. However, in his journals he also records a number of occasions where the issue, in essence, was one not of doctrine but of order. That is, he was called to account for not observing the niceties of decorum and the parish system.

About a month after he was ordained a presbyter at Christ Church, Oxford, Whitefield was summoned by the Chancellor of Bristol Diocese. He had preached in various churches in the diocese, raising support for his orphanage in Georgia. He had also been preaching in the prison, and to the poor miners in Kingswood. But the Chancellor was not happy that he did so without a specific license from the bishop of that diocese. The Chancellor appealed to various obsolete canons of the Church, which he had not enforced on other visiting preachers. Whitefield responded by asking why other canons, such as those which forbade clergy from frequenting taverns and playing cards, were not also enforced on others. The Chancellor accused him of preaching false doctrine, but later confessed to never having heard him preach or read his writings. ((George Whitefield’s Journals, 218-219, 221.))

A few months later, he heard that a friend was considering leaving the Church of England (denying Christ’s visible church on earth, as he put it). Whitefield pleaded with him not to secede, saying “consider, my dear brother, what confusion your separation from the church will occasion.” Whitefield found being an Anglican a great help to evangelism, he said: “I can assure you that my being a minister of the Church of England, and preaching its Articles, is a means under God of drawing so many after me.” As for objecting to the robes that clergy were meant to wear, about which this friend had expressed scruples, “Good God!” he exclaimed, “I thought we long since knew that the kingdom of God did not consist in any externals, but in righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” ((Ibid., 255-256.))

Two days after writing this letter urging his friend to remain an Anglican, the Chancellor of Bristol was chasing after Whitefield again, and angrily threatening him (and those who met to hear him) with imprisonment. Yet he was never persuaded even by this to become a nonconformist. “For my own part,” he said, “I can see no reason for my leaving the Church, however I am treated by the corrupt members and ministers of it. I judge of the state of a Church, not from the practice of its members, but its primitive and public constitutions; and so long as I think the Articles of the Church of England are agreeable to Scripture, I am resolved to preach them up without either bigotry or party zeal. For I love all who love the Lord Jesus.” ((Ibid., 256.))

Whitefield was pursued by the authorities for irregularity, that is, preaching outside and away from a settled parish ministry. ((See his letter to the Bishop of Gloucester on the subject in Works, Volume IV, 17.)) But in some ways he courted this opposition, in a most unhelpful way. In July 1739 he records how he went to St Paul’s Cathedral one day to take the Lord’s Supper, as a testimony that he was a law-abiding Anglican. Then he went straight to preach on Kennington Common, to about 30,000 people he says. And what did he preach?

God gave me great power, and I never opened my mouth so freely against the letter-learned clergymen of the Church of England. Every day do I see the necessity of speaking out more and more. God knows my heart, I do not speak out of resentment. I heartily wish all the Lord’s servants were prophets; I wish the Church of England was the joy of the whole earth; but I cannot see her sinking into papistical ignorance, and refined deism, and not open my mouth against those who, by their sensual, lukewarm lives, and unscriptural superficial doctrines, thus cause her to err. ((George Whitefield’s Journals, 312.))

No doubt it is right to oppose papistical ignorance and refined deism, yet one must not be surprised if “letter-learned clergyman” were not exactly ecstatic about being denounced in public by a twenty-four year old itinerant. Others too may be just a little suspicious that the young man’s motives were less spiritual than he professed. It could appear to many that he was simply looking to make a name for himself.

An Anglican Evangelical Criticism of Whitefield
Whitefield may be fairly criticized, despite his love for the Church of England, for actually undermining it in one respect. As Jim Packer insightfully puts it, he “did in fact unwittingly encourage an individualistic piety of what we would call a parachurch type, a piety that gave its prime loyalty to transdenominational endeavours, that became impatient and restless in face of the relatively fixed forms of institutional church life, and that conceived of evangelism as typically an extra-ecclesiastical activity.” ((Packer, “Reformational Revivalism,” 59. L. B. Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: A Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R, 2003), also criticizes preachers of the Great Awakening (including Whitefield) for weakening people’s belief in the doctrines of infant baptism and covenantal inclusion by their insistence on dramatic (or at least conscious) experiences of new birth. However, that may not, perhaps, be reckoned as a criticism by many readers of this journal.))

He may not have wished to have this effect, but he did. People flocked to hear the celebrity, and began to think that all established local churches must be, as Mr. Whitefield said, dead and lifeless. So they became attached to his more free-floating type of ministry, less rooted in the deep structures of communities and churches. They began to think that effective evangelism could only be done outside the church, in large public meetings.

It has taken evangelicals in the Church of England, and elsewhere, many years to rediscover the local church itself as a vehicle for evangelism. We must continue to value this God-given means for reaching our nation for Christ and not rely entirely on extra-parochial, parachurch missionary activity. A passion to see new spiritual life through evangelism must, rather, be part of the DNA of each local church, whatever is happening elsewhere. They should not leave it to “the professionals” because they feel inadequate, or out of ignorance and fear. ((See Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 106.)) Parachurch agencies (such as the one that I currently serve) must constantly remind people that we are not the church, but are here to serve the church, the true arena of the gospel.

A church which is simultaneously a “shop front” for outsiders, a nursery for new Christians, and a family in which to serve and grow is a magnificent blessing for any community, no matter how large it happens to be. It was designed by God to be so. Our networks and coalitions and partnerships and seminaries and societies exist to serve such churches. It is not meant to be the other way around, so that parachurch ministries and their celebrity leaders are exalted at the expense of the true heroes on the front line.

That being said, Whitefield’s “storm trooper” activity gave huge impetus to the evangelical party within the Church of England. He was also keen to foster relations with those outside the pale of the established church, being a man with a famously “catholic spirit.” ((See the inspiring, “George Whitefield and Christian Unity” in Iain Murray’s, Heroes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 47-83.)) He says in one sermon that, “There is nothing grieves me more than the differences amongst God’s people,” ((Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield: Volume 1, 400.)) and he sought to work with any who loved the Lord in sincerity and truth, even if that meant a loss of face for him.

He was able to work, despite some massive theological differences, even with John Wesley, on occasion, yet only by renouncing all his leadership roles in England and Wales in 1748 and appearing merely as one of Wesley’s “assistants.” Wesley’s ego couldn’t allow him an equal place on the platform, but Whitefield did not complain. This speaks volumes about the true interests of both men, perhaps, but certainly about the humility of Whitefield and his willingness to work with those outside his own theological comfort zones. Unlike Wesley, he was also able to work with nonconformists, whom Wesley often despised and avoided.

This, however, was a function of Whitefield’s other distinctive, his Reformed theology, and of Wesley’s more sectarian Arminianism, not to mention his upbringing. ((According to Iain Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2003), 12-16, Wesley’s father was once arrested and imprisoned for speaking so furiously against dissenters.)) Whitefield castigated Wesley for saying that no Baptist or Presbyterian writer knew anything of the liberties of Christ. ((See George Whitefield’s Journals, 583.)) It is however vital to remember that Whitefield considered the Church of England itself to be “Reformed,” even “Calvinist,” and was in no way unusual for holding to that view. It had been held by archbishops, bishops, clergy, theologians, and laypeople before him, many of whom he quotes with approval in his sermons (such as bishops Hall and Beveridge and archbishop Ussher). He was conscious of standing in a noble line of theological predecessors, part of a venerable and distinguished tradition. ((For more on this see Lee Gatiss, The True Profession of the Gospel: Augustus Toplady and Reclaiming our Reformed Founda­tions (London: Latimer Trust, 2010), 29-51.))

George Whitefield was a mighty man of God, greatly used for the furtherance of the gospel on both sides of the Atlantic. As we celebrate his 300th birthday this year, we rejoice in his evangelical faith, but let us also be aware of and remember his Anglican convictions. From life’s first cry to final breath, he was a confessional Church of England man. It was not always easy—he needed some guts and some resilience to stick it out under pressure. He knew they were not perfect, but he loved the Articles, the Homilies, the Liturgy, and he used them for the gospel, to win people for Christ, and to build the evangelical cause in the church of his day.