EDITOR’S NOTE: Three hundred years ago, the father of modern evangelicalism was born in Gloucester, England. George Whitefield (1714-1770) is widely regarded as a powerful preacher and the greatest evangelist in modern times. His ministry consisted of innovative methods to reach the masses and tireless travels to spread the gospel.
In 1835, two prominent English Baptists traveled to Newburyport, Massachusetts, to view the tomb of George Whitefield. The “grand itinerant” had died on Sept. 30, 1770, at the home of Jonathan Parsons, pastor of the town’s First Presbyterian Church. Whitefield had been interred two days later in a vault below what is now the center aisle of this church, where his remains were on display all through the 19th century. As Francis Alexander Cox and James Hoby descended into the vault, they recalled that “deep expectant emotions thrilled our bosoms.” They “contemplated and handled the skull,” while they “thought of his devoted life, his blessed death, his high and happy destiny.”
Of all the great preachers raised up in the transatlantic Great Awakening, none gripped the public mind and imagination more than Whitefield. Benjamin Colman and William Cooper viewed Whitefield as “the wonder of the age” and were convinced that “no man more employs the pens, and fills up the conversation of people, than he does at this day.” Shortly after the evangelist’s death, Augustus Montague Toplady, author of the famous hymn “Rock of Ages, cleft for me,” remembered him as “the apostle of the English empire.”
‘A ray of divine life’: The pathway to conversion
Born Dec. 16, 1714, George Whitefield was the youngest son of Thomas Whitefield, the proprietor of the Bell Inn, at the time the finest hotel in Gloucester, England. George’s father died when he was two and so he was raised by his mother Elizabeth. His school record was unremarkable, save for a noticeable talent for acting. As he later said, “During the time of my being at school, I was very fond of reading plays, and have kept from school for days together to prepare myself for acting them.”
But his mother longed for something better for her son. Her persistence and the kindness of friends enabled him to enter Pembroke College, Oxford University, in November 1732. It was here in the following summer that he first met John Wesley and his younger brother Charles, who were regularly meeting with a group of men known to history as the “Holy Club.” This was a company of men who were trying to live religious lives in an extremely dissolute age.
Whitefield, like-minded and longing for spiritual companionship since starting at Oxford, joined them. He engaged in numerous religious exercises such as fasting, praying regularly, attending public worship, and seeking to abstain from worldly pleasures. Despite the evident zeal he brought to these religious activities he had no sense of peace with God. He was, though he did not know it at the time, treading a pathway similar to the one that Martin Luther had taken over 200 years earlier. And just as Luther’s conversion was the spark that lit the fires of the Reformation, so Whitefield’s conversion would be central to kindling the blaze of the 18th-century Great Awakening.
Conversion came in the spring of 1735 after Charles Wesley had given him a copy of The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal. This book was a challenge to Whitefield’s endeavor to create a righteous life that would merit God’s favor. As Whitefield recalled in a 1769 sermon: “O, says the author, they that know anything of religion know it is a vital union with the Son of God, Christ formed in the heart; O what a ray of divine life did then break in upon my poor soul.”
Awakened by this book to his need for the new birth, Whitefield passionately struggled to find salvation along the pathway of extreme asceticism but to no avail. Finally, when he had come to an end of his resources as a human being, God enabled him, in his words, “to lay hold on His dear Son by a living faith, and, by giving me the Spirit of adoption, to seal me, as I humbly hope, even to the day of everlasting redemption.”
‘The open bracing air’: The life of a preacher
Always the avid reader, it was Whitefield’s prayerful perusal of the Puritan biblical commentaries of William Burkitt and Matthew Henry a few months after his conversion that led to his becoming convinced of “free grace and the necessity of being justified in [God’s] sight by faith only.”
Following his ordination as deacon in the Church of England the next year, these Reformation doctrines came to occupy a central place in his preaching arsenal. Dated August 1739, a contemporary observer states that Whitefield preaches “continually about inner regeneration, the new birth in Jesus Christ, the movement of the Spirit, justification by faith through grace, the life of the Spirit.”
Whitefield’s preaching on the new birth, though, was not at all well received by the Anglican clergy in England, and churches were barred to him. Whitefield, however, was not to be deterred. On Saturday, Feb. 17, 1739, he made the decision to take to the open air and preach to a group of coal miners in the district of Kingswood. These men with their families lived in squalor and utter degradation, squandering their lives in drink, violence, and sex. With no church nearby, they were quite ignorant of Christianity and its leading tenets. It was a key turning point in not only his life but also in the history of evangelicalism. The concern that has gripped evangelicals in the last 200 years to bring the gospel message directly to ordinary people has some of its most significant roots in Whitefield’s venture to preach in the open air.
From this point on Whitefield would relish and delight in his calling as an open-air preacher. He would preach in fields and foundries, in ships, cemeteries, and pubs, atop horses and even coffins, from stone walls and balconies, staircases and windmills. For instance, referring to this calling in a letter dated Dec. 14, 1768, he wrote, “I love the open bracing air.” And the following year he stated: “It is good to go into the high-ways and hedges. Field-preaching, field-preaching for ever!”
It should also be noted that Whitefield never confined his witnessing about Christ to preaching occasions. He took every opportunity to share his faith. “God forbid,” he once remarked, “I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.”
At that first open-air service in February 1739 there were 200 people. Within six weeks, Whitefield was preaching numerous times a week to crowds sometimes numbering in the thousands. Whitefield’s description of his ministry at this time is a classic one. To visualize the scene in Kingswood, we need to picture the green countryside, the piles of coal, the squalid huts, and the deep semi-circle of unwashed faces as we read his words:
Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend of publicans, and came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits. Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions, which, as the event proved, happily ended in a sound and thorough conversion. The change was visible to all, though numbers chose to impute it to anything, rather than the finger of God.
Over the 34 years between his conversion and death in 1770 in Newburyport, it is calculated that he preached around 18,000 sermons. Actually, if one includes all of the talks that he gave, he probably spoke about a thousand times a year during his ministry. Moreover, many of his sermons were delivered to massive congregations that numbered 10,000, some to audiences possibly as large as 15,000.
In addition to his preaching throughout England, he regularly itinerated throughout Wales, visited Ireland twice, and journeyed 14 times to Scotland. He crossed the Atlantic 13 times, stopping once in Bermuda for 11 weeks, and preached in virtually every major town on the Atlantic seaboard. What is so remarkable about all of this is Whitefield lived at a time when travel to a town 20 miles away was a significant undertaking.
In journeying to Scotland and to America he was going to what many perceived as the fringes of transatlantic British society and culture. And yet some of God’s richest blessings on his ministry was in these very regions. “So pervasive was Whitefield’s impact in America that he can justly be styled America’s first cultural hero,” wrote Harry Stout in Christian History. “By 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.”
‘An insatiable thirst for traveling’: Taking the Word over land and sea
In the early years of the revival, Whitefield’s itinerant, open-air preaching was often paraded as evidence of his “enthusiasm,” or fanaticism. Part of Whitefield’s response was to go back to the example of the Apostle Paul as found in the Book of Acts. “Was he not filled,” he asked his opponents, “with a holy restless impatience and insatiable thirst of traveling, and undertaking dangerous voyages for the conversion of infidels?” Here Whitefield reveals the spiritual passion that spurred his own incessant traveling over land and sea: the longing to see sinners embrace Christ as Lord and Savior and find their deepest spiritual thirst and hunger satisfied in Christ alone.
Criticism of the wide-ranging nature of his ministry also came from such ardent evangelicals as Ebenezer Erskine and his younger brother Ralph, founders of the secessionist Associate Presbytery in Scotland. The Erskines had invited Whitefield to preach solely in their churches. But Whitefield refused to be pinned down and insisted on preaching wherever he was given a pulpit in Scotland. He told the Erskines that he was “more and more determined to go out into the highways and hedges; and that if the Pope himself would lend me his pulpit, I would gladly proclaim the righteousness of Jesus Christ therein.”
His reply reveals his passion for the salvation of the lost wherever they might be. As he told the Scottish Lord Rae a few days after this discussion with the Erskines, the “full desire” of his soul was to “see the kingdom of God come with power.” He was, he went on, “determined to seek after and know nothing else. For besides this, all other things are but dung and dross.”
While the surrounding scenery is different, this passion burned as bright as ever during his third preaching tour of America. “Oh that I was a flame of pure and holy fire, and had [a] thousand lives to spend in the dear Redeemer’s service,” he told Joshua Gee, for the “sight of so many perishing souls every day affects me much, and makes me long to go if possible from pole to pole, to proclaim redeeming love.”
“Had I a thousand souls and bodies,” he noted on another occasion, “they should be all itinerants for Jesus Christ.”
Nothing gave Whitefield greater joy than to report to his friends that God was blessing his preaching. Writing from Pennsylvania in May 1746, Whitefield informed a correspondent in Gloucestershire, England, that Christ “gives me full employ on this side the water, and causes his word to run and be glorified. … Everywhere the fields are white ready unto harvest. I am just now going to tell lost sinners that there is yet room for them in the side of Jesus.”
Michael A.G. Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from a March 25, 2014, keynote address delivered at Tyndale Seminary’s sixth annual Wesley Studies Symposium.