The facts about George Whitefield’s preaching as an eighteenth-century itinerant evangelist are almost unbelievable. Can they really be true? Judging by multiple attestations of his contemporaries — and by the agreement of sympathetic and unsympathetic biographers — they seem to be so.
From his first outdoor sermon on February 17, 1739, at the age of 24, to the coal miners of Kingswood near Bristol, England, until his death thirty years later on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts (where he is buried), his life was one of almost daily preaching. Sober estimates are that he spoke about one thousand times every year for thirty years. That included at least eighteen thousand sermons and twelve thousand talks and exhortations. The daily pace he kept for thirty years meant that, on many weeks, he was speaking more than he was sleeping.
Keep in mind that most of these messages were spoken to gatherings of thousands of people. For example, in the spring of 1740, he preached on Society Hill in Philadelphia twice in the morning to about six thousand and in the evening to nearly eight thousand. The next day, he spoke to “upwards of ten thousand,” and it was reported at one of these events that his expression of the text, “He opened his mouth and taught them, saying,” was distinctly heard at Gloucester point, a distance of two miles by water down the Delaware River (George Whitefield, 1:480). And there were times when the crowds reached twenty thousand or more.
Add to this the fact that he was continually traveling, in a day when it was done by horse or carriage or ship. He covered the length and breadth of England repeatedly. He regularly traveled and spoke throughout Wales. He visited Ireland twice, where he was almost killed by a mob from which he carried a scar on his forehead for the rest of his life. He traveled fourteen times to Scotland and came to America seven times, stopping once in Bermuda for eleven weeks — all for preaching, not resting.
Whitefield was a phenomenon not just of his age but in the entire two-thousand-year history of Christian preaching. There has been nothing like the combination of his preaching pace and geographic extent and auditory scope and attention-holding effect and converting power. J.C. Ryle is right: “No preacher has ever retained his hold on his hearers so entirely as he did for thirty-four years. His popularity never waned” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 32).
Eloquence and Anointing
Where did such power and popularity come from? At one level, Whitefield’s power was the natural power of eloquence, and at another it was the spiritual power of God to convert sinners and transform communities.
On the one hand, there is no reason to doubt that Whitefield was the instrument of God in the salvation of thousands. I do not doubt that his contemporary Henry Venn was right when he said, “[Whitefield] no sooner opened his mouth as a preacher, than God commanded an extraordinary blessing upon his word” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 29). Thus, at one level, the explanation of Whitefield’s phenomenal impact was God’s exceptional anointing on his life.
But at another level, Whitefield held people in thrall who did not believe a single doctrinal word that he said. In other words, we must come to terms with the natural oratorical gifts that he had. How are we to think about these in relation to his effectiveness? Benjamin Franklin, who loved and admired Whitefield — and totally rejected his theology — said,
Every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music. (The Divine Dramatist, 204)
Whitefield: “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified.”
One of Whitefield’s contemporaries, Alexander Garden of South Carolina, was not optimistic about the purity of Whitefield’s motives or the likelihood that his effects were decisively supernatural. He believed that Whitefield “would equally have produced the same Effects, whether he had acted his Part in the Pulpit or on the Stage. . . . It was not the Matter but the Manner, not the Doctrines he delivered, but the Agreeableness of the Delivery,” that explained the unprecedented crowds that flocked to hear him preach (“The Grand Sower of the Seed,” 384).
In one sense, I do not doubt that Whitefield was “acting” as he preached. That is, that he was taking the part of the characters in the drama of his sermons and pouring all his energy — his poetic effort — into making their parts real.
Making Reality Seem Real
But the question is, Why was Whitefield “acting”? Why was he so full of action and drama? Was he, as biographer Harry Stout claims, merely “plying a religious trade” for the sake of fame and power (The Divine Dramatist, xvii)?
I think the most penetrating answer comes from something Whitefield himself said about acting in a sermon in London. In fact, I think it’s a key to understanding the power of his preaching — and all preaching. James Lockington was present at this sermon and recorded this verbatim. Whitefield is speaking.
“I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘Pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ ‘Why my Lord,’ says Butterton, ‘the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’”
“Therefore,” added Whitefield, ‘I will bawl [shout loudly], I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.” (The Divine Dramatist, 239–40)
This means that there are three ways to speak. First, you can speak of an unreal, imaginary world as if it were real — that is what actors do in a play. Second, you can speak about a real world as if it were unreal — that is what half-hearted pastors do when they preach about glorious things in a way that implies they are not as terrifying or as wonderful as they are. And third, you can speak about a real spiritual world as if it were wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real — because it is.
Outacting the Actors
So if you asked Whitefield, “Why do you preach the way you do?” he would probably have said, “I believe what I read in the Bible is real.” So let me venture this claim: George Whitefield was not a repressed actor, driven by egotistical love of attention. Rather, he was consciously committed to outacting the actors because he had seen what is ultimately real.
His oratorical exertion was not in place of God’s revelation and power but in the service of them. He acted with all his might not because it took greater gimmicks and charades to convince people of the unreal, but because he had seen something more real than actors on the London stage had ever known.
I don’t deny that God uses natural vessels to display his supernatural reality. And no one denies that George Whitefield was a stupendous natural vessel. He was driven, affable, eloquent, intelligent, empathetic, single-minded, steel willed, venturesome, and had a voice like a trumpet that could be heard by thousands outdoors. All of these, I venture to say, would have been part of Whitefield’s natural gifting even if he had never been born again.
But something happened to Whitefield in the spring of 1735, when he was 20 years old, that made all these natural gifts subordinate to another reality — the glory of Christ in the salvation of sinners.
Whitefield Born Again
On a break from school, Whitefield’s friend Charles Wesley gave him a copy of Henry Scougal’s book The Life of God in the Soul of Man. When he read Scougal’s words about true religion being “a vital union with the son of God, Christ formed in the heart,” a new world opened to him. “Oh what a way of divine life did break in upon my poor soul,” Whitefield later testified. “Oh! With what joy — Joy unspeakable — even joy that was full of, and big with glory, was my soul filled” (Revived Puritan, 26).
Whitefield: “I am the chief of sinners, and therefore fittest to preach free grace to a world lying in the wicked one.”
The power, depth, and supernatural reality of that change in Whitefield is something Alexander Garden — and others who reduce the man to his natural abilities — did not sufficiently reckon with. In the new birth, Whitefield was given the supernatural ability to see what was real. His mind was opened to new reality. This means that Whitefield’s acting — his passionate, energetic, whole-souled preaching — was the fruit of having eyes to see “life and light and power from above” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 15). He saw the glorious facts of the gospel as real. Wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real. This is why he cries out, “I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.”
None of his natural abilities vanished. They were all taken “captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified” (George Whitefield, 2:257).
New birth, however, did not make Whitefield perfect. In fact, one of the effects of reading history, and biography in particular, is the persistent discovery of contradictions and paradoxes of sin and righteousness in holy people. Whitefield is no exception, and he will be more rightly honored if we are honest about his blindness as well as his doctrinal faithfulness and goodness. By far the most glaring blindness of his life — and there were others — was his support for the American enslavement of blacks.
Even if one argues that the biblical way to move beyond the institutionalization of slavery (which in the New Testament is tolerated, but implicitly contested, Luke 4:18; Acts 17:26; 1 Corinthians 7:21; 2 Corinthians 3:17; 1 Timothy 1:10; Philemon 1:16; Ephesians 6:9; Galatians 3:28; 5:1; Colossians 3:11; Revelation 5:9) is to adjust to the eighteenth-century institution, but ameliorate it with kindness (as Whitefield did), one must still reckon with the fact that Whitefield did not, so far as we know, come to terms with the institution itself as biblically challenged. Nor did he seem to see that the racially dehumanizing effects of Southern slavery called the “peculiar institution” into question. This is what I mean by “blindness.”
Before it was legal to own slaves in Georgia, Whitefield advocated for legalization with a view to making the orphanage he built more affordable. In 1752, Georgia became a royal colony, slavery was legalized, and Whitefield joined the ranks of the slaveowners. That, in itself, was tragic but not unusual. Most of the slaveholders were professing Christians. But in Whitefield’s case, things were more complex. He didn’t fit the mold of wealthy, Southern plantation owner.
Whitefield said he was willing to face the “whip” of Southern planters if they disapproved of his preaching the new birth to the slaves (The Divine Dramatist, 100). From Georgia to North Carolina to Philadelphia, Whitefield sowed the seeds of equality through heartfelt evangelism and education — whether or not he felt any contradiction in his views.
“Whitefield was consciously committed to outacting the actors because he had seen what is ultimately real.”
Whitefield’s preaching to slaves infuriated many slaveowners. Almost all of them resisted evangelizing and educating the slaves. They knew intuitively that education would tend toward equality, which would undermine the whole system. And evangelism would imply that slaves could become children of God, which would mean that they were brothers and sisters to the owners, which would also undermine the whole system. One wonders if there was a rumbling in Whitefield’s own soul because he really did perceive where such radical evangelism would lead.
He went public with his censures of slaveowners and published words like these: “God has a quarrel with you” for treating slaves “as though they were Brutes.” If these slaves were to rise up in rebellion, “all good Men must acknowledge the judgment would be just” (The Divine Dramatist, 101–2). This was incendiary. But apparently, Whitefield did not perceive fully the implications of what he was saying.
What seems clear is that the slave population, in great numbers, loved Whitefield. When he died, it was the blacks who expressed the greatest grief in America. More than any other eighteenth-century figure, Whitefield established Christian faith in the slave community. Whatever else he failed in, for this service they were deeply thankful.
Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784), the former slave and first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry in America, eulogized Whitefield in a popular poem of the time. It contained these lines:
Ye Preachers, take him [Christ] for your joyful theme:
Take HIM, “my dear AMERICANS,” he said,
Be your complaints in his kind bosom laid:
Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his title due;
If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.
However seriously Whitefield erred, God took the good he did, and the Christ he preached, and made Christ to the “Africans” an “Impartial SAVIOUR” and means to being sons and kings to God.
Fit to Preach Free Grace
So, the greatest preacher of the eighteenth century, perhaps in the history of the Christian church, was a paradoxical figure. There was, as he himself so freely confessed, sin remaining in him. And that is what we have found in every human soul on this earth — except one. Which is why our lives are meant to point to him — that sinless one. Christ’s perfect obedience, not ours, is the foundation of our acceptance with God. If then, our sin, as well as our righteousness, can point people away from ourselves to Christ, we will rejoice even as we repent.
“Whitefield’s daily pace he kept meant that, on many weeks, he was speaking more than he was sleeping.”
“I know no other reason,” Whitefield said, “why Jesus has put me into the ministry, than because I am the chief of sinners, and therefore fittest to preach free grace to a world lying in the wicked one” (Revived Puritan, 157–58). Yes. But as we have seen, God would make not only his unworthiness redound to the grace of God, but also his passionate oratory, his natural dramatic giftedness, and his poetic effort. This too, imperfect as it was, no doubt contaminated as it was with flawed motives, God made the instrument of his supernatural work of salvation.
No eloquence can save a soul. But the worth of salvation and the worth of souls impels preachers to speak and write with all their might in ways that say, “There is more, there is so much more beauty — so much more glory — for you to see than I can say.”
Credit: John Piper