By Arnold A. Dallimore George Whitefield was born in England in 1714. He would become the greatest evangelist of the 1700s, a contemporary and friend of both John and Charles Wesley in England, as well as Jonathan Edwards in America. He was the leading figure in the great revivals on the 1700s on both sides of the Atlantic. He lived an amazing life. At the age of 56 one preaching scholar calls him the greatest preacher since the New Testament. And many would say that he was the greatest preacher ever in the English language. One scholar commented that if you listed 20 men in world history who have had the greatest impact for the gospel, Whitefield would be on the list. And yet for several reasons, not the least of which was his profound humility, he is little known today.
When this book was published in 1970, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the renowned preacher and physician in London, said that he had been waiting 40 years for a book on Whitefield that did him justice. He remarked in the forward:
Of all the men of that century, Whitefield was the most lovable. He radiated warmth and joy, and wherever he went he moved others to greater zeal and activity. Above all he was the greatest preacher – indeed one can say that he was the greatest preacher that England has ever produced. He had in abundant measure all the qualities of a great preacher. His appearance was pleasing in spite of his squint, and his whole personality conveyed the impression of a man who ‘knew his God’ and at the same time had a loving concern for the souls of men. As an orator there has scarcely ever been his equal. His voice was not only powerful but beautifully modulated and under perfect control. From all contemporary accounts one gathers that it had a most moving and melting quality that none could resist and which was the envy of the famous actor David Garrick. He gesticulated freely, and, as I once heard it said by an orator of the earlier part of this century, he could ‘pull out all the stops of the entire gamut of the human emotions.’ … He was the pioneer in open-air preaching as in other matters; and though not to be compared with his contemporary and friend John Wesley as an organizer, he easily eclipsed him as an innovator and promoter. His mind was more original and fertile and he was less bound by tradition and logic.
But above all he was a great saint, and Wesley and others bore noble tribute to this during his life and after his death. This was the ultimate secret of his preaching power. He was ‘filled with the Spirit’ and endued with exceptional unction while preaching. He could say with the Apostle Paul ‘I am what I am by the grace of God.’ … God is still the same and is able to do again what He did in the eighteenth century through George Whitefield and others. (ix-x)
Whitefield attended Oxford University, but he could only afford it by working his way through. There he met John and Charles Wesley and joined them in the Oxford Holy Club. Like the Wesleys, Whitefield had a strong dose of religion before he became a believer. At that time he recognized that he could only be saved by God’s grace through Christ’s work on the cross.
Very soon after his conversion, Whitefield started preaching and there was a special anointing on him from the start. He began preaching to overflowing crowds in churches – crowds that packed the church and spilled out to the outside. Then he began preaching to outdoor crowds – he was the innovator of outdoor preaching in 18th century England. He commonly preached to thousands and at times would preach to 20 or 30 or even 40 thousand. All of this while in his young 20s.
Whitefield continued to be a close friend of the Wesleys and he was the much more prominent figure during his lifetime. He may have been the most famous man in England at the time. He was considered the founder of the Methodist movement, though he had no desire to start a denomination. For both John and Charles Wesley, he started large outdoor congregations and then turned them over to first John, in Bristol, and later Charles, in London.
Apparently, Whitefield was an incredible speaker with a powerful voice, combined with pure diction. He would later spend much time in America preaching, where he became a friend of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin even published his sermons, though he was never converted by Whitefield. Franklin calculated that with Whitefield’s voice he could easily speak to tens of thousands of people at once and be heard.
Whitefield was indefatigable. He might preach to these large outdoor crowds two or three times a day, day after day after day. He wore himself out! And this probably contributed to his early death. I don’t think he knew the meaning of a Sabbath rest.
Whitefield started an orphanage in Georgia, a ministry which would cause him considerable headaches. He tried to start a school for blacks in Pennsylvania, though it never got off the ground. He was bold, indeed fearless. For example, he wrote against the mistreatment of slaves in America when that was not a popular thing to do. He was the first prominent figure to speak out for the black slaves in America.
Whitefield was endlessly criticized by his own Church of England. Whitefield, along with the Wesleys, was considered an enthusiast, and a rebel, for preaching outdoors and not doing traditional Church of England ministry. Undoubtedly there was a lot of jealousy. But Whitefield was unshaken and undeterred by the relentless criticism.
Much more difficult for him was a growing split with the Wesleys over theology. Whitefield became more and more of a Calvinist – though not by reading Calvin but by reading the New Testament. He became convinced of the truths of God’s sovereign grace and election. The Wesleys opposed these views and there was a growing rift. The Wesleys also began to espouse Christian perfectionism, that you could attain a sinless state, a view that Whitefield in no way espoused.
Whitefield had a deep, deep heart for the Lord and incredible humility. It was a good thing that he was a man of humility, because when he was in his young 20s thousands and thousands of people would flock to hear him. This kind of success, especially at such a young age, is difficult to handle well.
Whitefield resisted calls to begin a denomination. He was an early proponent of “one church” – he would work with any Bible-believing pastors, which was most unusual in 18th century England.
(This biography, volume 1, ends when Whitefield is barely 26 years old.)