George Whitfield

Brief Biography

I. The Boy of the Bell Although a number of George Whitefield's relatives had gone to Oxford and become members of the clergy; his grandfather was a businessman, and his father was proprietor of the Bell Inn in Gloucester. It was the largest and finest establishment in town, and its main hall had two auditoriums, one of which was used to stage plays. But when he was only two tragedy struck this young prosperous family, George's father died. For the next few years his mother ran the business alone, with the help of her eldest son. For the first sixteen years of his life, George must have seen both the frivolous and the terrible side of life at the Bell Inn. While the other children worked, George's mother saw his ability and made sure he attended school from the age of 12 in the local parish. He was a gifted speaker, had a great memory, and often acted in the school plays. By 16 he was proficient in Latin and could read new Testament Greek. When George was 8 years of age his mother remarried. The marriage was tragic, and the inn was almost lost due to financial difficulties. At age 15 George had to drop his studies and worked for a year and a half to help support the family. It seemed tragic, but it was a good experience for George to experience real life. He learned to associate with people from all ranks of society, as poured liquor for them and cleaned up after them. George worked by day and at night he read the Bible and dreamed of going to Oxford.
In time this husband left, and his older brother took back control of the inn. But there was no longer any money to send George to college with. For a time he and his mother were heartbroken. But over time they learned that he could go to Oxford as a "servitor," and at age 17 he left for the University with great eagerness.
II. Oxford. In America, the Puritan era had passed and religious fervour died down, some would say it had fallen asleep. But from just this time to the Revolutionary War itself came the Great Awakening. It began with Jonathan Edwards. He was a preacher in the Puritan mould from Massachusetts. He was the most learned and respected theologian America had yet produced. He was brilliant in mind, but his sermons were reserved and dry. In 1734 he began to preach against the popular notion that man by his own effort could accomplish the purposes of God. Edwards taught that all we accomplish is by God's grace. And with this simple Biblical message, a revival began that surprised even Edwards. Within a year a great revival was spreading through out the towns of Massachusetts. In 1732, two years before, the Massachusetts revival began, George Whitefield entered Oxford University. Whitefield was extremely devout, and he busily visited prisoners and poorhouses, with a mind to earn God's approval. As a "servitor" he lived as a butler to 3 or 4 highly placed students. He would wash their clothes, shine their shoes, and do their homework. A servitor lived on whatever scraps of clothing or money they gave him. He had to wear a special gown and it was forbidden for students of a high rank to speak to him. Most servitors left rather than endure the humiliation. Initially, other students tried to get George to join their party life, but he resisted, and they soon left him alone.
Whitefield plunged ahead in his studies, but he longed for some spiritual fellowship. His mates at Pembroke College had begun to call Whitefield a "Methodist," which was the derogatory word they used to describe members of the Holy Club. The Holy Club was a small meeting at of Oxford students led by a University Fellow named John Wesley. To other students their disciplined way of life looked foolish, and the word "Methodist" implied that they lived by a mindless method, like windup robots. George actually had never met them, and being a servitor he couldn't introduce himself to them. But Charles Wesley heard of this devout and industrious student, and breaking traditional boundaries approached George and invited him to breakfast. The friendships made among the core members of the Holy Club and the casual associates were the most important friendships for all of them throughout their life. The Holy Club members rose early, had lengthy devotions, strove for self-discipline, insuring there was no moment left throughout the day that was wasted. At night they kept a journal to review their life and to root out sin. They celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday, fasted Wednesday and Friday, and used Saturday as a Sabbath to prepare for the Lord's feast. The Holy Club was strongly devoted to the Church of England and knew its history and rules better anyone. They also visited the prisons and poor houses, and contributed to a relief fund for the needs of inmates and especially their children. The Holy Club also took great pains to shepherd younger students, teaching them to avoid bad characters and encouraging them to live a sober and studious life, even helping them when they got stuck in their studies.
The Holy Club was great, but they had a problem, theirs was a works-based righteousness. All their work brought them little joy because the nature of their salvation was still a distant mystery. In short they had not experienced or learned of the true grace of God present in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whitefield became aware of his inner yearning to know God more and more, but did not know where to turn. He read voraciously, and chanced upon a book written long ago by an obscure Scot, the Rev. Henry Scougal, entitled "The Life of God in the Soul of Man." From this book he learned that all his good things, which he thought earned him God's favour, were of no account at all. What he needed was to have Christ formed "within" him that is to be born again. Scougal taught that Christianity is not about external duties to perform, nor is it an emotion or feeling one has. Scougal defined true religion as the union of the soul with God a participation in the divine nature, living according to image of God drawn upon our soul, or in the apostle's phrase, it is to have "Christ formed within us." This book, however, drove Whitefield crazy because he did not know how to be born again. So he tried to do so with all his efforts. He stopped eating certain foods and gave the money saved to the poor, he wore only a patched gown and dirty shoes, he would spend all night in fervent sweaty prayer. To deny himself he quit the only thing he enjoyed, the Holy Club. His studies faltered and he was threatened with expulsion. He became subject to strange and terrible emotions and students threw dirt at him, concluding he was mad. At Lent in 1735 Whitefield decided to eat only a little bread and sage tea. He prayed outdoors even on the iciest mornings until part of one of hands turned black. Then he was so sick, emaciated, and weak, he could not even climb the stairs to leave his room. Finally a physician was sent for and he was confined to bed for 7 weeks.
Amazingly, it was during this time of rest and recuperation where he was finally changed. He kept simple devotions as his strength allowed. He began to pray simply, and dropped all of his own ideas and efforts and began to really listen to God. At one point he simply threw himself on the bed and cried out, "I thirst!" It was perhaps the first time he had called out to God in utter helplessness. And it was the first time in over a year that he felt happy. At this moment of total surrender to Almighty God a new thought now came to his heart, "George, you have what you asked! You ceased to struggle and simply believed and you are born again!" It was so simple, almost absurdly simple, to be saved by such a simple prayer that it made Whitefield laugh. And as soon as he laughed the floodgates of heaven burst and he felt "Joy unspeakablejoy that's full of, big with glory!" He returned home for 9 months to recuperate, but in his heart was one desire: to share the Good News that Jesus Christ had come for sinners, and that all a sinner needed to do was to repent,accept Jesus' atoning death, and spiritually throw himself into God's hands. At home in Gloucester Whitefield kept to the scheduled life of the Holy Club but it now had a new meaning. The Bishop of Gloucester took notice of this ordain him as soon as the orders came. But Whitefield was afraid of being ordained too young and growing proud. So he made a Jacob's vow that he would be ordained if, by some miracle, money was supplied for him to return to Oxford and graduate. Soon come in drop by drop. An old vicar asked him to preach, and enjoyed the sermon so much he gave him a pound. Another of his brothers had become a sea-captain and returned to port, and gave him some money. Another gave him a horse,another some clothes.
Then news came from Oxford that the Wesley's had gone to Georgia as missionaries, and someone was needed to lead the Holy Club. So Whitefield returned, graduated, and was ordained. He tried to live quietly at Oxford for a while. From the time he gave a sermon, everyone wanted to hear more. The four weeks he had spent giving inaugural messages in Gloucester, Bristol, and Bath had caused a small revival already, and near the end of that short time, the churches were packed full, and the streets were mobbed with people trying to get in. He was only 22.
III. A Lion Begins To Roar. At Oxford, Whitefield studied for a Master's degree and presided over the Holy Club. At this time Whitefield was struggling with another question, whether or not to follow the Wesley's example and be a missionary to Georgia. He had received a good offer to preach in London. Wesley wrote of adults from the farthest parts of Europe and Asia and the inmost kingdoms of Africa; not to mention the countless native nations present, who were a vast multitude without a shepherd, begging for spiritual help. Whitefield was resolved to go, but had to wait a year until the next ship was ready to set sail for Georgia. It was during this year that Whitefield startled the nation awake. He returned to Gloucester and preached twice each Sunday, and thousands began to flock to hear him. At Bristol he preached each day of the week, and for the 4 weeks he was there the people nearly rioted to see him. His sermons were fresh and full of spiritual joy. He was declaring not his message but God's, "Ye must be born again."
On days he did not preach he was still busy for 7 a.m. to midnight with those who sought his prayer or guidance. And as soon a his preaching became nationally recognized, some in the Church began to persecute him as an "enthusiast." Just prior to his departure for Georgia, Charles Wesley returned and declared, "the whole nation is in an uproar." Another said, "All London and the whole nation ring of the great things of God done by his ministry." But at this very time, when thousands flocked after him, George Whitefield set sail for America.
IV. A Missionary Life. Whitefield made seven trips to America, lasting from half a year to four years. Much of Whitefield reputation rests on the sensation he created in the colonies during his second journey, where he along with Edwards and Gilbert Tennant, served the Great Awakening at its peak. The Wesleys fared poorly in Georgia. Perhaps they were too refined to endure pioneering life. But Whitefield, who knew real life very well from his childhood at the inn, thrived. The large audiences in England allowed him to bring many provisions, medicines, and foods with him. His work to distribute them to the poor, and especially to help the orphaned children made a lasting impression on the colony. Georgia was only five years old, and many of the settlers were debtors released for prisons. Many thought the colony would fail. Mission life was a great blessing, but he soon he returned to England. In England the revival he had ignited in the Bristol and Gloucester area continued, and at this time even those in the nobility invited Whitfield to hear his messages. As the revival grew beyond imagination, more and more churches began to be closed to him. Whitefield then began to entertain a new idea, that of preaching in the open fields. He knew it would provoke a strong reaction against him, but he wanted to be free of depending on a church or society room being available.
In Feb 1789, Whitefield deliberately set out for Kingswood, near Bristol. At Kingswood there was no parish or school. The district was home to thousands of coal miners, who existed in deplorable conditions. Men, women, and children worked long hours in the dark earth amidst death and disease. Field preaching was allowable by the church when no building was available, and another clergyman before him had indeed taught the miners in the open air. Whitefield was resolved to try. In February it was freezing cold, but when he went through he settlements and huts, he found 200 people willing to come and hear him. Whitefield spoke graphically about how much Jesus loved them and how in cruel crucifixion he died for them, just to save them from their sins. And as he preached Jesus love and salvation to them, he began to notice pale streaks on the blackened faces of a few miners. Soon all of their dark faces were streaked with white gutters formed by tears as the gospel of Jesus convicted all of them one by one. Three days later Whitfield was summoned before the chancellor of the dioceses who forbade him to preach in Bristol again. The next day he preached at the coal mine and this time 2000 were listening. The next Sunday their were 10,000, and by this time the townspeople began to far outnumber the coal miners. And on Sunday March 25, 1739, the crowd was estimated at 23,000. At Bristol, Whitefield began a young people's meeting. It started with 50 people in his sister's house. But within 6 weeks time, this meeting filled a nearby bowling green with 5,000 people. All told there were about 30,000 people who came to hear him in open spaces around Bristol each week. Whitefield was perplexed about how to shepherd them while he prepared to leave for his second missionary journey to America.but was able to prevail on John Wesley to enter into the open air. Later he did the same with Charles Wesley. In this way shepherds for the thousands raised up where provided, and the Wesleys were set at the head of England's greatest revival.
Whitefield preached all over England that summer. It is estimated that he preached to over two million people that summer. His bold fieldpreaching had shaken for good the weak and timid Christianity of the times. In August 1739 he finally set sail for America. On his arrival in Philadelphia the paper proclaimed the George Whitefield had preached to more people than any other man alive, probably more than any other man in history. Yet he left his position in England, and came to the colonies, because he had a burden for them and a prayer, that they may not live as thirteen scattered colonies, but as one nation under God. As Whitefield arrived in America, a number of regional revivals were under way. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania William Tennant and his four sons preached the new birth to Presbyterians. Tennant was fed up with the resistance of Yale and Harvard Administrators to the new evangelical fervour, and he founded his own school to train preachers. Derisively his school was called, "log college," but it would lead to the formation of Princeton University. When revival in Jonathan Edwards congregation died down he invited George Whitefield to speak, and he himself was moved to tears. Edward's wife Sarah wrote, "It is wonderful to see how he casts a spell over the audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible..."
Few realized at first what God was doing through GW, but his endless travel was spiritually uniting the nation spiritually as community after community were moved by his sermons. Whitefield preached to Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Quakers, and Moravians. He was the first man to so clearly cut across all denomination barriers by preaching the simple truth of the gospel. America had been populated by numerous sects, each trying to live a purer life to the Lord, than did their parent church. GW seemed to be reversing this trend, and huge crowds gathered to hear him from Providence to Baltimore. Many people were gathering together and discovering their common joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Soon the regional mentality of Europe and the sectarian spirit that brought them to America was uniting them in a common experience of faith. George Whitefield died in 1770, just a few months after British troops had opened fire on a mob in Boston, killing five, in what would be known as the Boston Massacre. But even as his health was failing, the crowds who came to hear him were larger than ever. His last message was preached on Exter Green in New Hampshire. Whitefield preached about the incomparable excellencies of Christ, all the while he seemed to look straight into heaven. Finally he cried out, "I go! I go to rest prepared. My sun has arisen and by the aid of heaven has given light to many. It is now about to set... No! It is about to rise to the zenith of immortal glory.... O thought divine! I shall soon be in a world where time, age, pain, and sorrow are unknown. My body fails, my spirit expands. How willingly I would ever live to preach Christ! But I die to be with Him!" Early the next morning, his words came true.

Useful Links Sermons More biographical information More on Whitfield, and the Wesleys. Banner of Truth Sermon by John Wesley on funeral of Whitfield. More sermons and articles.

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