The 18th century was the time of “the great revival” or “the great awakening.” Revival fires ignited throughout Great Britain and North America. The consideration of those days stirs our souls as we trace the hand of the Almighty in raising up men and women to engage in the holy occupation of prayer resulting in the Spirit’s awakening of thousands of souls. Great Britain was in a state of insensitivity as to realities; righteousness was dethroned and lawlessness was enthroned. Immoral behavior and pleasure with dead religion had plunged England into a chaotic condition! From such a bleak background God raised a band of men and women with holy zeal to propagate the glorious tidings of grace. We cannot think of the revival of the 18th century without certain names flooding the mind, the names of Whitefield, the Wesley brothers, Edwards, Tennent, and a host of others.
The name of George Whitefield is interwoven into the fabric of the 18th century revival. He was born in 1714 in the Bell Inn, in Gloucester, England. Young Whitefield was sinful, reckless, and careless until the age of nineteen when God’s marvelous and mighty grace reached him. In his late teens he was introduced to the Holy Club at Oxford where he met the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. They were a devoted little band marked by sincerity and religious devotions, but confused as to the “new birth.” George Whitefield, in the rich mercy of God, experienced the new birth after much travail of soul. Whitefield’s motto from then on: “God give me a deep humility, a well-guided zeal, a burning love and a single eye, and then let men or devils do their worst.” Before he died he declared: “I know the place: and whenever I go to Oxford I cannot help running to that place where Jesus Christ first revealed Himself to me and gave me the new birth.”
Whitefield became the leader of this revival, the first to introduce open-air preaching. As fire begets fire, others followed his example. He said, “The earth is my pulpit and heaven my sounding board.” No wonder God used this devoted, self-effacing man in the salvation of thousands!
The revival spread to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and America. Waves of Divine power swept across the land as thousands, some with horse and carriage, some on horseback and others on foot, gathered to hear heaven’s message preached with warmth and passion. Whitefield preached seven times a week, and sometimes thirteen times! He preached to the slaves, the poor, and the rich as he called on sinners to repentance and faith in the Redeemer. Whitefield had the God-given art of illustration and simplicity when preaching. Often, tears flowed like rivers down his cheeks when he spoke of judgment and appealed to sinners to come to Christ. We are always touched by Whitefield’s preaching to the colliers at Kingswood. White gutters on their faces were made by the tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks as they came out of the coal pits. Under deep conviction many were brought to thorough conversions. In Boston, MA., during his preaching, upwards of twenty ministers of religion were awakened and born again.
It is amazing how these men put so much into their lifetime! They traveled by foot and horseback, and to other lands in sailing ships! They suffered! They were persecuted! They were misunderstood! They were physically beaten! They were misquoted! They were scandalized! “Self-righteous men count themselves unworthy. I go out into the highways and hedges, and compel harlots, publicans, and sinners to come in, that my Master’s house may be filled”(George Whitfield). What made Whitefield and his fellow-laborers so blessed? They were motivated by love to Christ and marked by travail, tears, and trust! His final message sums up his life. From a day of exhaustion, having preached three times, he retired to his bed worn-out by fatigue only to be called to preach as waiting crowds gathered to hear the gospel once again. He came from his room with a candle in his hand and preached his most powerful message until the candle burned down to the socket. Returning to his room, God called his faithful servant home. Such was this man’s life, like the candle that burned out, it symbolized a life burned out for God. “Lord, I’m weary in the work but not weary of the work” (George Whitefield).
The Wesley brothers were likewise used mightily. Charles Wesley’s legacy is known by his hymns; John Wesley by fruits in preaching the gospel. In America, Jonathan Edwards was a prominent figure in the revival. Whitefield had visited America many times and became a close friend to Jonathan Edwards. We cannot leave this meditation without mention of Jonathan Edwards whose impact on America will never be forgotten. He had a brilliant mind and a giant intellect, but he also had a deep passion for the sinners and is remembered for his remarkable sermon: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” Hundreds were reached through this solemn, searching, and soul-winning message. He spent a whole night in prayer before he preached this message!
The men whereof we speak felt the impact of eternal realities and were marked by deep convictions! They preached with eternity etched upon their souls. The cross was the central theme in their preaching (1Co 1:18). They were not self-centered, but Christ-centered. They didn’t rust out – they wore out! They were willing to spend and be spent. Let us learn lessons from the 18th century! And while we appreciate any movement that is of God today, yet we pray for visitations, showers from heaven. We long to see lives, homes, communities changed!
The God of the 18th century is the God of the 21st century. The challenge across North America and overseas is, “Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?” “Here am I, send me.”