Heroes of the Faith – George Whitefield (1714-1770)

There are servants whose impact in our world may be limited to a community, a village, a town, city, or a Province, and their record is etched upon the eternal page in glory. While little is known down here, they are the Lord’s jewels in heaven. And it will be said of them in that day, “they are Mine.” However, there are others whose service has taken them to many parts of the world and their names became household names. As well, “memorials” have been erected to their honor that generations to come will know of their exploits of faith. All alike, whether unknown or well known, died in faith.

It would be a sad day if the name “George Whitefield” were forgotten in our modern world and a rising generation of Christians knew not of this man’s acts and deeds for his beloved Lord and Master. Whitefield was called the “prince of open-air preachers.” C.H. Spurgeon said to read all you can about Whitefield.

G. Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England, in 1714. His father died when George was two years old and from earliest years he knew struggle and poverty. His early life was stained by sin of every kind, being unrestrained in home-life, but God’s eye was upon him. His environment of tavern-life was anything but conducive to spiritual matters. In his late teens he struggled after God and tried prayers and fasting, but these brought no relief to his burdened heart. In 1732 a book given to him by John Wesley, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, opened his eyes to the reality of salvation and the futility of works. He experienced the new birth, light dawned upon his soul, and he was born of God. However, fears and doubts possessed his mind and soul for some weeks, but when his eyes were directed again to Christ the Savior he said,, “Joy unspeakable, full of glory, fills my soul, and an abiding sense of the pardoning God gives me full assurance.” John Chapter 3 and verse 7 became his favorite text.

The Late Mr. Albert Joyce advised a young preacher who had planned to visit the old Church in Newburyport, MA, (where the famed evangelist preached his farewell sermon) to be sure to handle Whitefield’s Bible. He told him to carefully check John chapter 3 (Whitefield preached two thousand times from this chapter) and then Isaiah 53. The request was kindly granted and the lesson well-learned by the young preacher. Turning to John 3, there were no notes written and the page was unmarked! However, when he turned to Isaiah 53 he found this chapter almost unreadable with the constant use of the thumb. The page was brown and well-worn. No doubt tears fell upon this page and had stained it. Ah, beloved brethren, the secret of success in Mr. Whitefield’s preaching was the bathing of his soul in the sufferer of Calvary, the Christ of the Cross. Lord, make us soft in musing upon Calvary!

From the beginning of his conversion, the truth of “the new birth” was indelibly engraved upon his soul. In godless and dark England he became the great revivalist of this most important theme as an itinerant preacher of the glorious gospel. Indeed it would be fitting to comment that Whitefield’s zeal affected John Wesley, and most historians agree that Whitefield was the forerunner to that great Revival that swept across continents. Others picked up the torch from this great man, and a mighty work of God followed. Whitefield had the joy from conversion’s day (he called it sudden conversion!) Of seeing a number of his companions “born again.” His first message (barely 21 years of age) to an immense crowd sent fifteen people mad and the good bishop hoped this madness would not be forgotten before the next Sunday!

This mighty vessel in the hand of his Master endured much persecution and was in perils oft, but he rejoiced in being counted worthy to suffer for his Lord. He said, “I was honored to have rotten eggs and dead cats thrown at me as I preached Christ.” It was the way his Master went, should not His servants tread it still? Prayer marked this hero of faith! This was the secret of his success. From 4 a.m. in the morning until 5 a.m. it was his habit to commune with God. While most who heard him will never forget his seraph-like preaching, let us remember that his plain, powerful, and passionate preaching was kindled in communion with His Master.

Cornelius Winter who often traveled with him said, “He seldom, if ever, preached without tears.” A lady of high rank in New York said, “Mr. Whitefield was so cheerful that it tempted me to become a Christian.” What a testimony! David Hume, a skeptic in philosophy raced off at five in the morning to hear Whitefield preach. Asked if he believed what the preacher preached, he replied, No, but he does!” Ben Franklin of America, a cold, calculating philosopher, said of Whitefield, “It was remarkable to see the change made by his preaching; the whole city of Philadelphia became religious.” John Newton, the preacher, poet, and hymn-writer said of Whitefield, “It seemed as if he never preached in vain.” John Wesley, who differed with Whitefield in doctrine, commented on the flaming evangelist: “Have we ever read or heard of any person who called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners to repentance? Above all, have we read or heard of anyone who has been blessed as an instrument to bring many sinners from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God?” I wonder if we could commend our beloved brethren as Wesley did Whitefield? Henry Venn, the faithful steward of the gospel said; “Scarce anyone has equaled Mr. Whitefield.” Bishop J.C.Ryle said, “Whitefield was chief and first among the English Reformers of the 18th century.”

He had his share of enemies. No doubt jealousy, that thing as cruel as the grave, was a prominent commodity in those who maligned him. However, he bore it all patiently for his Master, for he was like Christ. These commentators are gone and forgotten, but the name of Whitefield is still remembered. Many of the state churches closed their doors to Whitefield and thus commenced the revival of open-air preaching. In Kingswood, Bristol, in 1739, the rough coal miners gathered in thousands to hear heaven’s message from the burning lips of Whitefield. Tears streamed down their coal-begrimed cheeks and hundreds upon hundreds were convicted of sin and brought to Christ. He said, “I needed not to speak much of their sin, they knew this, but called them to repentance and faith in the Redeemer’s precious blood that cleanseth from all sin.” On native and on foreign soil his voice reached upwards to twenty, thirty, and forty thousand. What power was in the spoken Word as sobbing hearts, broken hearts, and convicted hearts were brought to Christ. Wherever this good man traveled, whether by horseback or vessel, wherever he preached, in the open fields, on walls, and in Fairs, God blessed his labors. There may be discrepancies as to numbers and conversions, but none can deny that George Whitefield was the nearest to the apostles as a mighty instrument in the hand of God. Thousands will arise and call him blessed. From the North American Indians, to the outcasts, to the elite, to the clergy (1744-1748 there were not less than twenty ministers in the vicinity of Boston who considered him as the means of their conversion), all segments of society will be eternally grateful for Whitefield’s Spirit-filled messages. He was raised up by God in a godless society and answered to the call and the Lord was with him. In his prime he preached thirteen sermons a week and at the age of fifty-five he had preached (approx.) twenty thousand sermons. During those years he crossed the Atlantic thirteen times, often in unworthy sea vessels. On one occasion when they miraculously came through a severe storm that almost swept them into eternity, Whitefield had been lying in the bottom of the vessel, wrapped in buffalo skins praying for a safe arrival. In the harbor he addressed the sailors. As he was describing a ship about to flounder at sea, so vivid was his description he paused and said, “What next?” A sailor sprang to his feet and shouted, “Take the longboat.” They thought there was a literal storm and called for the longboat! Worthy of repetition is his description of the sinner, likening him to an aged blind beggar being led by a little dog on a cord. He feels his way by tapping on the ground with his cane, but directly before him lies a great yawning chasm. As he reaches its edge he loses the dog’s leash, the cane falls from his hand and he lurches forward to retrieve it. At that point, Lord Chesterfield, overcome as he visualized the scene, jumped to his feet shouting, “Good God! He’s gone! He’s gone!” Whitefield had, as another has said, the ability to put eyes on ears!

Whitefield was human; he made mistakes – some with deep regret! Man at his best state is altogether vanity. His critics were many but none could deny he was mightily used as a single instrument in God’s hand. His heart was large to embrace all saints, he was party to none, and it is obvious that it was heart-wrenching when there appeared a difference between him and the Wesleys. He felt it keenly! Amazingly, he left on record that John Wesley was to take his funeral! What grace! George Whitefield was a true gentleman!

On September 29th someone remarked to him, “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than preach.” “True,” replied Whitefield, and then turning aside he said, “Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work, but not weary of it. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for Thee once more and seal Thy truth, and come home to die.” This noble warrior, this man of faith stood erect and delivered one of his best sermons. “I go,” he cried, “I go to a rest prepared; my sun has arisen and by aid from Heaven has given light to many. It is now set – no, it is about to rise to the zenith of eternal glory. My body fails, my spirit expands.” Shortly thereafter, as he mounted the stairs to retire after a strenuous day, with candle in hand, the door opened and the host admitted someone, earnestly requesting that he preach. He paused, candle in his hand, and preached till the candle burned out in its socket and died away. That candle was a symbol of his life, which was also burned out for God. As was said of another could be true of this hero, “and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

Quotes from G.Whitefield:

“Let parties, names, and systems fall and Jesus Christ be all in all.”

When told not to preach so often, Whitefield replied, “I had rather wear out than rust out”

“Lord Jesus, I am weary IN Thy work, but not weary OF Thy work.”

He wrote before he died what he wanted put on his tombstone: “Here lies George Whitefield, what good he has done, whether good or bad will be known in that day.”

This mighty yet humble hero of faith, who little valued the gold of this world yet lived for the glory of the heavenly world, wore himself out in service for his Lord: a life laid upon the altar, consumed by the love of Christ and a love for perishing souls. This, beloved saints, is what counts for eternity! We are beneficiaries of the legacy of George Whitefield.

Wesley’s poetic tribute to George Whitefield:

Love of all mankind, his life he gave,
Christ to exalt, and precious souls to save:
Nor age nor sickness could abate his zeal
To feed the flock, and serve the Master’s will.

Though spent with pain, and toils that never ceased,
He labored on, nor asked to be released:
Though daily waiting for the welcome word,
Longing to be dissolved and meet His Lord,

Yet still he strangely lived, by means unknown,
In deaths immortal till his work was done,
And wished for Christ his latest breath to spend,
That life and labor might together end.