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George Whitefield - Evangelist Extraordinaire

The life & ministry of one of the greatest preachers of all time

7George Whitefield

by Dennis Pollock

Willie Nelson sang a famous song titled: “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” If I were to write a similar song, I would probably title it: “My Heroes Have Always Been Evangelists.” As a young believer, I seemed to be drawn to the great evangelists of church history. I read nearly every biography I could get my hands on if it concerned someone God had used to win many souls to Jesus. D. L. Moody, Charles Finney, John Wesley, Billy Graham… if they won souls in a big way, I was fascinated. And as I researched evangelism throughout the history of the church, I came across a man whose name you do not normally hear - George Whitefield. Most Christians have not heard of him, and would not rank him up there with the great preachers and evangelists in God’s Hall of Fame.

But noticing certain writers give him honorable mention as they discussed the great men of God of the past, I finally decided I needed to read about him myself. I bought a biography that was quite a challenge, even to someone like me who loves to read. It was a massive two-volume biography simply titled “George Whitefield,” written by Arnold Dallimore. And what I learned astonished me. I could not believe that someone as great and gifted and influential as Whitefield had been forgotten by most of the church. Having researched him further I have concluded that Whitfield was probably the greatest preacher in the history of Christianity, save for our Lord Himself. He was also arguably the most influential and significant revivalist of any era since the days of the apostles. Words like amazing, incredible, awesome, and so forth are no doubt overused today, but in applying them to Whitefield they are almost understatements. George Whitefield was a spiritual phenomenon, and in his short 55 years he changed the face of Christianity for the better. Christians would do well to learn of this great man. And thus, this series of devotional articles.

Whitefield lived and ministered in the 1700’s. As a boy and a youth George was not deeply spiritual. He did not come from a long line of preachers or even a short line. His father and mother owned and ran an inn in Gloucester, England. His father died while he was still young. George dropped out of school for a season and was content to help out with the many chores associated with keeping the inn running smoothly. He had lost hope of going to university, but when he and his mother learned of a program whereby poor young men with promise could attend Oxford as a “Servitor” he got excited and returned to school.

Applying himself, he got good grades and was accepted into Oxford as a servitor. In this position he was assigned to essentially be a servant or lackey to a few of the wealthier students. This was absolutely the lowest position at Oxford. Servitors were required to wear a special gown to denote their status, and few non-servitor students would talk to them. It was a humiliating life, but for poor and ambitious young men who had no other means of a university education, it was their only option. Some dropped out of school after a short while, unable to deal with the shame and humiliation. But many humbled themselves, stuck it out, and eventually obtained their degree.

George Gets Religion

Before entering Oxford, something had happened to George which gave him the endurance to stay the course and complete his education. While in his teens, George became religious. He developed a strange impression that he was destined to become a preacher. He started reading the Bible, and even composed a few sermons. He attended church even when it wasn’t Sunday. By the time he walked onto the campus of Oxford, George was a thoroughly religious and devout young man. He didn’t party or associate with most of the other servitors since they had no interest in spiritual things. And because the regular students would barely speak with a servitor, his early university life was solitary and lonely.

But on the campus of Oxford, George quickly discovered that there was a group of students who thought the way he did. They, too, were fanatical about religion. They attended every church service possible, they did charitable works, and they met together to study classic Christian books. These conscientious students were led by a highly intelligent man named John Wesley. Whitefield admired these men from afar, but knowing his place, did not dare to approach them. However, Charles Wesley, John’s brother, noticed the devout Whitefield, who, like them, attended church at every opportunity, and invited him to breakfast. This was a strict breach of protocol, but Charles was far more passionate about fellowshipping with likeminded believers than following the snobbish ways of Oxford.

George was delighted to know Charles with whom he soon became fast friends. He became a devoted member of “The Holy Club,” as the other Oxford students mockingly called the little religious band. It might seem that George and his friends were a group of diligent young Christian men, on their way to a life of ministry. They were, in fact, destined for fruitful ministries, but at this point they were not Christians. They knew nothing of the new birth, nothing of justification through faith in Jesus, and in truth very little about the Biblical revelation of grace. They were very religious, determined to spend each minute of each day only on things that were spiritually edifying or profitable. But they were not saved. John, Charles, and George would each need and would each eventually gain a personal experience with Jesus Christ through faith.

George was the first to recognize this. His journey toward Christ began when he read the book: “The Life of God in the Soul of Man,” by Henry Scougal. This book heavily emphasized the necessity of being born again, and declared that religious works are meaningless apart from this. Whitefield later wrote:

God showed me that I must be born again or be damned! I learned that a man may go to church, say his prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian. How did my heart rise and shudder, like a poor man that is afraid to look into his account-books, lest he should find himself bankrupt.

Seeking the New Birth

George immediately set upon a quest to experience this new birth. The problem was that there was nobody around in those days that had any experience with evangelical Christianity. There was no one to explain to him how we can receive Christ by simple naked faith and become children of God. George assumed there must be a process by which one becomes saved, and he further assumed that when he would eventually experience the new birth, he would definitely feel it. Looking at this from today’s evangelical perspective, we would see this as erroneous. Some people are saved with great surges of emotion, but others with mild emotions, and some with no emotions or feelings at all. Still, George was determined to be saved, and he expected that when he was saved he would clearly feel it. God graciously met him on this basis. But it took a long while and he went through many unnecessary difficulties.

Since his entire Christian outlook was works-based, George approached his quest for salvation on this basis as well. Strange as it seems, he determined that the surest way to faith would be a program of ever increasing works, sacrifices, and renunciations. He became so intense in his quest that he could feel a heaviness that seemed to physically press him down. He spent entire nights groaning and praying to be saved. He gave up first one thing and then another. He quit eating fruit, he went around in a patched, ragged gown. He went outdoors to pray on cold mornings, and sometimes stayed out so long his hands became black. His intense endeavors to find peace with God are reminiscent of Martin Luther who also sought to find Jesus through self-renunciations and deprivations.

At some point Whitefield, having grown weary from all his sacrifices and self-denial, finally threw Himself upon the mercy of Jesus and did what he should have done from the beginning. He trusted in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation of his soul. It was not a gradual process. It happened in an instant and God graciously gave him an overflowing of the Holy Spirit, complete with the rapturous feelings he had been seeking. It was a total transformation. George was saved and he knew that he was saved. His joy and delight in God was ecstatic. Later in his life he wrote: “I know the place… 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.”

He was now drawn to read the Scriptures as never before, and developed the habit of reading the Bible on his knees, praying over every verse. He spent countless hours in this practice as well as reading a great deal from Matthew Henry’s Bible commentary. It was this time in God’s word, far more than all his studies at Oxford, which prepared him for the ministry that was to come. The time passed quickly and George Whitefield prepared himself for Christ’s service as a minister of the Church of England. He began urging his fellow “Holy Club” members to seek the new birth, and in time John and Charles Wesley began to do just that.

It took them considerably longer than Whitefield. Before experiencing this new birth John Wesley decided to go over to America and minister to the primitive American colonists and the Indians. It was a miserable time for him. His domineering personality was not at all appreciated by the independent Americans, and his legalist ways made him few friends. Eventually he got into a conflict with a lady he fancied. She rejected him for another, and in return John felt she was now so unspiritual that he refused to serve her communion. The conflict escalated to the point where a warrant was put out for his arrest, and Wesley was forced to sneak away, and board a ship returning to England. His experiences in America were so traumatic and so humiliating that he never returned.

Meanwhile George graduated from Oxford, donned his Church of England ministerial robes, and looked for opportunities to preach. At his first sermon he did as all the other ministers of that day did. He prepared a written manuscript, carried it with him to the pulpit, and read it word for word. But that is where the similarities ended. Somehow Whitefield’s preaching was radically different.

State of England

In order to understand the phenomenon which Whitefield immediately became, we need to review the spiritual conditions of England at that time. The dominant church throughout the nation was, of course, the Church of England. And in those days it was in a deep sleep. Most ministers were unconverted, lazy, and their sermons were dull and lifeless. They preached a religion of good works and social niceties, and said almost nothing about faith in Christ. Nobody expected lively services when they went to church and nobody ever got them. There were no doubt a few genuine Christians scattered throughout the nation, but not many. A lively version of Christianity was unheard of, and would have almost been considered a sin. The few who did take the things of Jesus Christ seriously were given the label “enthusiast,” and if there was one thing that would ruin your reputation, it was to be called an enthusiast. And while few knew anything of salvation, even fewer knew of the Holy Spirit, or insisted upon or sought a filling with the Spirit. Lifeless, dead Christianity was good enough for grandpa, and it was good enough for them!

Enter the newly born-again, newly-filled-with-the-Spirit, and newly ordained George Whitefield. Even though at first he read his sermons like all the others, somehow in Whitefield’s voice you sensed he really believed what he was saying. And how he said it! George Whitefield had a rich and beautiful voice that was magnetic and incredibly attractive, and he possessed an ability as an orator that no one in England could match. He grabbed your interest, held it throughout the sermon, and convinced you that the things of which he spoke were more important than anything else you had ever heard. From the very first, people were drawn to hear the young minister preach. Soon the churches were packed and people were turned away at nearly every service. In a very short time George Whitefield was transformed from a lowly servitor at Oxford into a national celebrity. Indeed, he may be thought of as the very first celebrity. He soon could no longer walk down the street because of the inordinate amount of requests people had to talk to him and be counseled by him.

Whitefield spoke in churches and ministered to groups in private houses at every opportunity. He wrote in his journal:

Neither church nor house could hold the people that came… (In the churches) the congregations grew, if possible, larger and larger. It was wonderful to see how the people hung on the rails of the organ loft, climbed on the lead roofs of the church and made the church itself so hot with their breath that the steam would fall from the pillars like drops of rain.

Part 2: Ministerial Growth

In time, reading sermons word for word was abandoned. George Whitefield became an extemporaneous preacher. With this newly found freedom to preach from his heart, his preaching became more powerful, fluent, and attention-grabbing than ever. No church could hold the numbers of people that clamored to hear the youthful preacher. But popularity and acclaim are a two-edged sword, and Whitefield soon felt the other side of the blade. Many of the local ministers became jealous and offended by his preaching and his success.

Just what was he preaching? In every sermon, young Whitefield was telling people that they needed to be born again, and that once they were born again they would feel the Holy Spirit within them. And he was either directly or by implication telling them that if they did not feel the Holy Spirit, and had never felt His presence within, they must have never had this experience. Today we would not put such a strong emphasis upon feelings, but Whitefield was then, and throughout the whole of his life, so full of the Holy Spirit that He felt His presence nearly all the time, and figured that everyone else should feel just as he did. In his journal he wrote, “The goodness of God keeps me healthy and strong, and makes me feel His Holy Spirit within me.” In a letter to a friend he wrote:

I hope you enjoy a feeling possession of your God, every day and every hour. This will make the most barren wilderness to smile, and support you under the most distressing circumstances. It is this that supports me by land and by water.

But Whitefield added fuel to the fire by frequently condemning the pastors of his generation. He didn’t just criticize the generality of the clergy; he blasted them, sometimes calling well-known ministers by name and declaring they had no grace whatsoever. He was probably right, but just because something is true doesn’t mean that it needs to be constantly broadcast, and he ended up making bitter enemies unnecessarily. In his later years he apologized for being too critical and too “apostolical.”

But the major reason many ministers hated him was that he was doing things and saying things that they should have been doing and saying all along. J. C. Ryle wrote:

The clergy, with a few honorable exceptions, refused entirely to countenance this strange preacher. In the true spirit of the dog in the manger, they neither liked to go after the semi-heathen masses of population themselves, nor liked anyone else to do the work for them… The plain truth is, that the Church of England of that day was not ready for a man like Whitefield. The Church was too much asleep to understand him, and was vexed at a man who would not keep still and let the devil alone.

Called to America

George could have had a very comfortable life by staying in England. He could have become a local pastor, and would no doubt soon have the largest church in the nation. But Whitefield had such a passion for winning souls that the thought of staying in one place was unendurable. As his popularity soared, he made the decision to leave all the fame and the huge crowds and go and minister in the American colonies. He wanted to preach Christ to the Americans, and decided to start an orphanage in the newly formed state of Georgia. Despite the protests of friends and fans, he took passage on a ship bound for America. As his ship was in harbor, about to sail, his friend John Wesley was just returning from his miserable, failed attempt to minister in that same land. Wesley sent a message to Whitefield, telling him not to go, which Whitefield ignored. He was confident that God had called him to preach to the Americans.

He ended up ministering in the same area where Wesley had been, but what a difference between the two ministries! Whereas Wesley had been disliked by most, Whitefield was loved by nearly all. Today most Christians know of John Wesley and know nothing of George Whitefield, but in the days in which they lived, it was Whitefield who was far more popular, vastly superior as a preacher, and his cheerful and friendly personality was significantly easier to take than Wesley’s rather autocratic and no-nonsense disposition.

Whitefield wrote the following about his reception in America: “As to my ministerial office, God… sets His seal to it here as at other places… The people receive me gladly into their houses and seem to be most kindly affected towards me. They everywhere receive me with civility and are not angry when I reprove them.” He did not travel far and evangelize as he would on all his further trips to America, but contented himself with more of a local ministry in Savannah. On this first trip, he seemed to be dipping his toes into the waters, and he found them quite comfortable. When he left for England nine months after arriving, friends and well-wishers were everywhere, crying, telling him how much they would miss him, and giving him small gifts. He declared, “I think I never parted from a place with more regret.” It was the polar opposite of the departure from America of his friend, John Wesley, who had fled America in shame and fear. Wesley, accordingly, never returned to America. Whitefield would be back six more times, preach countless sermons, and win great numbers of souls to Jesus Christ.

Loved and Hated

Once back in England Whitefield’s popularity soared higher still. As it was with the Lord Jesus, the religious leaders generally disliked him and were jealous of him, but the common people loved him. George was just flat-out eloquent. He preached with insight, power, fluency, humor, pathos, and most of all he preached man’s great need for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And he did it better than anyone else. But a problem soon developed. Since Whitefield desired no pastorate of his own, he was dependent upon the local pastors to open their churches to him. His popularity always resulted in a full house, something every pastor loves to see, but increasingly pastors began closing their doors to him. Opportunities to minister began to dry up. And so, for a short time England experienced the irony of having one of the greatest preachers since the apostles, and few places for him to preach.

At this time George was strictly a Church of England man. He had always assumed that his ministry would be a Church of England ministry. But now most of the doors were soundly slammed in his face. But then a curious idea formed in his mind. He had heard of the Welshman, Howell Harris, who ranged throughout Wales preaching outdoors. The reason Harris did this was simple – he was not ordained. Like Whitefield he preached the new birth through faith in Jesus. Although not the orator Whitefield was, Harris was no slouch as a preacher, and was winning many souls to Jesus.

Whitefield began to debate the merits of preaching outdoors. It would solve two of his major problems. First, he would no longer be at the mercy of jealous, resentful pastors for ministry opportunities. And second, it would remedy the problem he had faced nearly from the beginning, which was that no church could hold the number of eager listeners who wanted to hear him preach. Clearly this would be a breach of Church of England protocols and would invite much criticism and charges of “enthusiasm!” But the more Whitefield considered it, the more he liked the idea. To blunt a little of the criticism he started at a place where there was no Church of England assembly and where almost no ministers had ever dared to go. He went to preach to the coal miners of Kingswood. These folks were entirely uneducated, rude, crude, immoral, and irreligious. They were almost considered sub-human by polite folks. Ministers left them alone and they were content to keep to themselves. The men who worked the mines were dirty and went through life with coal dust on their faces and dirt under their fingernails.

Preaching to the Colliers

It was to such a people that George Whitefield came. He put up no posters, had no speakers or microphones, and no organization behind him. There were no ushers, no counselors, no musicians or singers, and there was no platform. He simply showed up one day with a friend, and went around to some of the houses inviting people to come and hear the gospel. Taking his stand on a hill, he raised his magnificent voice, declaring, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see the kingdom of God.” He immediately caught the attention of those nearby. A young, good-looking man decked out in the black Church of England ministerial robe preaching on their turf was not an everyday occurrence. In addition, Whitefield’s voice and preaching magnetically pulled people toward him. Soon around 200 gathered around to hear the twenty-four-year-old preach to them about Jesus and the new birth.

Whitefield told a funny story, which didn’t seem like something a preacher would do, but attracted them all the more. Before the sermon was over he covered all the bases: man’s depravity, God’s love, heaven, hell, and Christ’s redeeming sacrifice on the cross and resurrection. Those who laughed at his humor now found themselves crying, and George Whitefield knew he was getting through to them when he saw narrow white gutters on their faces where their tears were washing away the coal dust from their blackened cheeks. God clearly set His seal on Whitefield’s new outdoor ministry, and George made another appointment to come back and preach. By the time he returned word had quickly spread about the amazing young preacher, and now instead of 200 he preached to 2,000. Crude, rough, tough coal miners were getting saved and being transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and Whitefield knew that he had found a means of ministering to the masses that was far superior to the limitations of church buildings, of which most could only hold a few hundred people.

Whitefield was like a bird let out of a cage. He began preaching outdoors in many other places, and eventually went to London and preached to huge crowds there. The crowds continued to increase, and before long he was preaching to audiences of ten, twenty, and thirty thousand people. At this point we need to stop and recognize just what an achievement this was, and the difficulties involved. In Whitefield’s day, there were no speakers or microphones. The only possible means of amplifying the voice was the sounding board that some minsters had hung over them in their churches, but in the outdoors Whitefield did not even have this. Today, if a pastor has a congregation of fifty people he will make sure he has a nice speaker system and a Shure microphone. But Whitefield preached to tens of thousands with only his natural voice, and was heard plainly by them.

How in the world could this be? First, Whitefield not only had a beautiful voice, but an incredibly loud and piercing voice. God, knowing the massive crowds to whom His servant would preach, had gifted him with a voice that was truly a wonder of the world. Benjamin Franklin had heard of Whitefield preaching to enormous crowds in England, so when the evangelist preached in Philadelphia, he was determined to discover if it was even possible for Whitefield to be heard by such large numbers of people. In attending one of his meetings, as Whitefield preached, Franklin started at the front and walked outward, counting his steps to see how far he could go before he could no longer hear or understand Whitefield. When Franklin finally got to that point, he computed a semicircle with a radius from Whitefield to where he was standing, allowing two square feet for each listener. According to Franklin’s calculations, he determined that Whitefield could be heard and understood by at least thirty thousand people!

Evangelist and Revivalist

Of course, preaching to such large crowds required Whitefield to preach at the top of his voice throughout the entire sermon, and doing this day after day, sometimes as much as three or four sermons a day, took a huge toll on him. Often, he would throw up blood after preaching. Also, his lively, animated style of preaching was exhausting, and years and decades of such ministry may well have shortened his life. Nevertheless, it was highly effective, and multitudes found Jesus, churches were strengthened, and communities were transformed through it. In truth George Whitefield was more than an evangelist; he was a revivalist. Revival seemed to accompany and follow him wherever he went, and even after leaving, the spiritual awakening experienced by so many would linger and leave a lasting impact upon the community.

As more and more people believed on Christ and became lively, Spirit-filled Christians, there came a dilemma about what to do with them. To leave them under the care of their cold, unsaved or barely saved parish priests seemed almost criminal. Yet Whitefield, and later John and Charles Wesley were staunchly loyal to their church. Despite its faults and its almost universal disapproval of them, still these evangelists believed in the church and in no way intended to leave it or start a new denomination. The problem of new converts was solved by the establishing of what they called “societies.” New, evangelical believers were gathered into groups where they met together, sang and prayed together, and heard Bible teachings by men who were also evangelical and born again. This would usually be on a weeknight. On Sunday mornings, they would dutifully attend their local Church of England and endure a typically lifeless sermon. But their true spiritual food and fellowship happened in these “societies.” After Wesley’s death, many of these societies would unite and become what is now called the Methodist Church.

Part 3: A Life of Ministry

After a season of incredibly successful ministry and experiencing fame and celebrity as no other Englishman of that day knew, Whitefield was ready to return to America. God had put this nation in his heart and regardless of how much his countrymen pressed him to stay, he simply had to return to America. He had been raising funds for the orphanage he had planned in Savannah, Georgia, but he also had plans to preach up and down the East Coast of America, throughout the Colonies. By now evangelical societies had sprung up everywhere in Britain and he needed someone to oversee the movement. His thoughts turned to his old friend and former Holy Club president, John Wesley. By this point John had had his famous experience of having his heart “strangely warmed” toward Christ and declared himself born again. His brother Charles had also been born again.

Still, neither of them was exercising any kind of influential ministry at this time. They were giving Bible lessons in churches and homes but had seen nothing like the fame or success of the former Oxford servitor, George Whitefield. Whitefield seemed to recognize that there was more in Wesley than met the eye, and brought him to one of his outdoor meetings to show him how it was done. Wesley, being more formal than Whitefield, was at first extremely dubious of the practice, declaring that he would have almost thought it a sin for a man to be saved out of doors. But, formal or not, when Wesley saw the work of the Holy Spirit touching thousands through Whitefield’s anointed ministry, he was convinced. Soon, under Whitefield’s persuasion, he ventured out and tried it himself. Although not as gifted oratorically as Whitefield, Wesley clearly had a talent for this kind of ministry and quickly became hooked. John Wesley became an outdoor preacher and entered fully into the spiritual awakening that God had begun under Whitefield.

Back to America

Leaving his followers under the care of Wesley, Whitefield headed back for America, eager to minister there. On his first trip, he had dipped his toe into the waters. This time he would plunge in fully and see what God would do. He was bringing a significant amount of money and many supplies necessary for the establishment of an orphanage in Savannah.

In those days there was no United States. The “Colonies” were a series of towns and villages running up and down the East Coast in a narrow fifty mile wide band. The three major cities were Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and they had somewhere around 15,000 inhabitants each. The Americans would declare their independence from Britain several decades later, but Whitefield would not live to see it. Somehow he instinctively knew that this “New World” was a land and a people of great potential, and he was eager to do his part in turning these independent, hardy settlers to Jesus Christ.

Whereas in his previous American mission, he had limited his ministry to the state of Georgia, this time he roamed freely up and down the coast, visiting the major cities and as many small towns and villages as possible. Many had heard or read of his remarkable exploits and massive audiences in Britain, and were eager to hear him. They were not disappointed. Within a short time, George Whitefield became as much a celebrity in America as he had been in Great Britain. In Philadelphia it seemed as though nearly the entire city came out to hear him preach, as well as people throughout the countryside for many miles in every direction. He preached to a crowd of nearly twenty thousand people, the largest gathering of people America had ever seen up to that time. At times people knew of his coming well in advance, but in many small villages he would stop, preach a sermon, and resume his journey. In such cases the town might have only one or two hours notice that Whitefield was coming. Immediately hundreds of people from miles around would drop their business at hand and head for town, eager to hear the famous evangelist. Whether he intended it or not, Whitefield had no choice but to stop and preach to them.

In addition to the eloquent and dynamic preaching, there was another feature that was common in Whitefield’s meetings, wherever he went. There were nearly always tears. Whitefield was a tenderhearted man and he was a highly anointed man, and the combination of these two factors resulted in him hardly ever getting through a sermon without breaking into tears. Sometimes it would only be a quavering of the voice, but frequently he would break down altogether, sobbing over the love of Christ or the desperate condition of sinners. And when Whitefield would cry, the audiences would follow him, at least in many cases. Tears would sweep through the crowd, and Whitefield often reported such “meltings” in his journals. His enemies and some hard-hearted men would mock him for his tears, but Whitefield’s standard reply was that, since they would not weep for their own souls, he must weep for them.

Impact upon America

As it was in England, and Scotland, America fell in love with George Whitefield. It is estimated that over half the population of the Colonies heard him preach personally. Many thousands became evangelical Christians, and hundreds of these became ministers of the gospel. He seemed to be a lightning rod for the Holy Spirit, and the fires of revival that sprang up during his ministry did not diminish after his departure. His ministry became a huge shot in the arm for the church in America. So many turned to Christ that many Christians began to believe the millennium had arrived and that the whole nation would soon become Christian. Today we evangelicals like to point out that America was a nation established by Christians and that for much of our early history we were clearly a Christian nation. To the degree that this is true, George Whitefield played no small part. Indeed, there is no other man, British or American, that had such a Christian influence upon our nation in those pre-revolution days than George Whitefield. No one even comes close. In Philadelphia, they built a huge building where Whitefield might preach. When he was elsewhere they used the facility to house students, and it eventually became the University of Pennsylvania.

For the rest of his life George Whitefield traversed back and forth from England to America, traveling and preaching Christ. He preached in homes, churches, and in the great outdoors. During his prime he was preaching between forty and sixty hours a week – not 40 hours doing various forms of ministry – but 40 to 60 hours actually opening his mouth and preaching. In addition to this he was constantly swamped with individuals who wanted his counsel or were concerned about their souls. His entire life was made up of continuous Christian activity. He had no hobbies and never watched television, played golf, or surfed the Internet. From morning until night he was engaged in preaching, fellowship, counseling believers and those who wanted to be saved, writing letters of exhortation to believers, and sharing impromptu teachings in people’s homes. In short, Whitefield’s life was one continuous succession of Christian ministry and fellowship. He did take a little time to get married, but soon returned to his itinerant lifestyle. His wife accompanied him at first, but could not keep up the pace, and ended up living more without him than with him. She took it well, and considered it a small price to pay to be married to such a man of God.

I have stressed Whitefield’s popularity, but I must also share that throughout his life he faced enemies. His minister-enemies fought him with words and pamphlets and sermons. But he also faced enemies of a cruder sort. Many times while he preached, ungodly men threw things at him: sometimes tomatoes, sometimes dead cats, feces, or rocks. Once a man broke into his lodging and attempted to kill him. An offended group of Catholics in Ireland threatened to break the house down where he was staying, and had not a friend come along to whisk him off in a carriage, he might well have been killed. He would go to fairs, set up a portable platform, and preach to the huge crowds. This did not please the merchants and peddlers, who saw him drawing away their potential customers. And they often did everything in their power to harass him, barrage him with stones, interrupt the sermons, or physically attack him. Whitefield fondly spoke of a young lad who sat near him while he preached, and cried continually as he was pelted with rocks and clods of dirt.

By his mid-forties George had worn himself out. His constant travel, his thousands of sermons preached at the top of his voice, and a heart condition with which he had struggled since his twenties caused him to age prematurely. By the time he was in his fifties he looked like an old man. He was often so weak that he was forced to stop all activity and lie in bed. There were moments when he was certain it was his time to die and be with the Lord. Yet after a few days or a few weeks, he would feel better, and off he would go, preaching and traveling until the next episode of exhaustion and near death.

The End

The end came at the premature age of fifty-five. George was in America doing what he loved: preaching the gospel. But he was terribly weak. While on his way to Boston, he stopped in the town of Exeter to dine with a friend. The ministers immediately petitioned him for a sermon, and a large crowd quickly gathered. Whitefield was a shadow of his former self. The energetic, good-looking young preacher had become an overweight, white-haired man of slow movement and obvious weakness. Seeing his condition, one of the pastors told him he was more fit to go to bed than preach. Whitefield agreed, but then said a short prayer, asking Jesus for the strength to preach one more sermon.

He climbed upon the platform they had hurriedly erected for him, and stood before the thousands of eager men and women, wanting to hear a sermon from the most famous preacher in the world. But the words would not come. He was so weak he could not speak, and stood in an embarrassed silence for minutes. He told the people he was waiting for God’s assistance. Finally he began. John Pollock describes that last sermon:

The words came hoarse and sluggish at first, the sentences disjointed and rough as if his brain refused to focus. He spoke of men’s attempt to win the favor of God by good works and not by faith. George contemplated… the enormity of such affrontery. His mind suddenly kindled and his voice rose and he thundered in tones that reached the edge of the immense crowd: “Works? Works? A man get to heaven by works? I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand! After that any weakness seemed engulfed in a mighty power that swept him into an unforgettable sermon in which he proclaimed, once again the glories of Christ.

He went on preaching for two hours, and some who had heard him several times declared it was his best sermon ever. Toward the end George declared, “I go to a 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!” Whitefield was dying and he knew it, but he had preached as well as he ever had, and no doubt many embraced the righteousness of Jesus Christ that day.

At the end of the sermon, the weakness returned and he had to be helped off the platform. He slept at his friend’s house that night, but had a difficult time breathing. Twice he had to go to the windows to try to get air in his lungs. He complained about his “asthma,” but more likely he was experiencing congestive heart failure with pulmonary edema. In was a difficult night, and a young assistant was in the room with him, trying to make him as comfortable as possible. At one point Whitefield sat up in bed and began to talk quietly. George was praying, asking God’s blessings on his ministry associates and the believers in England and America. It was surely a testimony to the amazing character of this man that even on this, the night of his death, while he suffered so greatly and breathed with such difficulty, he still must take time to pray for others. At last he lay back down. An hour later he awoke struggling for breath. He went to the window, but nothing helped. He stood for five minutes beside the window desperately trying to get enough air into his lungs. At last he stated the obvious: “I am dying.” He sat in a chair, coughing, panting, and spitting up phlegm, and at 6:00 am on Sunday morning George Whitefield passed out of this life. The date was September 30, 1770. In six more years America would declare her independence, and due to the ministry and the life of this passionate preacher, a great many of these new Americans would be evangelical Christians.

Like all the rest of us, Whitefield wasn’t perfect. He had his flaws and made some mistakes along the way. But as an evangelist, he was about as good as it gets. He possessed all the attributes an evangelist needs in abundance: a powerful yet attractive voice, a tender heart, a love for people, a tremendous anointing of the Holy Spirit, and an ability to speak fluently and hold people’s interest that far exceeded nearly every minister of his generation. Most of all he loved Jesus Christ and never tired of proclaiming His gospel. What a witness he is to every one of us today! Although few of us will ever come close to matching his gifts, we can be inspired by his example of devotion to Christ, commitment to the ministry, and passion for the grandest endeavor in this world: that noble and awesome privilege of inviting men, women, and children to come to Jesus and receive the gift of eternal life. And that is something we can all do!


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Missions Outreach

A major part of Spirit of Grace Ministries is our ministry in the great continent of Africa. There is a tremendous harvest going on in the world these days, and we are privileged to be a part of it. Above is a brief music video featuring video clips and pics from our recent mission in Nigeria in Oct/Nov, 2019.

Audio Devo: "Why is there suffering?"

People have debated this question for millennia. And we cannot speak concerning specific individual questions of suffering, but the Bible clearly speaks as to why suffering has always been a part of the human experience.