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God’s anointed barnstormer: Lee Gatiss explains the holy violence of Whitefield’s preaching

In the new issue of Credo Magazine, “George Whitefield at 300,” Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, interviewed Lee Gatiss in an interview titled, “God’s anointed barnstormer: Lee Gatiss explains the holy violence of Whitefield’s preaching.”

Gatiss is the Director of Church Society, an Anglican Evangelical ministry based in the UK, and Adjunct Lecturer in Church History at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He has studied history and theology at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster Theological Seminary, and trained for ministry at Oak Hill Theological College in London. Having served churches in Oxford, Kettering, and London, he is also the author of many books and articles on theology, biblical interpretation, and church history, and has a Ph.D. on the Hebrews commentary of John Owen. He is the Editor of the NIV Proclamation Bible (Hodder & Stoughton) and the new two-volume edition of The Sermons of George Whitefield (Crossway).

Here is the start of the interview:

New Fixed Credo July 2014 CoverMartyn Lloyd-Jones once said that Whitefield was, “beyond any question, the greatest English preacher who has ever lived.” And J. C. Ryle said something similar: “No Englishman, I believe, dead or alive, has ever equaled him.” Why is it that Lloyd-Jones and Ryle, who were themselves preachers of enormous reputation, could say this about Whitefield? What made Whitefield’s preaching unique and timeless?

I always smile at that comment from Lloyd-Jones, because he was clearly holding out for a Welshman as the greatest preacher ever! But Whitefield came a close second to the heroes from his homeland. Whitefield was the first great celebrity mass evangelist. By all accounts there was immense fruit from his labors. And his preaching was robustly Reformed and Evangelical in its content. These things gave it a depth and a fascination that have endured until today.

Why did Whitefield take his sermons outdoors, to fields, as opposed to remaining in the church as was traditionally the case? And what type of crowds came to hear him preach in the open air?

Whitefield did actually preach a great many of his sermons in ordinary English parish churches. His zeal to collect money by means of “charity sermons” for the orphanage he supported in Georgia took him to many places, and clergy were happy to open the pulpit for such philanthropic motives. Once in the pulpit, however, Whitefield was sometimes rather harsh and condemnatory towards the “letter-learned” clergy of his day, and spoke very freely against their dead and lifeless ministries. Even those who weren’t personally offended by a zealous 24 year-old denouncing them sometimes found that their bishops were less keen on such rhetoric being propagated in their patch, and so some pulpit doors were closed to him.

That’s why Whitefield first took to the fields, though the lure of thousands of people gathering in such public places (parks and commons) was also a draw for the dramatic evangelist. He would attract the casual passer-by, those who were out for a stroll, and those who came especially hoping to catch a glimpse of this strange new phenomenon. Lords and ladies might stop their horses and carriages to listen in, and he also spoke to groups of coalminers and prisoners in the jails.

Talk to us about Whitefield’s style of preaching? How did he approach the text of Scripture and apply it to his listeners? And given Whitefield’s oratory skills, what did his sermons sound like?

One biographer styles him “the divine dramatist.” J. I. Packer calls him “God’s anointed barnstormer.” He had a way with big crowds, and the famous actor David Garrick is reputed to have said he would give a hundred guineas to be able to say “O!” like Whitefield. Whitefield would stamp his feet for emphasis, don a black cap in imitation of a judge as he spoke of God’s death sentence upon sinners, and had a flair for vivid, descriptive narrative which had people of all kinds on the edges of their seats. There was a sort of holy violence about him.

He intentionally preached, most of the time, to reach the lowest class. If they understood, so would others. He aimed for their hearts as well as their heads, teaching what the Bible said but doing it with the aim of moving people’s emotions and wills. He was not content to simply titillate or amuse. He wanted people to feel how important and serious a message the gospel is for lost sinners. He realized later that sometimes he had gone a little over the top as a younger man, writing in his mid-30s of how he had stirred up needless opposition: “I frequently wrote and spoke with my own spirit, when I thought I was writing and speaking by the assistance of the Spirit of God.” . . .

Read the rest of this interview today!

To view the Magazine as a PDF [download format=”2″ id=”16″]

We live in a day when those in the church want to have their ears tickled. We do not want a sermon, but a “talk.” “Don’t get preachy, preacher!” is the mantra of many church goers today. What is preferred is a casual, comfortable, and laid back chat with a cup of coffee and a couple of Bible verses to throw into the mix to make sure things get spiritual. One wonders whether Timothy would have been fired as a pastor today for heeding Paul’s advice: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul gives such a command to Timothy because he knew what was to come. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Has that day come? Are churches filled with “itching ears,” demanding “teachers to suit their own passions”? Have we turned “away from listening to the truth”?

In a day when ears itch and truth is shown the back door, what could be more needed than men who actually preach the Word? George Whitefield (1714-1770) was one of those men. He was a preacher who preached in plain language, so that even the most common man could understand God’s Word. Yet, his sermons were incredibly powerful, often leading men and women to tears as the Holy Spirit convicted their souls. Whitefield not only preached the truth, but he pleaded with his listeners to submit themselves body and soul to the truth. He preached God’s Word with passion because he understood that his listener stood between Heaven and Hell. His robust Calvinism, in other words, led to a zealous evangelism.

This year, 2014, marks the 300th anniversary of Whitefield’s birth. These articles are meant to drive us back to Whitefield’s day, that we might eat up his theology, and drink deeply his passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Contributors include: Thomas Kidd, Lee Gatiss, Michael A.G. Haykin, Thomas Nettles, Ian Hugh Clary, Mike McKinley, Mark Noll, Doug Sweeney, and many others.

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