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George Whitefield

Why Pastors Should Engage George Whitefield

George Whitefield was the single greatest human driver of the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. Although his fame has been surpassed today by his colleague Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield was far better known than Edwards was in the 1740s. Indeed, in Britain and America Whitefield was more famous than anyone not named King George. He was not only the first celebrity pastor of the evangelical movement, but he was arguably the first celebrity of any kind in Anglo-American history. With apologies to the Beatles, Whitefield was the first “British sensation,” drawing titanic crowds to evangelistic meetings from London to Boston.

Pastors should know about Whitefield simply because of his massive historical significance. He was undoubtedly one of the two most influential evangelists in American history, the other being Billy Graham. Whitefield was a lot like Graham, except Whitefield didn’t have access to amplifiers and airplanes. They were both tireless preachers of the gospel, and their talent and spiritual gifts made them among the best known and controversial figures of their eras.

What was the key to George Whitefield’s success? Whitefield always attributed the fruit of his ministry to the work of the Holy Spirit. Observers then and now have also pointed to his preternatural talent for public speaking. Whitefield loved acting in plays as a schoolboy, prior to his conversion. Although he repudiated the theater once he became a Christian, he clearly brought his performative skills to the pulpit. The leading London actor David Garrick wryly noted that Whitefield could “make men weep or tremble by his varied utterances of the word ‘Mesopotamia.’”

Intellectual and Theological Seriousness

Some scholars have suggested that Whitefield was all show and no substance, perhaps thinking of parallels to certain celebrity preachers today. However, Whitefield was actually an evangelist of deep intellectual and theological seriousness. He was such a principled Calvinist that his convictions fostered a decades-long estrangement from the Arminian John Wesley, whom Whitefield knew from their pietist “Holy Club” at Oxford University in the 1730s. Whitefield routinely referenced technical theological concepts, church history, and classical literature in his preaching. But mostly his scintillating sermons were focused on the Bible, and the new birth in Christ. Whitefield had a knack for drawing out the emotional power of Scripture, and would sometimes put himself into the place of Bible characters, acting out the role (for instance) of the prodigal son or his faithful father as he proceeded through a sermon. His sermons were deeply doctrinal but powerfully affecting to his hearers.

Whitefield was also successful in his ministry because he was simply one of the hardest working pastors of the eighteenth century. By all appearances, he worked too hard, sometimes becoming desperately ill right after preaching, even vomiting blood. But he would insist on keeping his next engagement. It is estimated that Whitefield delivered about 18,000 sermons over his life, which was undoubtedly cut short by his unrelenting pace. Whitefield died in 1770, at the age of fifty-five. He figured it was better to pour all he had into the proclamation of the gospel, for as much time as God gave him to do so.

Ethical Blind Spot

Pastors will certainly admire Whitefield’s dogged commitment to preaching, even if we might take a cautionary note from his lack of rest and unsustainable schedule. His wife Elizabeth also paid a price for his relentless travels, which is an all-too-familiar story for career-driven pastors. When their infant son John died, for example, Whitefield was already preaching again before John was buried. He and Elizabeth spent virtually no time together afterward to grieve their loss. Balancing the needs of your health and family with the demands of ministry is a perennial issue for pastors, and Whitefield shows that even the most admired ministers of the Christian past didn’t always get the balance right. Click To Tweet

Balancing the needs of your health and family with the demands of ministry is a perennial issue for pastors, and Whitefield shows that even the most admired ministers of the Christian past didn’t always get the balance right. A more troubling aspect of Whitefield’s biography, his advocacy of slavery, suggests another ethical risk. Many pastors, including Jonathan Edwards, owned slaves during this period, and Whitefield did show special concern for slaves and free African Americans who attended his evangelistic meetings. Some slave masters grumbled about Whitefield and other evangelical preachers trying to convert slaves, fearing that it might give the slaves newfangled ideas about liberty and freedom.

But Whitefield, blinded in part by his laser focus on ministry, wanted to bring slaves into Georgia in order to boost operations at his Bethesda orphanage in Savannah. (Georgia authorities originally banned slaves, hoping that the colony would become a refuge for modest farmers instead of a place dominated by plantation masters.) Whitefield hoped to use slaves to work on plantations around Bethesda. The proceeds from these farms would fund the orphanage. Whitefield became a slaveowner himself in the 1740s, and he did not free his slaves at his death. Whitefield had few friends who were opposed to slavery. One Lutheran minister in Georgia chastised Whitefield about the immorality of slavery, but the two pastors were not close friends. John Wesley and the former slave ship captain John Newton would both come to oppose slavery, but they did not speak publicly about it until after Whitefield’s death. Whitefield’s blind spot (to put it nicely) on chattel slavery reminds us that even the most committed gospel minister can be oblivious to the sinful practices in his culture, or can get drawn into dubious political or financial schemes that risk sullying their reputation, at least posthumously.

Whitefield’s ministry successes were spectacular, and his personal failings were sobering. But in a way, this combination of the admirable and the sordid is the story of every gospel minister (though usually in quieter ways than in Whitefield’s story). We should all ruthlessly war against our sin and “blind spots” in our journey with Christ. Yet God’s blessing on any person’s ministry reflects His grace to sinners, including grace to the minister. We can see this truth perhaps more conspicuously in George Whitefield than in others, as the blessing on his ministry was so profound and gracious, in spite of Whitefield’s manifest failings. If God used George Whitefield, perhaps He can use us, too.

Thomas S. Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. He also serves as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Church History at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Kidd is the author of several books including George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).

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