Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Forgotten Founding Father

Stephen Mansfield's biography of George Whitefield is a very good introduction to the work of this remarkable revivalist.

The book begins at the Bell Inn, in Gloucester England in the 1720’s where, had you been a visitor, you would have witnessed an unusual site. A small boy was acting out a sermon for the entertainment of the guests. It was not uncommon for this boy, the youngest among widow Elizabeth Whitfield’s seven children, to engage in theatrical re-enactments of sermons and Bible stories for the guests at his mother’s inn. But this time, something was different. Reciting the sermon he had heard on Sunday as a type of game, young George Whitfield was quite unprepared for the response he received as some of the onlookers began to weep.

It was a portent of things to come. When George grew up and became a famous preacher, he found that his words had a strange affect on people, provoking emotions for which he was often unprepared.

Born in 1714, George’s childhood was far from easy. His father died when he was only two, leaving the running of the inn to Elizabeth. After a disastrous second marriage and divorce, George’s brother eventually took over the management of the inn, while George was sent to the cathedral school of Saint Mary.

From an early age George had showed a keen interest in matters of religion. However, as Stephen Mansfield reflects in his biography of Whitefield, the boy was not without a touch of paradox. “He stole money from his mother’s purse but then used it to buy religious books. He would fight viciously with boys in the streets and then fall weeping on the floor of his bedroom to pray for the souls of those he had just pummeled. His brothers and sisters thought he loved church just because it was a grand drama that suited his vain, theatrical little mind, but his mother later found him asking such astute questions that she knew something of the divine was penetrating his soul Sunday after Sunday.”

It didn’t take long for Daniel Bond, the master at the cathedral school, to appreciate George’s gifts. George thrived under the tutulage of Mr. Bond, who helped to hone George’s skills in the dramatic and rhetorical arts.
As a result of declining family circumstances, when he was fifteen George returned to work at the inn. He was prepared to spend the rest of his life as a common tradesman, but the Lord had other plans. Through the generosity of friends, George had an opportunity to attend Oxford two years later.

Oxford and the Methodist Movement

While studying at Pembroke College, Whitefield was exposed to a group called the ‘Holy Club’, which later became known as the Methodist movement. The small but growing circle included the Wesley brothers and was characterized by religious enthusiasm and a rigorous commitment to the disciplines of the spiritual life.
Even before being drawn into the group, Whitefield had been attempting to order his life by the rigours of regular fasting, prayer, devotions, Bible study and self-denial. After meeting the Wesley’s and reading a copy of Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Whitefield entered a season of extremes, seeking to pursue holiness by an even more rigorous schedule of legalistic disciplines, excessive fasting and self-inflicted suffering. He even spent long hours in the snow, went for days without sleeping, deliberately failed his classes, went about the university unkempt and endured long fasts in which he nearly starved to death.

George finally collapsed and had to be confined to bed for seven weeks. It was during his time in hospital that George experienced an event which he interpreted as his conversion. It is best described in his own words:

“One day, perceiving an uncommon drought and a disagreeable clamminess in my mouth and using things to allay my thirst, but in vain, it was suggested to me that when Jesus Christ cried out, ‘I thirst,’ His sufferings were near at an end. Upon which, I cast myself down on the bed, crying out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’ Soon after this, I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me. The spirit of mourning was taken from me, and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour and, for some time, could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was: but my joy gradually became more settled, and, blessed by God, has abode and increased in my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.”

Despite his recovered joy, George was too sick to continue his studies at Oxford. The excessive fasts had taken their toll and he would never be the same again. Nevertheless, he made up for this with a renewed spiritual energy that found expression in visiting prisoners, forming societies modeled on the “Holy Club”, attending prayer meetings, helping the poor, and theological study that resulted in embracing the doctrines of grace. When he was finally able to return to Oxford, he entered into discussions with Bishop Benson about being ordained to the Anglican clergy. Thus it was that in 1736 at 22-years of age, George Whitfield became a priest for the Church of England, a position he would hold until the day of his death.

The Young Clergyman

Whitefield preached his first sermon in the church where he had been baptised and gone to school. The message was nothing unusual – just a twenty minute talk on the need for Christian community. However, the effect on the crowd was electrifying. Fifteen onlookers reportedly became “drunk in the Spirit” while others deeply resented the “boy parson” for the disorder he allegedly caused in the church that day.

As he settled into the work of a clergyman, opinion continued to be sharply polarized about the young man. Many of the clergy accused him of encouraging fanaticism or of having an ulterior agenda.

In order to be near the “Holy Club” and the Methodist movement, Whitefield assumed duties in Oxford. Later he went to London and Bristol to minister. Larger and larger crowds began to flock to the churches where they could hear his moving oratory, while increasingly remarkable displays of the Holy Spirit began to be manifested in the lives of those listening to his sermons. Before long, all of England had become electrified by Whitefield’s message of repentance and salvation.
It is not hard to appreciate why Whitefield held such appeal. In an age where clergymen prided themselves on sophisticated intellectualism, Whitefield offered a refreshing contrast. He spoke in language that was easily accessible to lay people, even incorporating jokes and stories into his sermons.

The reports from those who attended Whitefield’s preaching would be easy to dismiss as bizarre if it were not for the fact that they were repeatedly confirmed by hundreds of eye witnesses. Not only did sinners repent and turn to Jesus and not only did believers come away with a renewed commitment to faithfulness, but onlookers would begin to find themselves shaking uncontrollably while others would fall to the ground or weep hysterically. Still others would scream in terror as they perceived visions of hell. Some actually felt the sensation of being on fire.

It didn’t take long before Whitefield was a national phenomenon and could hardly walk to the store without being followed by a crowd of onlookers. Conscious of his own struggles with pride, Whitefield was careful always to deflect the glory to Jesus.

Awakening America

In 1738 when he was only 25 years old, Whitefield decided to follow John Wesley’s example and go to Georgia. It was the first of seven tours to the colonies. Whitefield was an immediate sensation in the New World, provoking enormous support as well as fierce opposition.

The size of the crowds Whitefield drew in America was phenomenal. As soon as news got out that Whitefield was preaching in a town, commerce would cease and the entire population would flock to hear him. One sermon he preached in the Boston Common drew more listeners than Boston’s entire population.

Whitefield had a special burden for America. He studied the spiritual heritage of the land and urged his listeners to return to the vision of the Puritans who had been some of the first to colonize the land. Whitefield’s wish was largely granted, and Benjamin Franklin, ever the skeptic, remarked that “From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

From Pulpit to Hedgerow
After returning from his first visit to America, Whitefield found the situation in England greatly changed. John Wesley had decided to publically attack Whitefield for his Calvinist views, causing the work of revival to be fractured. This deeply hurt Whitefield who, though a staunch Anglican Calvinist, had always put a premium on the unity of all believers and had worked hard to break down denominational barriers. Now, thanks to John Wesley, the revivalist movement began to be divided between “followers of Wesley” or “followers of Whitefield.” Although the two men were later reconciled, it was too late and the revival movement had become deeply fractured.

Opposition from other quarters increased, and Whitefield found that many of the English pulpits where he had previously preached were now closed to him. Although this was the devil’s plan to stop his message from getting out, it was the best thing that could have happened because it forced Whitefield to do something previously unprecedented since the time of the early church: he began preaching out of doors.

Although heavily criticized for the move, Whitefield’s ‘field preaching’ allowed him take his message directly to the people, many of whom had never set foot in an actual church. The result was that larger and larger crowds began to attend his preaching, and there was nothing the sterile clergy could do to stop it. Everyone wanted to come and listen to Whitefield preach, even if they had to travel great distances. In a span of  only few months, Whitefield preached to somewhere between eight hundred thousand to a million people. Thus, the revival movement later known as “the Great Awakening,” began to accelerate.

Marriage and Family

In 1737, an event occurred for which Whitefield was unprepared: he fell in love. He first met Elizabeth Delamotte in 1737 when he had been a guest in her parents’ home. Known for her stunning beauty, Whitefield became enamored with her.

With their emphasis on self-denial, the “Methodists” often had no understanding of how to enjoy the present life. Even God-given earthly pleasures like family, food and music, were seen to be a distraction from the pursuit of holiness. Similarly, with their emphasis on getting as many people as possible to go to heaven when they died, the revivalists often failed to have the generational focus that we find in evangelists like Boniface and Chalmers. Whitefield was not immune to these tendencies and viewed family as a possible hindrance to the work of ministry. Thus, when he proposed to Elizabeth, Whitefield made clear that his arduous travelling ministry would continue unabated even after marriage. In the proposal that he wrote, Whitefield assured Elizabeth that he was free from the “passionate expressions” of love and coldly stated: “I have great reason to believe it is the divine will that I should alter my condition, and have often thought that you [were] the person appointed for me.”

It is not surprising that Elizabeth rejected the tepid proposal. Later Whitefield had another opportunity to marry. Whitefield’s friend, Howell Harris, had fallen in love with a woman, again named Elizabeth, but decided he wanted “no creature between my soul and God.” In order to remove Elizabeth from his life, Howell gave her to Whitefield.

It was not an easy marriage. During their honeymoon, George maintained a schedule of preaching twice a day. On the day of his only son’s funeral, he preached even as the bells for the funeral service chimed. Most of his married life was spent away from home on his various preaching tours. During one season, when Elizabeth did try to travel with her husband, it was so stressful that she miscarried four times in sixteen months.

Opposition to Whitefield

Whitefield had appeared on the scene at a critical time in England’s history. The secularism of the Enlightenment had eroded away the Christian fabric of the nation, making Deism the fashionable viewpoint for those who wished to appear ‘modern’ and intelligent. This paradigm shift had come with a heavy cost, and the England of the early 18th century was a brutal place to live. Rampant immorality, cruelty to the poor at home and to slaves abroad, pervasive drunkenness, gluttony, child abuse and violent public pastimes were all accepted as normal by the majority of the population. Moreover, the masses were becoming unstable, fuelled with the same revolutionary ideas that would later find expression in the bloody French revolution.

Even among the clergy, many of these vices had become fashionable pastimes. After returning from England in 1731, the French essayist Montesquieu revealingly commented that “A converted minister is as rare as a comet.”

It was against this decadent world that Whitefield set himself every time he opened his mouth to preach. And not surprisingly, he made many enemies from those who wished to carry on with business as usual. Whitefield’s enemies would frequently try to disrupt his meetings by blowing loud trumpets and shouting obscenities. On some occasions violent mobs would actually attack those who were listening to his preaching, maiming the men and stripping off the women’s clothing. There are even reports of the women being raped. Whitefield also suffered acutely from this vehement hatred, being stoned once, clubbed twice, whipped on at least half a dozen occasions and beaten an equal number of times. It was not infrequent for his sermons to be interrupted by having stones, dirt, manure and pieces of dead cat thrown in his face. On one occasion a man climbed a tree above where Whitefield was preaching. In an attempt to divert attention away from Whitefield, the man pulled down his trousers and exposed himself to the crowd. Failing to achieve the diversion he desired, the man began to urinate on Whitefield.
Considering his accomplishments, it is not surprising that the devil hated Whitefield. It is almost impossible to assess the cultural transformations spawned by Whitefield’s preaching in Great Britain and America. Many historians believe it was the preaching of Whitefield and Wesley that saved England from its own counterpart of the French revolution.

He is also credited with helping to sow the seeds for the American War for Independence, by giving the previously divided colonies a fresh sense of unity and purpose.

Although primarily remembered for his preaching, Whitefield was also a strategic builder involved in many projects, including having contributed to the founding of both Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. He also started a number of publishing companies in addition to an orphanage in Georgia.

Despite the manifold legacy he left behind, George had no desire to be famous or to be remembered as a great man. “When I die,” he once wrote, “the only epitaph that I desire to be engraved upon my tombstone is ‘Here lies George Whitefield; what sort of man he was the great day will discover.’”
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