Monday, November 15, 2010

George Whitefield and Marriage

That I think Whitefield was a great man of God, should be clear from my earlier post about him. However, he did have one fault: he was a lousy husband. Now that Whitefield is up in heaven I think he would be pleased to know that we are learning lessons from his mistakes as from his successes. 
Whitefield first met Elizabeth Delamotte in 1737 when he had been a guest in her parents’ home. Elizabeth was known for her stunning beauty and Whitefield became enamoured with her. Unfortunately, however, his emphasis on self-denial had left him unprepared to know how to deal with his feelings. Thus, when he proposed to Elizabeth, Whitefield made clear that his arduous travelling ministry would continue unabated even after marriage. In his proposal letter, 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. His friend, Howell Harris, had fallen in love with a woman, also 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. Whitefield married her, but his implicit sacred/secular dualism ensured the marriage was not easy. Believing God called him to neglect his family for the sake of missions, he maintained a schedule of preaching twice a day during their honeymoon, while even on the day of his only son’s funeral, he preached 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.
Now contrast Whitefield's approach to marriage with that of the Puritans. Puritan teaching on marriage allowed no dichotomy between one's devotion to the ministry and one's devotion to family. For the Puritans, loving one's wife is Christian ministry and a vital part of it. In my article Recovering the Protestant Affirmation of Life, I discuss this Puritan vision further. I argue that the Calvinist movement in which Puritanism was rooted dignified activities that were previously considered mundane, through vigorously affirming the sacredness of earthly life, the glory of the physical, the splendour of the ordinary and the intimate unison between spirit and matter. The Puritan allowed one to serve God by serving one's wife, to be faithful to the Lord through being faithful in one's vocation. To read more about that, click here.

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