By Jon Anderson
It was a quaint but relatively average street in a small Massachusetts town. There was a church down the way and a park across the street, but nothing particularly outstanding about the house that we stood in front of. Nothing, that is, except that 246 years ago one of my greatest heroes in the faith preached his last sermon from the upper window and died that night. Today his legacy stands as one of the greatest influences on North American Christianity but more personally, one of the greatest inspirations in my own ministry and walk with Christ. Let me introduce you to my friend George Whitfield.
George Whitefield was born the youngest of seven children on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England. In 1732 he enrolled at Oxford University where he joined the small ‘holiness club,’ led by the Wesley brothers, and engaged in the rigors of the ‘Methodist’ lifestyle. Charles Wesley lent him the book The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal (still in print today and HIGHLY recommended!) of which, he said, “it showed me that I must be born again, or be damned!” It was a full year later that he was finally saved, declaring that “a full assurance of faith broke in upon my disconsolate soul!”
In 1735 Whitefield led the holiness club, completed his degree, and was ordained in the Church of England. Soon following, with the encouragement of the Wesley brothers, he decided to go as a missionary to the United States. All told, he made seven arduous and perilous trips across the Atlantic Ocean, established Bethesda, his orphan house, and preached his way up the east coast as far as New England. He often preached to crowds of up to 8,000 people every day for months on end. Benjamin Franklin once estimated that Whitefield, without any amplification, could be heard by more than 30,000 people, and it is estimated that in his lifetime he reached as many as 10,000,000 hearers. Countless were saved under his ministry and he was in many ways the spark that ignited the American revival known as The Great Awakening.
But as impressive as these accomplishments are, it is not the public Whitefield that I want you to see. Countless thousands would have seen the public Whitefield from afar, but it is the private Whitefield, the Whitefield behind the scenes that should really inspire our hearts and garner our emulation. As I consider the life of George Whitefield, three things stand out. He was a man of prayer, a man of passion and a man of perseverance.
Whitefield was a man of prayer. His powerful preaching and evangelism stemmed from a powerful prayer life. When he studied, he studied with prayer. He was often described as being on his knees at 5 in the morning in fervent prayer over his Bible, his Greek Testament and a volume of Matthew Henry’s commentary. He had a unique practice of ‘praying over every line and every word’ in both the English and the Greek, feasting his mind and his heart upon it till it’s essential meaning has become a part of his very person.
He embraced and used every opportunity as a chance to pray. On one of his numerous voyages to America, a strong wind continued until most of the crew grew sick and were unable to do anything but lie down. Whitfield recorded in his journal “This rejoiced me much, for I had a glorious opportunity of spending many hours in close communion with God.” He wrote that he was “often awed into silence, and could not speak.” And prayer was a priority. While he worked relentlessly hard with little rest he yet showed prayer to be a priority saying “Whole days I have spent in lying prostrate on the ground in silent or vocal prayer”. As John Owen famously said, “A minister (or a Christian) may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.” Whitefield was used mightily by God in public because he depended on God mightily in private.
Whitefield was also a man of passion for the lost. J.I. Packer comments that “It has been said that nineteenth-century evangelist Charles Finney rode down sinners with a cavalry charge. Whitefield’s way, however, was to sweep them off their feet with an overflow of compassionate affection; as Christ’s ambassador he modeled his master’s goodwill toward the lost.” In 1740 Whitefield preached at the church Jonathan Edwards and stayed in his home. It is said that Edwards attended all of Whitefield’s sermons and repeatedly broke down in tears. Edwards’s wife, Sarah, wrote in her journal, “It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by proclaiming the simple truths of the Bible. I have seen upwards of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence, broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob.… A prejudiced person, I know, might say that this is all theatrical artifice and display; but not so will anyone think who has seen and known him.” In one sermon he pleaded “My dear friends, I would preach with all my heart till midnight, to do you good, till I could preach no more. Oh, that this body might hold out to speak more for my dear Redeemer! Had I a thousand lives, had I a thousand tongues, they should be employed in inviting sinners to come to Jesus Christ!” On another occasion, he explained to the crowds “You blame me for weeping, but how can I help it when you will not weep for yourselves, though your immortal souls are on the verge of destruction?” And he relentlessly shared the gospel. One of his best-known quotes was his policy of traveling with others: “God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.” During his funeral sermon the great evangelist John Wesley asked “Have we read or heard of any person since the apostles, who … called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners to repentance?”
And finally, he was a man of perseverance. His passion came out not only in the delivery of his preaching, but his tenacious schedule as well. He preached relentlessly throughout his life. Often he awoke at 4 A.M. before beginning to preach at 5 or 6 A.M. In one week he often preached a dozen times or more and spent 40 or 50 hours in the pulpit. Some estimate that Whitefield preached 15,000 times in his thirty-three-year career. Once, while preaching in London, a trumpeter and drummer tried to drown him out while another man tried to whip him. On another occasion, he said, ‘I was honoured with having a few stones, dirt, rotten eggs, and pieces of dead cats thrown at me.’ Yet he kept preaching for 3 hours, and 350 people were ‘awakened’. He was intentionally fully engaged in his work for the Lord and passionately against laziness saying “There is not a thing on the face of the earth that I abhor so much as idleness or idle people.” And the motto for his life was his often quoted line “I would rather wear out than rust out.” Many years later the great Charles Spurgeon would say of Whitefield “He lived. Other men seem to be only half-alive; but Whitefield was all life, fire, wing, force. And that perseverance would continue to the end. He arrived in Newburyport September 29th 1770 having already preached and traveled that day. Being warned by a friend not to preach again that day Whitefield responded with a prayer: “Lord, if I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for Thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die!” He did preach. The church he had planted years ago was too small, so the people gathered in a park and he stood in the upper window of the pastor’s house across the street. With what is described as “oppressive heavings of the bosom” he preached on until the candle in his hand burned out. The Lord answered his prayer. George Whitefield passed away early the next morning, never to preach again in this world.
Now I know, reading biographies such as this can sometimes have a backwards effect. We see in a man like Whitefield a gifting and an ability that is so far beyond our own. And it’s true, you are no Whitefield. And I certainly am not either. I am glad for that fact; I am not accountable for the level of talent and ability to which God gave Whitefield. But I am accountable for what the Lord has given me. And so I am eagerly interested in what is it that enabled Whitefield to use what God had given him to its fullest extent. I want to know, how do I maximize my ability, my talents, my short life in this world? And I think if we follow Whitefield as he follows Christ, we are called to prayer, to passion for the lost and perseverance. I don’t know about you, but as I get to know this Jesus more, I am more convicted that I want to wear out rather than rust out. I want to be able to stand before Christ one day with a life behind me that was marked by prayer, passion for the lost and perseverance through every trial.