Friday, January 24, 2014

The Legacy of George Whitefield (Part One)

(The following multi-part series is from a lecture the author gave to the Annuttaliga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, January 20, 2014, in which I was asked to speak on the topic of "Religion at the Time of the American Revolution"). 

My Own Admiration for George Whitefield
            Let me admit rather candidly at the outset that I am an enthusiastic admirer of the man about whom I am going to speak today. Thus, I cannot even pretend to be unbiased in this presentation His legacy and writing have influenced this small town local church pastor greatly, even though Whitefield’s ministry and my own could not be more different. He was an Anglican (Church of England) ordained priest and international itinerant evangelist, and I am a Presbyterian, largely duty-bound to my local church, in small town Brooksville which I love. 

Impossible to Understand the Religious Landscape at the Time of the Revolution without Whitefield 
At the same time, I believe I have chosen my subject matter well for a discussion on religion at the time of the Revolution: George Whitefield was simply the most significant figure during this era, by far—on either sides of the Atlantic—and let me add that he was a contemporary of both Jonathan Edwards in America (considered America’s greatest theologian) and John and Charles Wesley in England (the founders of the Methodist and Wesleyan denominations). And yet I will hold firmly that Whitefield was more influential than all three! Let me share why I believe this to be so.  

The Astonishing Reports and Facts
 First, it is estimated that George Whitefield preached to 80% of the population of the American Colonies during the mid 1700’s in live audience. This is absolutely astonishing in a day that did not enjoy any of the modern communication equipment we have today (microphones, TV, radio, or internet). This means that Whitefield spoke live—in person—to four-fifths of the entire population alive in America in his day! Unfathomable! In his evangelistic travels, Whitefield preached at every major city on the Atlantic Seaboard, and all this in an age when most major land travel was done by horse and carriage. No person could possibly rival George Whitefield as the single most dominant religious figure in the mid 1700’s, because no one else was as heard as often and broadly as he.
            Whitefield preached some 18,000 sermons during his lifetime of 34 years of itinerant evangelism (only 57 sermons are extant). One thousand sermons per year, some years! This would result in 20 sermons per week! (By comparison, I give two or three). John Piper says that he preached some weeks for 40 – 60 hours, and was literally preaching to audiences more than he slept![1]
            Because of his incredible fame—he is said to be America’s first true celebrity—Whitefield often spoke to thousands of persons at a time. A crowd of 8-12 thousand gathered in the open fields was not uncommon. At least once, 20,000 persons were gathered to hear him speak in an open air setting.  
            Benjamin Franklin, scoffing at those numbers, went to hear him himself and concluded that his vocal projection could easily encompass as many as 30,000 persons, even more than reported![2]
            Piper gives this instance, “In Philadelphia … on Wednesday, April 6, he preached on Society Hill twice in the morning to about 6,000, and in the evening to near 8,000. On Thursday, he spoke to ‘upwards of ten thousand,’ and it was reported at one of these events the words, “‘He opened His mouth and taught them saying,’ were distinctly heard at Gloucester point, a distance of two miles by water down the Delaware River.”[3] He was, we might say, a human boom box!
            In order to perform these incredible feats that press the human imagination, God must have given him an extraordinary power of human voice projection and control as well as his powers of persuasive rhetoric (more on that later). Thousands of persons would have traced their spiritual lineage to him as multitudes were converted under his preaching. Whitefield, however, would have always credited God with every conversion as he believed it was impossible for any man to convert anyone. Along with the aforementioned Edwards and the Wesley brothers, it was Whitefield who was principally the driving force (from a mortal perspective) behind the revivals that today are known as the First Great Awakening.

What Has Been Said about Rev. Whitefield
Allow me to share some quotes from his contemporaries as well as his biographers: Probably the most accurate summary of his life was quipped by one of his biographers, Arnold Dallimore, “His whole life may be said to have been consumed in the delivery of one continuous, or scarcely interrupted sermon.”[4] He was quite literally almost always preaching!
            John Piper, in his memorable lecture to the 2009 Desiring God Conference for Pastors said, “[Whitefield] was a phenomenon not just of his age, but in the entire 2000-year history of Christian preaching. There has been nothing like the combination of his preaching pace and geographic extent and auditory scope and attention-holding effect and converting power.”[5]
            Biographer J.C. Ryle said, “I believe that the direct good which he did to immortal souls was enormous. I will go further—I believe it is incalculable. Credible witnesses in England, Scotland, and America have placed on record their conviction that he was the means of converting thousands of people.”[6]
            Benjamin Franklin, who cannot in any way be described as sharing the evangelical convictions of Whitefield, nevertheless greatly enjoyed his preaching. “Every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well-placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music.”[7] At first a skeptic, Ben Franklin later confessed, "There is hardly another minister of the Gospel alive who can so bring to life the truth and relevancy of the Scriptures." He added on another occasion, "Almost he persuadeth me to believe!"[8]
            Sarah Edwards, whose own husband Jonathan was also a pastor and instrumental in the Great Awakening said of Whitefield without any apparent jealousy, “He is a born orator. You have already heard of his deep-toned, yet clear and melodious voice. O it is perfect music to listen to that alone! . . . You remember that David Hume thought it worth going 20 miles to hear him speak; and Garrick [an actor who envied Whitefield’s gifts] said, ‘He could move men to tears . . . in pronouncing the word Mesopotamia.’.”[9]

-Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville Fl, and is the author of several books including, Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647. 

[1] John Piper, “I Will Not be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher: The Life and Ministry of George Whitefield” (Desiring God 2009 Conference for Pastors). Cited from, (accessed December 17, 2013).

[2] Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 93.

[3] John Piper, “I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher.”
[4] John Piper, “I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher.”

[5] John Piper, “I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher.”

[6] Quoted in, John Piper, “I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher.”

[7] Quoted in, John Piper, “I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher.”

[8] Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield, (Nashville, TN, 2001), 253.
[9] Quoted in, John Piper, “I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher.”

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