This year it’s the 300th birthday of the great 18th century evangelist, George Whitefield. He’s less famous than his contemporary, John Wesley, because he didn’t really write hymns and didn’t start his own denomination.
So what’s to love about George Whitefield?
1. He was confessional.
Whitefield was loyal to the Church of England’s Reformed foundations. He had subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, and the Book of Common Prayer, and he did so without equivocation or double-speak. “Would we restore the church to its primitive dignity,” he once said, “the only way is to live and preach the doctrine of Christ and the Articles to which we have subscribed. Then we shall find the number of dissenters will daily decrease and the Church of England become the joy of the whole earth.”
He thought it was hypocrisy worthy of hell to claim officially that such Articles were one’s inspiration and guidance for ministry (in order to be ordained) but not actually to believe and teach their confessional content.
The education he provided for the children at the orphanage he supported in Georgia was a confessional education: all students were to learn the Thirty-nine Articles, and they were also to read “publicly, distinctly, frequently, and carefully” the set Anglican Homilies throughout the year. Whitefield was not a novel preacher: he believed and proclaimed the Reformed and evangelical faith on which the Church of England had taken its stand since the Reformation.
2. He was a cavalryman.
Augustus Toplady narrates how his hero Whitefield once tried to persuade him to become an itinerant preacher. He encouraged the younger man with promises of greater fruitfulness should he leave his parish and travel more. Yet as Toplady told Lady Huntingdon, "I consider the true ministers of God as providentially divided into two bands: viz., the regulars and the irregulars." Some such as Whitefield were akin to cavalry and others, like Toplady, were more like sentinels or guardsmen watching over a more circumscribed district.
Whitefield was never the ordinary vicar of an ordinary parish. But he thrived on the edges of the establishment, taking the gospel to people who might otherwise never hear it. He was banned from using some Anglican pulpits, by bishops who were nervous about his youthful over-exuberance or by vicars wary of his overly dramatic and sometimes condemnatory attitude (sometimes rightly!). Undaunted, he took to the fields and preached to massive crowds.
An ordinary parochial ministry within the structures of an ordered denomination is of immense value and usefulness. But there is also space in God’s army of evangelists for cavalrymen like Whitefield (provided, of course, that they don’t undermine or undervalue the ministry of local churches).
3. He was convincing.
Finally, Whitefield was a convincing, convictional preacher. He didn’t preach to encourage people to join discussion groups. He didn’t ask people to go away and think about Jesus. He urged people, passionately, to come to Jesus and be saved.
“But alas! I shall return home with a heavy heart, unless some of you will arise and come to my Jesus. I desire to preach him and not myself. Rest not in hearing and following me. Behold, believe on and follow the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world.”
His preaching was strong and clear. He preached from the heart, to the heart: “O, my brethren, my heart is enlarged towards you! Tears, while I am speaking, are ready to gush out. But they are tears of love and joy.” Yet, “if any here do expect fine preaching from me this day,” he once preached, “they will, in all probability, go away disappointed. For I came not here to shoot over people’s heads but, if the Lord shall be pleased to bless me, to reach their hearts.”
The Reverend George Whitefield is not as famous today or as well regarded as he might be. But he will have a reward in heaven, because he pointed people to the only man who truly deserves to be celebrated.