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Happy Birthday, George Whitfield!

Greg E. Gifford, MA, PhD Student

ggifford@masters.edu

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I sat in a graduation ceremony this past spring and heard the words of a wise, seasoned principal speak to his graduating students. His speech was filled with an energetic commission to continue on with their hard work and packed into that was advice to “be careful with whom you associate, for you will be like them by Christmas.” What he was drawing out is the great significance that our friendships possess. And if that is true, it would be really helpful to become friends with George Whitfield.

Who Was George Whitfield?

Whitfield was born on December 16, 1714 in a small town in England called Gloucester. He was reborn around 20 years later after heavy involvement in the Holy Club that gathered on the Oxford (a club from which some say Methodism was born). During his time in the Holy Club, Whitfield was exposed to the vanity of man-made religion and the fact that the only means to salvation is faith in Jesus Christ.

Whitfield was also an itinerant preacher for the majority of his ministry and some say that his preaching was used by God to shock America into a newfound revival. Isaac Taylor said that, “during the months of Whitfield’s first coming before the world, the church walls reeked wherever he had been announced. Of such popularity there had not been an example, either in the church or out of it” (20). He was gifted and passionate.

Not surprisingly, he committed to being a missionary to the state of Georgia just three years after his conversion where he would later found the Bethesda Orphanage and contributed much to the Great Awakening in the States. He was used so greatly that during one sermon that he preached at Jonathan Edwards’ church in New England, Edwards is said to have wept during the entire sermon (89). Moreover, it was very apparent that God had gifted him with great abilities to preach and the vision to popularize the open air, open field preaching of his time.

God also gifted him with a charismatic spirit to help organize and assimilate. He is said to be one of the main contributors to the founding of Methodism. Yet in that giftedness, he was not exempt from trials. One of the darkest of which was his conflict with the Wesley brothers. Depending on the biographer will depend on the full story you receive but Arnold Dallimore shows that this was a very painful time in Whitfield’s life. He was not interested in separating from Wesley but felt after Wesley published against his personal beliefs, a formal critique and ensuing separation was necessary (99).

Whitfield would later marry and experience even greater usefulness abroad before settling back home in England. His ministered faithfully and it was said that on one day just outside of Boston in Exeter, he had anticipated traveling through to Boston and was asked to preach once more. At the age of 49, another gentlemen said he might be more fit for sleep than for preaching that day. Whitfield humbly replied, “true sir.” Then he looked up and said, “Lord, I am wearied in Thy work but not weary of it” (194). And to his credit, Whitfield was faithful to the Lord until his death on September 30, 1770.

Thoughts From Whitfield’s Life

There are many things that we could deduce from the life of George Whitfield but I want to draw out two glaring observations. The first of which is that man-made religion has never saved a person (Col. 2:23) but has condemned many. George Whitfield was plagued with the thought that he could somehow make himself acceptable to God, especially by denying himself. But it never worked: the just shall—and will always—live by faith (Rom. 1:17). The gospel has a funny way of crushing our self-righteousness and elevating the grace of God. And when we come to grips with our own neediness, we come to grips with a saving God. Whitfield had to come to grips with God by seeing that there was nothing he could do, only what God could do in him.

The last thought is that Whitfield was a hard worker. He was crossing the Atlantic, preaching hundreds of times, and building orphanages before his car insurance would have dropped prices in modern times. He was a mover and a shaker. One thing that we can appreciate about Whitfield, among his flaws, is that he was willing to work hard. And God used that work ethic: God shook up a country through the means of hard-working young men like Whitfield. My prayer is that God would do the same in our times. The Whitfield’s of our time are few and far between. In fact, most of them are too busy playing fantasy football to dream dreams of starting orphanages and growing in biblical usefulness.

And if the words of the principal are true, then I pray that you would get to know Whitfield and others like him so that you too can grow in your usefulness for the kingdom. I also pray that as we celebrate Whitfield’s 300th birthday that we would seek to rely on the grace of God as much as he did, while working hard—harder than any of them (1 Cor. 15:10).

Arnold Dallimore. George Whitfield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century. Wheaton: Crossway, 1990.

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"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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