George Whitefield

Approaching the vast field of revival history and heritage, one is at a loss to know which or where to start. There are a vast number of definitions of revival and each writer, each biographer, each historian and current practitioner operates with a different definition. One problem with these definitions are that they tend to define revival as an event rather than as a process. What is clear is that this thing that we call revival is a process that involves the move of God in his spirit in a vast number of different ways that have certain similarities.

If we define revival as a process then we see a series of events and consequences. The challenge to the student of revival is to define this process but further to begin to discuss the consequences and the requirements for revival. The greatest need in any move of God is for discipled trained and annointed leaders that God can use in the revival process.

As we begin to examine the history of revival we find that there are a series of characters thrown up by events. Some of these leaders are greatly gifted in organisation, others end their ministries deeply in debt to the tax office because of their approach to financial management. Some work very hard to maintain relationships across boundaries of ministries and theology. Others are very difficult to get on with. We find people who have owned slaves, we find people who are divisive in the Church, we find people whose theology is highly suspect. What is the unifying aspect that allows God to move through their ministries? Ultimately we find that they were people who were not satisfied with what was happening in their churches at the time. And were prepared to seek God for changes in themselves and in their Church. So a prime requisite is to be available and more than available to be actively seeking God for his move in your life and the church.

The actual term revival was coined in the mid-seventeen hundreds. According to Iain Murray the term was used to describe an increase in the grace of God in Ministry. This was in the context of the calvinistic Presbyterian Church current in America at the time. Perhaps a good place to start then is the first great awakening. At this time let us dip into the lifeof one leader of revival during the first great awakening in Britain also known as the Methodist revival.

Immediately the word Methodist is used there is an association with the name of Wesley. However the Wesley brothers were not involved in the start of this revival. Rather their friend and colleague George Whitefield is generally considered to be the person that God used to start this revival. George Whitefield was a man of great heart. Frequently he walked away from his interests for the sake of unity and to avoid discord. Probably the greatest preacher that history can provide. Certainly he is the greatest preacher before the advent of public address systems. He could preach to crowds that today we would consider impossible without vast amplification and sound systems.

George Whitefield worked his body into the ground under the task of evangelism. He covered the whole of Britain preaching on average several times a day. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean several times preaching up and down the length of America. John Wesley in his funeral sermon stated "have we read or heard of any person who called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners to repentance?" (Armstrong p16) it is difficult to number the times which George preached. He preached over 18 thousand times in formal sermons. This is only the small part of what he did though. At any opportunity be preached! If we include these occasions then it was well over 30 thousand times. At times he was actually speaking for over 40 to 60 hours per week. This was in addition to his letter writing and administration of his vast Ministry concerns. Dallimore records how he used to preach in the morning for several hours come home and be prostrated from the strain, gather his strength and return to preach again in the evening.

George was born in a Tavern in 1714 in Gloucester, England. He began school at St Mary's when 12. By 15, however be returned home to help in the family business due to family problems. Although his schooling was interrupted, it should not be construed that he was un- educated. By 16 he was reading the Greek New Testament and had done significant work in Latin. George lived in an environment that could only be described as broken. Besides the Tavern environment, George's parents had marital problems. His father had died previously, and at the age of 15 his mother separated from his step father. During his childhood at the bell Inn, George was exposed to the stage and this childhood interest carried over in his ability to draw vivid illustrations in his sermons.

George matriculated to Pembroke College, Oxford in 1732, as a servitor. A servitor was a student who to pay their bills, acted as servant to other richer students. It was during this time at Oxford that George came in contact with the famous holy club. The Holy club had been started by Charles Wesley in 1728. It should not be considered as a part of the revival at this stage. These students had gathered together to practise a greater depth of religion. This meant in practice the reading of spiritual classics, the taking of the sacraments every month and the visiting of the sick and prisoners faithfully. While scholarship was encouraged by these men, they knew little of what we consider to be the essentials of the Christian faith. Armstrong comments that they knew next to nothing of the new birth. (Armstrong P 23). They had yet to hear of the principle of by faith alone are we justified and even the concept that the only authority for the Christian is scripture, was unknown. Scripture was placed on an equal footing as the writings of the Church fathers.

Dallimore writes: the Methodism of Oxford was destined to die away with the disposal of its members in 1735; the Methodism of the revival was to be born in 1737 and 1739 under Whitefield flaming Ministry, and thereafter to be assisted by the Ministry of the Wesleys.

While the Methodism of the Oxford group was not the Methodism of the revival, it was in this context that George became a Christian. Challenged by the requirements of a holy life, George began to seek God. From the holy club he had learned to practise a type of mysticism that we would find strenuous and destructive. His family in Gloucester was alarmed and the master of the college threatened to expel him. As Armstrong writes:

Students actually threw dirt at him while, "others took away their pay" for his servitor's services. He fell into very deep emotional distress. We would refer to it as a significant depression... He prayed, wept, fasted, sought and agonised all the more ...these trials continued for months. In 1735, near Lent they became more intense. He was now in a weakened and sickly frame of mind and body... He listed his sins, confessed them one by one, and laboured for rest every morning and evening. Finally, in the kindness of God he came to the end of his human efforts and resources. He came to see that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could do for salvation that had not already been done. In the darkness our God revealed himself in the gospel. Whitefield wrote:

God was pleased to remove the heavy load, to enable me to lay hold of his dear son by living faith, and by giving the the spirit of adoption, to seal me even to the day of everlasting redemption. (Armstrong p25)

the cost of his conversion on his body and mind was significant. Whitefield returned home for a period of rest. He found this a dreary time with no mental or spiritual stimulation. Almost to avoid the boredom, Whitefield begins to evangelise choosing to begin to reach out to a lady that he had known since childhood. The conversion was the first of several and soon there was a society of believers formed in Gloucester.

Since he had left Oxford, his financial resources had dried up. He began to rely on God to meet his needs. Eventually the financial resources were made available for him to return to Oxford. At this time he struggled with the idea of becoming an Anglican Minister. As the then leader of the holy club, it was the continuing burning urgency the felt to preach the gospel that decided him in the end to seek ordination.

he was ordained a Deacon on Sunday, June 20, 1736 by the Bishop of Gloucester. This was the beginning of a fruitful ministry within London. Over the next few months he preached to overflowing crowds at the chapel of the Town and Ludgate prison. Even from these earliest days, Whitefield had the drawing power to pack the venue that he used. These overflowing crowds were a mark of his ministry until his death some 34 years later. At this time he was only 21 years old.

Although Whitefield was becoming very popular he was still desperately poor. He received several invitations to come and be a settled Minister. At the same time he received an invitation from John Wesley to come and minister with John in Georgia. he chose Georgia and for this reason, became one of the greatest evangelist and itinerant preachers of all time. Even as he was preparing to leave for Georgia, his ministry and popularity was increasing. Everywhere that he went he was in demand to preach and God blessed his preaching with large results.

During the months before his departure, he was preaching on average 9 times a week. a contemporary wrote:

On Sundays before daybreak the streets were to be seen in a bustle with people going early in order to secure good places, with lanterns in their hands, and conversing with each other about the things of eternity. (Armstrong P 30).

Despite the criticism of Whitefield: called a spiritual pickpocket, others a special charm to move people, others demonic or hyper - spiritual power, it is clear that the response to George's preaching goes well beyond the possibilities of natural talent. It is clear that George was an annointed minister at the time of a great moving of God across England. It was God that achieved the results of George's ministry.

As the time for George's leaving for America drew near, the response of people grew even more extreme:

Thousands and thousands of prayers were put up for me. They would run and stop me in the alleys of the churches, hug me in their arms and follow me with wishful looks. (Armstrong P 31)

In Georgia his reception was similar. It was at this time that he began to work on an institution that would take some of his attention for the rest of his life. He began to promote the idea of an orphanage within Georgia. Despite the long journey to get to Georgia, he found himself leaving after only four months. His parishioners were keen to see him confirmed as a full Anglican priest.

On his return, after 11 months, Whitefield was received with the same welcome by the people. His popularity with the churches however was increasingly low. He found that more and more churches were closed to him. On a visit to Bristol, he found no church that would allow him to preach. Even the prison was closed to him due to the wrangling of the mayor.

Eventually Whitefield was forced to step well outside the bounds of proprietary and begin to preach in the open air. Whitefield was refused the Abbey Church at Bath and so returned to Bristol. There he was also refused and so went to the poor coal mining district of Kingswood. He stood on a hill called Hanham mount near Bristol and preached on the text of Matthew 5 verses 1-3. Describing the responces to his continued ministry among the coal miners:

Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend to publicans, and came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks as they came out of the coal - pits. Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions which (as the event proved) happily ended in a sound and thorough conversion ( Armstrong P 33)

after these experiments in ministry in the open air, Whitefield extended his ministry into Wales and then returned to London. It was Whitefield who introduced John Wesley to open air preaching that became such a key mark of this revival. Armstrong is keen to point out that revival had already broken out in America by this time. On his return to London he failed to find any Church that would allow him to preach. He began his work in Moorfields. There he preached to pleasure seekers, the crowds were estimated by some at over 30 thousand. Whitefield described it thus:

The wind, being for me, carried the voice to the extremist part of the audience. All stood attentive and joined in the psalm and the Lords prayer most regularly. I scarce ever preached more quietly in any church... All agreed it was never seen in this wise before.

It was not long before Whitefield was compelled to return to Georgia. Whitefield would cross and re-cross the Atlantic preaching in America some five times during his ministry. Leaving England he left the care of the Ministry that he had founded in both Bristol and Moorfields to the care of his friends the Wesleys.

When Whitefield arrived, he met Benjamin Franklin. This was the beginning of a life long friendship with this key American Scientist. As soon as he had arrived, Whitefield found that he was again preaching. The churches welcomed him and the crowds were as big as ever.

Whitefield and Franklin disagreed over the plan to found a orphanage in Georgia. Franklin felt that the perfect place was Philadelphia. Because Whitefield didn't agree Franklin refused to donate any money to the cause. However the following incident occurred:

I happened soon afterwards to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. Yet I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften and concluded to give the copper. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver, and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket into the collection dish, gold and all (Armstrong p38)

During this time Whitefield made an important friendship with the Tennant family. This family was instrumental in the founding of what is now Princeton and were also very active in the revival movement of the time. Despite Whitefield being an ordained Anglican priest, it was the Presbyterians that welcomed him and the Anglicans refused him their Churches.

After a month in Philadelphia ministering, Whitefield left to travel south to Georgia. Every place that he travelled through, crowds gathered and beseeched him to stay and Minister amongst them. After preaching the gospel to them he moved on. Everywhere that he went the left a trail of new Christians, powerfully converted by his ministry.

It took him two months to get from Philadelphia to Georgia. This basically sums up the Ministry of Whitefield. He travelled from place to place, preaching, and everywhere the crowds followed and numbers were converted. In addition to this ministry, there were a number of ministries and locations that came under his wing. Foremost among these was the orphanage in Georgia. He was continually fund raising for this institution because at that time Georgia didn't have the population to support the orphanage themselves. In addition all materials were expensive because of the distances they had to be transported.

He did significant work in the area of Bristol. He particularly worked with the coal miners of the Kingswood area. This work bloomed and required a meeting place. He also preached at MoorFields and eventually founded a church there. The work at MoorFields and also in the Bristol area was begun before this trip to America. Whitefield left these ministries in the capable hands of the Wesley brothers. By the time Whitefield returned, the Wesleys had consolidated these ministries.

It is important to realise that there were significant differences in theology between Whitefield and the Wesleys. John Wesley was Armenian in outlook. He was also very mystic in his approach to Christian revelation. From the Moravians he had accepted the practice of casting lots. Whitefield totally rejected these kinds of practices. Whitefield was also a calvinistic in theology. He believed that it was only by a direct act of God that someone could be saved and regenerated. It was God who allowed sinners to repent and become Christians. Wesley on the other hand emphasised a person's free will in choosing to follow Christ.

While the Wesley brothers and Whitefield were the leaders of the Methodist revival, their differences in approach to ministry and also their differences in theology made a controversy inevitable. It was about this time that the controversy came into the open.

While Whitefield was still in America, John Wesley circulated a sermon entitled free grace. It attacked the doctrine of election as taught by Whitefield. They were also beginning to teach their doctrine of perfection. This doctrine suggested that people were able to achieve perfection during this life. Fuel was added to the fire when a letter written to John Wesley by Whitefield protesting such options and practices, was published by the calvinistic faction without the permission of either Wesley or Whitefield. Wesley led a large crowd as he symbolically and literally tore the letter into pieces.

By the time Whitefield returned, Wesley held the deeds to the meeting rooms in Bristol. He had built a church and the Moorfields congregation was meeting in that church. He had also warned that congregation to have nothing to do with Whitefield. The Wesleys were very popular in England, and any opposition that Whitefield made only reduced his ability to continue in ministry as churches were closed to him and he lost popular support. Armstrong quotes Belden:

When he (Whitefield) took his stand under the trees at MoorFields, the crowd passed him by with scorn and mockery, putting their fingers in there ears! Every Church was closed to him, whilst his publisher, James Hutton, whose consistent principle it was to publish only what he believed to be in accordance with the word of God, refused any longer to print for him because of his calvinism. (Armstrong p46)

Throughout this time the orphanage in Georgia was a great financial burden. Another preacher and great friend of Whitefield called Seward was killed by an angry mob at this time. Another bill for the orphanage was presented for £350 leaving Whitefield in debt to the sum of one thousand pounds and him with no money whatsoever.

It has always amazed me the way Whitefield simply walked away from his rights in ministry and proceeded to solve the controversy by expressing greater grace and greater love. The MoorFields problem was solved by simply building another Church building that became, as much as anywhere, the home church for Whitefield. Whitefield proceeded to continue his itinerations covering England and Scotland and Wales. He went to great lengths to heal the breach in relationship between him and the Wesleys. It was out of this great heart, this desire for peace with the Wesleys that the significant quote in Pratney comes. Pratney writes:

One censorious Professor of religion, knowing the sharp theological differences between them, asked if Whitefield thought he would see John Wesley in heaven. "I fear not," he said, "he will be so near the throne and we at such a distance that we shall hardly get a sight of him." (Pratney p96)

Due to this kind of attitude, even though Methodism was increasingly sharply defined across the split between calvinism and arminianism, the relationship between the Wesleys and Whitefield was eventually restored. Whitefield returned to his central calling, that of itinerant evangelist, and left the field of church planting to Wesley.

I don't think we really appreciate the size of the Ministry that Whitefield had. In 1742 Whitefield returned to Scotland. In June Whitefield described the following saying:

At noon I came to Cambuslang, the place which God had so honoured. I preached at two o'clock to a vast body of people, again at six in the evening, afterwards at nine. Such a commotion was surely never heard of, especially about 11 o'clock at night. it far outdid anything I ever saw in America. For about an hour and a half there was such weeping, so many falling into deep distress, and manifesting it in various ways, that description is impossible. The people seemed to be smitten in scores. They were carried off as if brought from a field of battle. Their agonies and cries were deeply affecting. Mr McCulloch preached after I had done, till past one o'clock in the morning, and even then the people could scarcely be got to retire. Throughout the whole of the night the voice of prayer and praise might still be heard in the fields. (Armstrong p51)

This was part of a significant revival in Cambuslang. The numbers of people that Whitefield was preaching to was awesome. On July the 9th Whitefield preached to twenty thousand people. The next day the crowd was all of thirty thousand people. The location of these sermons is now called the preaching braes.

Whitefield continued his efforts to raise money for the orphanage during this time. For this reason the secular press attacked him for the large sums of money that he was raising. The Church hierarchy attacked him for the association's that he had made. Because Whitefield would work with anyone who would allow him to bring people to Christ, he worked with people from both ends of the spectrum. Free church as well as the church men.

Whitefield had married and he soon had a new child. Because he had very little money, be sent his wife and new child to live in Wales. The mother and child got as far as Gloucester, when the child died. This was the child that he had hoped would become a great preacher bringing the gospel to thousands.

With the trials of this personal tragedy, opposition on all sides, he received calls to return to America. This was the middle of the first great awakening. Whitefield on his previous visit had been greatly used to encourage revival through large tracts of America. Now he found that the revival was still in full swing. But he also found confusion and division in many of the churches.

Both Dallimore and Armstrong portray Whitefield as being highly anti-emotionalism and anti-response. I am unsure to what extent this is an imputation from the writer to Whitefield. Armstrong states that one of the problems that Whitefield met on his return was that of an expectation of wild and rowdy response to preaching. Because the spirit was moving in revival, often the congregation's response to preaching was loud or to quote Armstrong: "the spirit of God had created deep and profound impressions which resulted in strong measures of conviction leading many to cry out and weep openly." (Armstrong P 55)

Because these reactions were an indication of the spirit moving, some ministers were now expecting and desiring these effects. This led to ministers cultivating these responses. This is a common issue in all ministries. To what extent are outward responses due to the real activity of God and to what extent on they due to the expectations, or even manipulations of the congregation and the minister.

A second issue was that division or rather competition between lay exhorters and established ministers. This is also an issue which any move of God. With the beginning of revival there is a raising up of people in ministry, either from established ministeries or from the congregation's. At the same time there are some churches that are slower in seeing the effects of revival or who see the revival in a different form.

The response of a established Minister to someone from a revival coming to bring that revival to their Church may indeed be cool. This may not be indicative that this Minister is not interested in revival, rather it may simply mean that they wish to avoid destroying their Church in the process. It is these kinds of issues that the second problem revolve round. There was a perception by certain lay exhorters that because established ministers rejected their ministry, that they were cold and thus the lay exhorters proceeded to minister in a highly divisive manner. they entered a town, proceeded to preach and included denunciations of the established Minister.

The most notorious of these exhorters was James Davenport. To quote Armstrong:

This practice, fostered especially through the problematic ministry of an evangelist named James Davenport, had worked havoc in many places. Davenport, who had previously suffered a mental and emotional breakdown, was undoubtedly used of God in the American awakening, but he was also the cause of considerable division, especially through his "direct revelations". Convulsions, faintings, crying out - all of these regularly attended Davenport meetings. He would sometimes encourage people to throw their clothes, religious books and other possessions into a raging fire. Sadly, some began to associate Whitefield ministries with these excesses. He had to spend considerable time during this particular visit putting out the fires of excess and defending the good name of true evangelism. (Armstrong p56)

After four years of Ministry in America, and uncounted numbers of new converts, Whitefield returned to England. He found that his congregation at Moorfields had outgrown its accommodation. Together with itinerant ministry he entered into a building plan. He was beginning to find that his strength was not equal to the tasks be had before him.

The remainder of his life was largely a continuation of what we have seen so far. The tasks and opportunities simply got larger while his body got weaker and weaker. Towards the end of his life he was forced to more and more curtail his travelling due to sickness. In 1753 he wrote:

Thus far but no further am I as yet advanced on my way to Scotland, and was I to comply with the pressing invitations of the Yorkshire people, I know not when I should get there. The fields are exceedingly white unto harvest, but by preaching thrice a day to great multitude my poor tabernacle is enfeebled, and I have such a cold that I cannot write much. (Armstrong p58)

He was still preaching to congregation's or gatherings of thousands sometimes even up to 20 thousand. Another quotation from this period further emphasizes his steadily worsening state:

Many were filled with new wine; and as for myself I scarcely know whether I was in heaven or on earth. On Tuesday morning, though we had drunk plentifully before, yet Our Lord kept the good wine till the last. We had a glorious parting blessing. At York I preached four times. Twice we were disturbed; and twice we had seasons (of quiet). A good work was begun there. The prospect all around is so glorious I almost repent that I have engaged to go to Scotland. God willing, I shall come back as quickly as possible. What a pity it is I have but one body, and that a very weak one to! Lord, magnify thyself in my weakness, and send me where thou wilt. (Armstrong p59)

Whitefield died while in America. His last public sermon was considered by many to be the best they had ever heard. His weakness was clear from the time he stepped into the pulpit. For several minutes he was unable to speak and then said "I will wait for the gracious assistance of God"

From God he must have received the help he sought for he continued and preached for two hours. He went from the field to a Presbyterian manse and rested. Feeling ill, he left the family dinner table and went up to rest. Tradition says that later on the way to bed, his friends requested that he preach. Stopping on the second landing he turned, with candle in his hand, and complied with their wish. He preached until the candle burnt down and went out before continuing on to bed. He died next morning probably due to asthma.

Discussion Questions:

1) Why was preaching in the open air so improper? What things are equivalent in our society? How do they provide opportunities to extend the kingdom?

2) What is the role of theology in revival? What does this say about our deepest held convictions?

3) What is the role of character in revival? What does this say about our lives?

4) How would you describe the leadership demonstrated by Whitefield?

5) What does the action of Whitefield walking away from MoorFields and Bristol and restoring relationship with the Wesleys say about the importance of completing the work for God?


This essay was developed as a lecture and so the references are not as good as they should be. As far as I am aware the material was based on the following books:

"Revival: Principles to change the world" by Winkie Pratney (Whitaker House1983)

"Five Great Evangelists" by John H. Armstrong (Christian Focus Publications 1997)

"Revival and Revivalism" by Iain H. Murray (The Banner of Truth Trust 1994)

"George Whitefield" (unabridged, 2vol) Arnold Dallimore (Banner of  Truth Trust)