George Whitefield may be the most famous man you’ve never heard of, and he is turning 300 this month!
Mr. Whitefield was born in England on December 16, 1714, and by the time of his death in 1770, he had preached over 18,000 sermons—yes, 18,000—led thousands to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and was a household name in America, England, and Scotland.
George Whitefield was something of a cultural icon, maybe the equivalent of a cross between Taylor Swift and Billy Graham today. Historians estimate that by the time of his death, 80% of the people living in the American colonies had heard this preacher at least once. One biographer calls Whitefield “America’s first cultural hero.” Other than royalty, there was no other name that everyone knew “from Boston to Charleston.” The largest funeral procession ever held on American soil took place when Whitefield died in Newburyport, twelve miles outside of Boston. As biographer Harry Stout suggests, “By 1750 virtually every American loved and admired Whitefield and saw him as their champion.”
Let’s celebrate Whitefield’s birthday by recalling how a sovereign God chose to use this man. George Whitefield is not remembered for founding a movement or writing great books. We celebrate Whitefield’s birthday because of his unique gift of preaching.
When he preached, Whitefield was able to hold the interest of believers and non-believers alike. Benjamin Franklin, no friend to the Christian faith, listened to Whitefield preach whenever he had the opportunity. David Hume, the famous deist philosopher, was once caught hurrying through London to hear Whitefield preach. When learning of Hume’s destination, a friend of his said, “But surely you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches, do you?” Hume replied, “No, I don’t, but he does.” David Garrick, a contemporary of Whitefield, was England’s most famous actor of the era. Garrick envied Whitefield’s command of his voice and his skilled enunciation of words, saying, “He could move men to tears… in pronouncing the word ‘Mesopotamia.’ … It is truly wonderful to see what a spell this preacher often casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible.” Once Garrick said, “I would give a hundred guineas if I could say ‘Oh’ like Mr. Whitefield.”
If nothing else, George Whitefield was a tireless preacher. He crossed the Atlantic thirteen times preaching in the colonies, England, Scotland, Ireland, and even Bermuda. He preached in every major town on the Eastern seaboard at a time when a ten-mile journey was a significant undertaking. Whitefield’s stamina is virtually incomprehensible. He would often preach to crowds numbering in the thousands in the morning, then again at midday, and again in the evening. Sometimes he would speak to over 20,000 people outdoors. He did this, virtually without a break, for thirty years.
How did George Whitefield become a preacher? He went to Oxford as a student and became friends with two brothers, Charles and John Wesley. He joined the Wesleys’ small group called “The Holy Club.” Imagine for a moment the atomic energy in this 18th-century equivalent of one of our homegroups! Charles, one of history’s greatest hymn writers, along with his more famous brother, John, the founder of the Methodist movement, and George—all meeting together as they began their Christian journey. In fact, it was in the context of this small group that George Whitefield passed from spiritual death to spiritual life. At the outset, Whitefield was trying to please God with his good works: he was trying to earn his salvation. During a period of illness, everything changed. The future evangelist read Henry Scougal’s book The Life of God in the Soul of Man and finally understood the gospel of grace. George Whitefield heard the true gospel in Scougal’s book and was born again! He later reflected on his conversion:
Oh! With what joy—joy unspeakable—even joy that was full of, and big with glory, was my soul filled!
Almost immediately Whitefield began to preach. And for the duration of his life, he kept proclaiming Christ.
J.C. Ryle, himself a famous preacher of a latter era, wrote this:
The facts of Whitefield’s history…are almost entirely of one complexion. One year was just like another; and to attempt to follow him would be only going repeatedly over the same ground. From 1739 to the year of his death, 1770, a period of 31 years, his life was one uniform employment. He was eminently a man of one thing, and always about his Master’s business. From Sunday mornings to Saturday nights, from 1 January to 31 December, excepting when laid aside by illness, he was almost incessantly preaching Christ and going about the world entreating men to repent and come to Christ and be saved.
The flame of Whitefield’s preaching never dimmed. He died on September 30, 1770. On his way to Boston, he was intending to pass through Exeter, but there, in an open field, thousands of people were waiting for him to preach. A platform was standing, ready for the famous orator. An elderly man approached Whitefield and said, “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.” George Whitefield agreed and then turned his face toward heaven and said:
Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not weary of it. 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.
Amazingly, Whitefield preached powerfully for over two hours. Many came to know Jesus Christ on that autumn afternoon. But Whitefield was not done. He went to the home of Rev. Jonathan Parsons in Newburyport. Whitefield excused himself from the family dinner table to retire to bed. As he was ascending the stairs to his bedroom, the front door of Parsons’ house opened. A small congregation of people entered the living room and asked Whitefield to preach before he went to bed. George Whitefield preached the gospel until the candle he held in his hand burned out in its holder.
Richard Smith, whom today we would call Whitefield’s “personal assistant,” helped the aging preacher to bed and told him he wished he would not preach so often. Whitefield replied, “I had rather wear out than rust out.” Before 7:00 the next morning, George Whitefield had died.
As we celebrate the 300th birthday of this faithful saint, let us pause and give thanks to God that, indeed, His Word does not return void. None of us has heard the gospel from the lips of George Whitefield, but someone, in some way, preached the gospel to us. And if we have come to faith, we prove that God’s Word does not return void. Praise!
for further reading:
Try Arnold Dallimore’s short, accessible, and lively biography George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century or Selected Sermons of George Whitefield, available on Kindle for $.99. A recent biography, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, by Thomas S. Kidd has received great reviews.