George Whitefield: A Burning Zeal For Christ (Part 1)
The name of George Whitefield, the prince of open-air preachers, will ever rank high among those of great soul-winners. Perhaps no preacher was ever gifted with a more powerful voice for open air work, or ever preached to larger outdoor congregations than did Whitefield. Although frail in body and having weak lungs, God seemed to endow him with supernatural strength for open air work at a time when church doors were closed against him. Benjamin Franklin claimed to have tested the voice of Whitefield to find out how far he could hear him distinctly, and he heard him clearly for over a mile.
Whitefield’s grandfather was a clergyman in the Church of England, but his father was a wine merchant and innkeeper. George was born in December 1714 in the Old Bell Inn, Gloucestershire, England. He was the youngest of a family of seven – six sons and a daughter. “His father died when he was two years old, and the mother continued the business of keeping the tavern” and caring for her large family. When four years old George had the measles, which through neglect left one of his lively dark eyes with a slight squint.
His early life was stained with lying, cheating, evil speaking, small thefts and other sins. Whitefield was a wild, unrestrained lad. “It would be endless,” says he, “to recount the sins and offenses of my younger days.”
At the common school of St. Mary de Crypt, young Whitefield’s memory and elocutionary powers won him great distinction in the amateur theatricals of which he was very fond. At fifteen years of age he gave up the common school and commenced helping his mother in the work at Bell Inn, cleaning rooms and tending bar. In the evenings he often read his Bible and even composed several sermons.
Finally, his brother took charge of the inn, and George could not agree with the sister-in-law, and so left and went to another brother’s in Bristol. Here he first felt the power of God’s Spirit working upon his heart. He felt a great longing for the things of God. After two months he returned home and these convictions and longings left him. His mother gave him the best she could – a bed on the floor. No work seemed to open up for him, but one day he said to his sister, “God intends something for me that we know not of.”
After remaining idle for some time he found that there was opportunity for him to work his way, as a servitor, through Oxford University. He went to school again to prepare for Oxford, and was led off into atheism by sinful companions. This did not last long, and he finally made up his mind to prepare to take communion on his seventeenth birthday. A dream about God, and powerful impression that he was to preach the Gospel seems to have greatly sobered him. One of his brothers also gave him a straight talk about his rapid changes from saint to sinner and from sinner to saint.
In 1732 when eighteen years of age, George went to Oxford. At Oxford, to his great delight, he was taken into the Holy Club composed of pious young men seriously bent on serving God. Among the fifteen who met together at that time were John and Charles Wesley. A book entitled The Life of God in the Soul of Man, loaned to him by Charles Wesley, opened Whitefield’s eyes to see that outward works and outward forms and ceremonies would not save the soul. When he read that “true religion is a union of the soul with God, or Christ formed within us,” a ray of light instantaneously darted in upon his soul. He knew that he must become a new creature and that only those who had been born again could claim to be a true Christian.
Newly “born of God,” George now began to joyfully to read the Word of God, to visit the sick, and to perform other services for the Master. Soon his friends urged him to be ordained. His great humility led him to decline, but being patient and flexible in all matters regarding himself (though firm as a rock in matters of conviction), he was persuaded to go through the ceremony of ordination.
Dr. Benson, the Bishop of Gloucester, sent for him and received him kindly. He informed George that though he had previously made up his mind not to ordain anyone under three-and-twenty years, still he was willing to ordain him whenever he was ready.
It was at the moment of his ordination that Whitefield seems to have made a complete consecration of himself to God and to have received the anointing of the Spirit and power which made him so mighty a worker in God’s harvest field. It was on June 20, 1736, at the age of twenty-one, that he was ordained by Dr. Benson at Gloucester Cathedral. Whitefield describes what he experienced in his autobiography, A Short Account of God’s Dealings With The Reverend Mr. George Whitefield:
“[On Saturday, June 19th] I continued in abstinence and prayer. In the evening I retired to a hill near the town, and prayed fervently for about two hours, in behalf of myself and those that were to be ordained with me.
“On Sunday morning I rose early, and prayed over St. Paul’s epistle to Timothy, and more particularly over that precept, ‘Let no man despise thy youth’ (1 Tim. 4:12). When I went up to the altar, I could think of nothing but Samuel standing, a little child, before the Lord with linen ephod. When the bishop laid his hands upon my head, my heart was melted down, and I offered my whole spirit, soul, and body, to the service of God’s sanctuary. I read the Gospel, at the bishop’s command, with power, and afterwards sealed the good confession I had made before many witnesses, by partaking of the holy sacrament of our Lord’s most blessed body and blood....”
That God really touched the lips of Whitefield with the divine fire of His Holy Spirit at the time of his ordination seems proved by the fact that he began to preach with great unction and power on the next Sunday after his ordination. His first sermon was delivered to an immense audience in his old home church St. Mary de Crypt. Complaint was afterwards made to the bishop that fifteen people were driven mad by this sermon. The good bishop replied that he hoped that kind of madness would last – at least, to the following Sunday.
(To be continued)
– Adapted from Deeper Experiences Of Famous Christians by James Gilchrist Lawson and supplemented with information from Men and Women Of Deep Piety by Mrs. Clara McLeister.