George Whitefield: A Burning Zeal For Christ (Part 2)
After his ordination at Gloucester in 1736, George Whitefield returned to Oxford to complete his course at the university. While there he was invited to fill a friend’s pulpit for two months in an obscure part of London. He accepted the invitation, and although his young age provoked sneers at first, great crowds flocked to hear him. At Oxford, his rooms were often filled with praying students. Months later George graduated and left the university full of fervor, zeal and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Opportunity in America
During this time, John and Charles Wesley had gone as missionaries to Georgia in America. They wrote Whitefield about the many opportunities for sharing the Gospel there and encouraged him, “Who knows if thou art the man, Mr. Whitefield.” Believing this might be his call, George made application to the Georgia Trustees. Although he was well received, it took over a year before all was in place for his voyage to America.
His few sermons in Bristol, just before he left England, stirred the whole city. The “new birth” preached with power from on high seemed to attract all conditions of men. Every nook and corner of the church was crowded, and half the people had to be turned away.
In London, while waiting for his vessel, he was compelled to preach, and the large churches would not hold his audiences. Thousands went away for want of room. On Sunday the streets were crowded with people going to meeting long before the break of day. The clergy became jealous, bitter opposition set in against Whitefield, and churches were closed against him.
About Christmas, 1737, he set sail for America as weeping crowds bade him farewell. When Whitefield reached his destination in Georgia, he had little opportunity to preach to large crowds, as two hundred people were a large congregation in the frontier settlements. But he won his way to the hearts of the people and scores were brought to Christ.
Whitefield returned to England in 1738. After preaching in one church where a thousand people were unable to get inside, the idea came to him of open-air preaching. His Methodist brethren regarded this as a “mad idea,” but this disagreement did not dissuade him.
As an itinerant preacher he tirelessly preached anywhere there was opportunity. If a church was open to him, he would use it; but if not, a wall or a table out of doors would become his pulpit.
Already excluded from many of the state churches, Whitefield began his open-air preaching at Kingswood, Bristol, in 1739. There the rough coal miners gathered to hear him, and his audiences doubled and tripled until he found himself preaching to 20,000 people. Tears streamed down the cheeks of the coal-begrimed men, and hundreds upon hundreds were convicted of sin and brought to Christ.
Whitefield had now left off using printed prayers and written sermons, and prayed and preached extempore as he felt led by the Spirit of God. Wherever he went, the people flocked to hear him in such great crowds that the churches would no longer have contained them, had they been open to him.
He began open-air meetings at Moorfields, which was at the time one of the largest, vilest, and most notorious pleasure resorts in London. Great was the astonishment of the London rowdies to see the tall, graceful young clergyman, clad in gown and cassock, standing on the wall addressing them on the Second Coming of Christ. The same day he addressed a more refined audience of thousands on Kennington Common. He continued to preach to great audiences of 20,000 to 40,000 in both of these places. The singing of the vast audiences could be heard for a distance of two miles!
J. C. Ryle, in his book Select Sermons of George Whitefield With An Account Of His Life, said of Whitefield, “He…was 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.”
Continued Ministry in America
He continued to make voyages to America to preach. “His popularity increased on both sides of the Atlantic, and never waned. From Savannah to Boston, listening thousands were profited by his tender, flaming, persuasive discourses. He crossed the Atlantic thirteen times” (Men and Women of Deep Piety).
On his second trip to the American colonies, Whitefield spent time preaching in the New England area. His reputation preceded him and he preached to large crowds all up and down the eastern coast. A revival had occurred in Northampton five years prior under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Whitefield’s preaching expanded this work and set the colonies ablaze with revival. He preached 175 sermons in just forty-five days. The zeal stirred up during those meetings continued for years after and is referred to as The Great Awakening.
Whitefield was often ridiculed by those who professed to be doing God service. He was mobbed, egged and stoned. One night he was brutally attacked while in bed. But none of these things moved him. He counted it all joy to suffer for Jesus’ sake. One Sunday evening the Vicar of Bideford warned the people against Whitefield’s preaching, but next morning he preached to an audience of 10,000. Even nobility gladly attended and thousands of people would often stand in the rain listening to him.
The vividness with which Whitefield preached seemed to be almost supernatural. One time he was preaching to sailors, and he described a vessel wrecked in a storm at sea. “The tempest rages! Our masts are gone! The ship is on her beam ends! What next?” The picture was so real that the sailors sprang to their feet and cried out, “Take to the lifeboat! Take to the lifeboat, sir!” Mr. Whitefield seized upon this reply, and urged them to fly to Jesus Christ, the Great Lifeboat, who could save them.
Whitefield’s last sermon was delivered in the open air at Exeter, Massachusetts, on September 29, 1770 – his seventh visit to America. Before preaching, someone said to him: “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.” Whitefield agreed and then prayed, “Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work, but not of Thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go on and speak for Thee once more in the fields, seal Thy truth, then go home and die.”
The sermon was two hours in length, an effort of great eloquence, his last field triumph. That afternoon he returned to Newburyport with an old friend at whose house he was staying. Mr. Whitefield was to preach there on Sunday. Crowds, however, gathered to hear him that evening. After saying he could not say a word, he took a candle and started up the stairs to bed.
However, feeling the weight of souls, and seeing those who were hungering for the Word of life, he paused on the stairs and gave a powerful exhortation. Tears flowed freely. He talked until the candle he was holding burned away and went out.
In the night he woke struggling for breath and at six o’clock Sunday morning, three months short of his 56th birthday, George Whitefield went to his reward.
Whitefield had been a strenuous worker. He often said, “I had rather wear out than rust out.” When in his prime he seldom preached less than fifteen times a week. He often preached as many as four or five times in one day. He was a consecrated man from the first. It was a full, joyful and cordial surrender of all his powers and affections to Christ, and to the love of souls for Christ’s sake. He counted everything but loss for Him. His love was the grand impulsive power in all his journeys, his labors, his self-denials and his aims…a burning zeal for Christ.
– Adapted from Deeper Experiences Of Famous Christians by James Gilchrist Lawson and supplemented from other sources.