This fast-paced, easy-to-read narrative reveals how God used one man of great courage, discipline, and humility to bring countless souls to Christ.
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About the Author
Arnold A. Dallimore was a Baptist pastor for thirty-eight years and a successful biographer of Christian leaders. His books include A Heart Set Free: The Life of Charles Wesley and Spurgeon: A New Biography.
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Born and Born Again
George Whitefield was born in 1714 in The Bell Inn at Gloucester. A three-story structure with a breadth of some two hundred feet, a busy dining room and tavern, it was the finest hostelry in all that part of England. Its Great Room was used for entertainments and the staging of plays, and several outstanding people were among its patrons.
Under the hand of Thomas Whitefield, George's father, The Bell prospered. The Poor Rate charged against him — an indicator of a man's income — was as high as that of anyone in the parish and twice as high as most.
Thomas and his wife Elizabeth had each been brought up in comfortable circumstances. For some years Thomas's father had lived retired on a country estate, and there Thomas had spent his boyhood. Elizabeth came from two respectable Bristol families, several of her relatives filling important civic offices, and the wills written by some reveal that they were very well off.
The Whitefields saw not only their business prosper, but their family too. There were born to them first five boys, then a girl, and finally the boy they named "George." The home was of an upper-middle class character, and the family was among Gloucester's more prominent citizens.
When George was a child of two, however, his father passed away. His mother took over the management of the Inn, and the business continued to prosper. The Poor Rate that she paid remained at its high level.
Whitefield's first biographer, Dr. Gillies of Glasgow, says: "He was regarded by his mother with a peculiar tenderness, and educated with more than ordinary care." After being put to school at an early age, he attended a school known as "The College," associated with Gloucester Cathedral. At the age of twelve he was enrolled at the school attached to the Whitefields' parish church, St Mary de Crypt. There he first revealed a native eloquence and was chosen to make speeches before the City Council when it visited the school.
What kind of boy was George Whitefield? We have some knowledge of his boyhood from an Account that he wrote later, in which he describes his early years. Like John Bunyan and several other outstanding Christians, he undoubtedly exaggerates his tendencies towards evil. Its opening paragraphs read:
I can truly say I was brutish from my mother's womb. Lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting I was much addicted to. Sometimes I used to curse, if not swear. Stealing from my mother I thought no theft at all. Numbers of Sabbaths have I broken, and generally used to behave myself very irreverently in God's sanctuary. Much money have I spent in plays. Cards and reading romances were my heart's delight. Often have I joined with others in playing roguish tricks.
Yet although he thus speaks, he also testifies:
But such was the free grace of God to me, that though corruption worked so strongly in my soul, yet I can recollect very early movings of the blessed Spirit upon my heart. ... I had some early convictions of sin, and once, when some persons made it their business to tease me, I immediately retired to my room, and kneeling down with many tears, prayed. ... Part of the money I used to steal from my parent I gave to the poor, and some books I privately took from others, were books of devotion.
As to his actual behavior one must conclude that Whitefield was no better and no worse than his playmates.
He tells us that he used to run into the Independent Meeting House while the service was in progress and shout, "Old Cole! Old Cole!" — the name of the pastor. But when asked by one of the congregation what business he would undertake, he replied "A minister, but I'll take care not to tell stories in the pulpit like old Cole!" He also says, "I was always very fond of being a clergyman, and used to imitate the ministers reading prayers." Thus the intention to become a minister early played a part in his life.
Several of his father's forebears had attended Oxford University and had spent their lives as priests of the Church of England. George's mother evidently had this prospect in mind for him, and he says, "My mother was very careful of my education, and always kept me in my tender years from intermeddling in the least with the public business." It is evident that although her other children might assist in the Inn, this she considered not good enough for George. He was to attend the University, and it was her hope that he would enter the ministry.
But young Whitefield had dreams of a different nature. His schoolmaster frequently wrote plays, and because of George's dramatic tendency these often gave scope for his special ability. Indeed, George possessed a passion for the activity of the stage, and he says, "I was very fond of reading plays, and have kept myself from school for days together to prepare myself for acting them." He evidently became so engrossed on occasion with practicing not only his own part, but the other parts as well, that he would not even go to school. He would remain home all day, and the next two or three days too, dead to things around him, but wondrously alive to the world he had created in his own imagination.
After Mrs. Whitefield had been a widow for eight years, she remarried. Her new husband, Capel Longden, came from a good family and operated a hardware business not far from The Bell. George said, however, "It proved to be what the world would call an unhappy match as for temporals." Longden appears to have been an unpleasant personality; he was able to push himself into the management of the Inn, and with his coming the business started to suffer. The decline continued till with the passing of three or four years it showed a marked deterioration, and the living standards of the Whitefield family were sorely lowered.
Accordingly by the time George was fifteen, he felt his mother's circumstances would no longer allow her to send him to Oxford, and he told her he wanted to leave school and assist in the Inn. At first she refused, but later, with much reluctance, she submitted. He left school, attending for only one subject. "I put on my blue apron," he stated, "and became professed and common drawer for a year and a half."
Yet he found this life very distasteful. "Seeing the boys go by to school," he declared, "has often cut me to the heart." He still, however, held to the hope of attending Oxford, and anticipating the day he would be a minister he composed sermons in the evenings.
This hope took on a new prospect of being fulfilled when a young man told Mrs. Longden he had attended the University at little cost by entering as a servitor. Overjoyed at the possibility thus opened up she cried, "This will do for my son! George, will you go to Oxford?" And he, equally delighted, immediately responded, "With all my heart I will!" And so it was settled. Like his ancestors, George would enter the University!
He now returned to school and labored diligently at his studies. He also entered into a religious manner of life, guarded his thoughts, words and actions, and during Lent fasted for thirty-six hours. He read much in classical works, studied the Greek New Testament, and attended public worship twice a day.
After being in school again for two years, in the Fall of 1732 Whitefield entered Pembroke College, Oxford. As a servitor, in exchange for tuition and board he did menial tasks for the sons of well- to-do gentlemen. It was a humiliating situation, but he performed his duties with fervor and stated that being used to a public house made him all the more capable at this work.
Before he left Gloucester his brothers had assured him that he would forget his religious practices once he reached Oxford. He indeed soon met pressures to do so, and he tells us,
I had not been long at the University, before I found the benefit of the foundation I had laid in the country for a holy life. I was quickly solicited to join in their excess of riot with several who lay in the same room. God ... gave me grace to withstand them; and once in particular, it being cold, my limbs were so benumbed by sitting alone in my study, because I would not go out amongst them, that I could scarcely sleep all night. But I soon found the benefit of not yielding: for when they perceived they could not prevail, they let me alone as a singular odd fellow.
It was but a short time, however, before Whitefield had kindred company. There was then a group of religiously earnest students in the University, and such terms as "Bible Moths," "Bible Bigots," "Sacramentarians," "Methodists," and "the "Holy Club" were applied to them. These individuals practiced early rising and lengthy devotions, and they strove for a self-discipline which allowed no moment to be wasted throughout the day They partook of the Sacrament every Sunday, fasted each Wednesday and Friday, and regularly visited Oxford's two prisons to relieve the needs of the inmates. They were all members of the Church of England and believed that these good works ministered towards the salvation of their souls.
Because he was merely a servitor, Whitefield was not allowed to introduce himself to these men. But when he had been in Oxford almost a year, one of them, Charles Wesley, learning that Whitefield too was religiously earnest, invited him to breakfast. This proved the beginning of an historic friendship and later in life Charles said of it: Can I the memorable day forget, When first we by Divine appointment met?
Where undisturbed the thoughtful student roves In search of truth, through academic groves:
This description by Charles Wesley deserves our attention. Whitefield was now nineteen and had fair hair and a very fair countenance, and these features were the striking characteristic of his appearance. Moreover, Charles's words "a modest pensive youth" and "without disguise or art" depict one who was guileless and unaffected. Charles also speaks of him as "an angel-guest." Although Whitefield had been born with a slight squint in one eye, this in no way prevented people from thinking of him as possessing an angelic quality. Indeed, as we shall see, people soon began to refer to him as "the Seraph."
Charles introduced Whitefield to his brother John and to the other members of the Holy Club. Although Whitefield was at first reticent about entering among these men, he soon overcame his fears and before long joined in their activities with fervor. He said of them,
Never did persons strive more earnestly to enter in at the strait gate. They kept their bodies under, even to an extreme. They were dead to the world, and willing to be accounted as the dung and offscouring of all things, so that they might win Christ. Their hearts glowed with the love of God and they never prospered so much in the inner man as when they had all manner of evil spoken against them. ... I now began, like them, to live by rule, and to pick up the very fragments of my time, that not a moment of it might be lost. Whether I ate or drank, or whatsoever I did, I endeavoured to do all to the glory of God. ... I left no means unused which I thought would lead me nearer to Jesus Christ.
The Holy Club was at that time little known outside of the University. It was composed of some eight or nine men who met together to assist one another in their academic work and in the strict regime they had set for themselves. John Wesley was their moderator, and his strong presence gave force to their purposes and stimulated the other members in their self-discipline.
During his entire course at Oxford, with the exception of the first eleven months, Whitefield was under the strong influence of the Holy Club.
In his academic work he proved an able student, and his concept of the necessity of diligence is manifest in his statement about the practices of others: "It has often grieved my soul to see so many young students spending their substance in extravagant living, and thereby entirely unfitting themselves for the prosecution of their studies." While many a student wasted his days in frivolity, Whitefield practiced the Holy Club's severe discipline, planning each hour and forcing himself to do as he planned, "that not a moment be lost." His personality became cast in this mold of self-mastery, and in our study of his life a recognition of these habits will help us to understand the otherwise inexplicable immensity of his accomplishments.
While under this influence Whitefield read a book which suddenly altered his entire outlook. It was written by a Scotsman, Henry Scougal, and was entitled The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Whitefield knew nothing as yet of the miracle of "the new birth"; he assumed that by performing good works he would place himself on the pathway to Heaven. This book convinced him, however, that all such assumptions were utterly false. The discovery filled him with concern, and he wrote that by it,
God showed me that I must be born again, or be damned! I learned that a man may go to church, say prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian. ...
Shall I burn this book? Shall I throw it down? Or shall I search it? I did search it, and holding the book in my hand I thus addressed the God of heaven and earth: 'Lord, if I am not a Christian, or if not a real one, for Jesus Christ's sake show me what Christianity is, that I may not be damned at last!'
God soon showed me, for in reading a few lines further, that 'true Christianity is a union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us,' a ray of divine light was instantaneously darted into my soul, and from that moment, and not till then, did I know I must become a new creature.
Aroused by the solemn realization that he "must be born again," Whitefield began a search for "the life of God" which Scougal stated must be placed within his soul.
Amidst his fears of being eternally lost, he became subject to strange and terrible emotions. He stated,
My comforts were soon withdrawn, and a horrible fearfulness and dread permitted to overwhelm my soul. One morning in particular ... I felt an unusual impression and weight upon my chest, attended with inward darkness....
God only knows how many nights I have lain upon my bed groaning under the weight I felt, and bidding Satan depart from me. ... Whole days and weeks have I spent in lying prostrate on the ground....
When the bearing of these difficulties brought no experience of "the life of God," Whitefield undertook still greater self-denial. He left off eating such things as fruits and sweets, and wore a patched gown and dirty shoes. He adopted the customs of a German cult, the Quietists, talking very little and wondering if he should talk at all. Under this burdening of his mind his academic work began to suffer, and his tutor thought he might be going mad.
But Whitefield went further in his efforts. For instance, he says concerning one attempt, "After supper I went into Christ Church Walk, and continued in silent prayer under one of the trees for near two hours, sometimes lying flat on my face. ... The night being stormy I had great reluctance against staying out so long in the cold."
Still finding only failure in all these efforts, he decided the only other thing he could give up was his association with the Holy Club. "This was a sore trial," he declared, "but rather than not be, as I fancied, Christ's disciple, I resolved to renounce them, though dear to me as my own soul."
Whitefield had been undergoing these strivings since the Autumn of 1734, and with the approach of Lent in the Spring of 1735 matters became still worse. He determined that throughout the six weeks of the holy season he would allow himself little except coarse bread and sage tea without sugar. Though burdened in mind, dangerously weakened in body, unable to do his studies, praying "with strong cryings and tears" and constantly reading his Greek New Testament he pressed into his Lenten devotions with increased zeal.
By the Passion Week, however, he found himself too feeble even to creep upstairs. His physician confined him to bed, and he lay there for seven weeks. Despite his weakened condition he wrote a list of his sins, both past and present, and confessed them before God morning and evening every day. But with all his efforts he obtained no "life of God" within his soul.
But now, when there was nothing else that Whitefield could do, God revealed Himself in grace and granted Whitefield that which he had learned could never be earned. In utter desperation and in rejection of all self-trust, he cast himself on the mercy of God through Jesus Christ, and a ray of faith, granted him from above, assured him he would not be cast out. There, as George Whitefield lay on his sickbed in the dormitory of Pembroke College, or perhaps as he knelt in one of Oxford's open fields, God placed divine life within his soul — life that was holy and everlasting — "the life of God in the soul of man." Whitefield testified concerning this experience:
God was pleased to remove the heavy load, to enable me to lay hold of his dear Son by a living faith, and by giving me the Spirit of adoption, to seal me, even to the day of everlasting redemption.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "George Whitefield"
Copyright © 1990 Arnold A. Dallimore.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
1. Born and Born Again, 11,
2. Preaching That Startled the Nation, 21,
3. Missionary to Georgia, 33,
4. Into the Open Air, 41,
5. Into the Open Air in London, 51,
6. Doctrinal Differences and Sad Divisions, 61,
7. Doctrinal Convictions, 67,
8. The House of Mercy, 73,
9. Laboring in the Great Awakening, 83,
10. Whitefield's Darkest Hour, 97,
11. Scotland, 103,
12. Marriage, 111,
13. The Revival at Cambuslang, 117,
14. The First Organizing of Methodism, 125,
15. Meeting the Mob, 133,
16. Healing the Wounds and Completing the Work in America, 141,
17. "Let the Name of Whitefield Perish", 151,
18. The Gospel to the Aristocracy in England, 157,
19. "Let Me Be But the Servant of All", 165,
20. Associates, 175,
21. Building for God, 183,
22. "Weary in Thy Work, But Not Weary of It", 189,
23. Whitefield Remembered, 197,
Select Bibliography, 211,