From his first outdoor sermon on February 17, 1739, at the age of 24, to the coal miners of Kingswood near Bristol, England, until his death thirty years later on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts (where he is buried), his life was one of almost daily preaching. Sober estimates are that he spoke about one thousand times every year for thirty years. That included at least eighteen thousand sermons and twelve thousand talks and exhortations.
The facts about George Whitefield’s preaching as an eighteenth-century itinerant evangelist are almost unbelievable. Can they really be true? Judging by multiple attestations of his contemporaries — and by the agreement of sympathetic and unsympathetic biographers — they seem to be so.
From his first outdoor sermon on February 17, 1739, at the age of 24, to the coal miners of Kingswood near Bristol, England, until his death thirty years later on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts (where he is buried), his life was one of almost daily preaching. Sober estimates are that he spoke about one thousand times every year for thirty years. That included at least eighteen thousand sermons and twelve thousand talks and exhortations. The daily pace he kept for thirty years meant that, on many weeks, he was speaking more than he was sleeping.
Keep in mind that most of these messages were spoken to gatherings of thousands of people. For example, in the spring of 1740, he preached on Society Hill in Philadelphia twice in the morning to about six thousand and in the evening to nearly eight thousand. The next day, he spoke to “upwards of ten thousand,” and it was reported at one of these events that his expression of the text, “He opened his mouth and taught them, saying,” was distinctly heard at Gloucester point, a distance of two miles by water down the Delaware River (George Whitefield, 1:480). And there were times when the crowds reached twenty thousand or more.
Add to this the fact that he was continually traveling, in a day when it was done by horse or carriage or ship. He covered the length and breadth of England repeatedly. He regularly traveled and spoke throughout Wales. He visited Ireland twice, where he was almost killed by a mob from which he carried a scar on his forehead for the rest of his life. He traveled fourteen times to Scotland and came to America seven times, stopping once in Bermuda for eleven weeks — all for preaching, not resting.
Whitefield was a phenomenon not just of his age but in the entire two-thousand-year history of Christian preaching. There has been nothing like the combination of his preaching pace and geographic extent and auditory scope and attention-holding effect and converting power. J.C. Ryle is right: “No preacher has ever retained his hold on his hearers so entirely as he did for thirty-four years. His popularity never waned” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 32).
Eloquence and Anointing
Where did such power and popularity come from? At one level, Whitefield’s power was the natural power of eloquence, and at another it was the spiritual power of God to convert sinners and transform communities.
On the one hand, there is no reason to doubt that Whitefield was the instrument of God in the salvation of thousands. I do not doubt that his contemporary Henry Venn was right when he said, “[Whitefield] no sooner opened his mouth as a preacher, than God commanded an extraordinary blessing upon his word” (Select Sermons of George Whitefield, 29). Thus, at one level, the explanation of Whitefield’s phenomenal impact was God’s exceptional anointing on his life.
But at another level, Whitefield held people in thrall who did not believe a single doctrinal word that he said. In other words, we must come to terms with the natural oratorical gifts that he had. How are we to think about these in relation to his effectiveness? Benjamin Franklin, who loved and admired Whitefield — and totally rejected his theology — said,
Every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned, and well placed, that without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleased with the discourse: a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music. (The Divine Dramatist, 204)
One of Whitefield’s contemporaries, Alexander Garden of South Carolina, was not optimistic about the purity of Whitefield’s motives or the likelihood that his effects were decisively supernatural. He believed that Whitefield “would equally have produced the same Effects, whether he had acted his Part in the Pulpit or on the Stage. . . . It was not the Matter but the Manner, not the Doctrines he delivered, but the Agreeableness of the Delivery,” that explained the unprecedented crowds that flocked to hear him preach (“The Grand Sower of the Seed,” 384).
In one sense, I do not doubt that Whitefield was “acting” as he preached. That is, that he was taking the part of the characters in the drama of his sermons and pouring all his energy — his poetic effort — into making their parts real.