Whitefield’s ministry successes were spectacular, and his personal failings were sobering. But in a way, this combination of the admirable and the sordid is the story of every gospel minister.
George Whitefield was the single greatest human driver of the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century. Although his fame has been surpassed today by his colleague Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield was far better known than Edwards was in the 1740s. Indeed, in Britain and America Whitefield was more famous than anyone not named King George. He was not only the first celebrity pastor of the evangelical movement, but he was arguably the first celebrity of any kind in Anglo-American history. With apologies to the Beatles, Whitefield was the first “British sensation,” drawing titanic crowds to evangelistic meetings from London to Boston.
Pastors should know about Whitefield simply because of his massive historical significance. He was undoubtedly one of the two most influential evangelists in American history, the other being Billy Graham. Whitefield was a lot like Graham, except Whitefield didn’t have access to amplifiers and airplanes. They were both tireless preachers of the gospel, and their talent and spiritual gifts made them among the best known and controversial figures of their eras.
What was the key to George Whitefield’s success? Whitefield always attributed the fruit of his ministry to the work of the Holy Spirit. Observers then and now have also pointed to his preternatural talent for public speaking. Whitefield loved acting in plays as a schoolboy, prior to his conversion. Although he repudiated the theater once he became a Christian, he clearly brought his performative skills to the pulpit. The leading London actor David Garrick wryly noted that Whitefield could “make men weep or tremble by his varied utterances of the word ‘Mesopotamia.’”
Intellectual and Theological Seriousness
Some scholars have suggested that Whitefield was all show and no substance, perhaps thinking of parallels to certain celebrity preachers today. However, Whitefield was actually an evangelist of deep intellectual and theological seriousness. He was such a principled Calvinist that his convictions fostered a decades-long estrangement from the Arminian John Wesley, whom Whitefield knew from their pietist “Holy Club” at Oxford University in the 1730s. Whitefield routinely referenced technical theological concepts, church history, and classical literature in his preaching. But mostly his scintillating sermons were focused on the Bible, and the new birth in Christ. Whitefield had a knack for drawing out the emotional power of Scripture, and would sometimes put himself into the place of Bible characters, acting out the role (for instance) of the prodigal son or his faithful father as he proceeded through a sermon. His sermons were deeply doctrinal but powerfully affecting to his hearers.