Until I read this biography about Whitefield I basically knew two things about the Methodist church, John Wesley and arminianism. And yet one of the “buried treasures” of church history is Whitefield’s discharge of his branch of Methodism (which was Calvinistic and more popular). The quote below frames this incredible event.
“It is impossible to conceive what would have been the result if Whitefield and Harris had continued active chiefs of the Calvinistic Methodists. The plain facts are these: within two months after his return from America in 1748, Whitefield determined to put an end to his official relationship to Calvinistic Methodists: this determination was gradually carried out: and during the last twenty years of his life he occupied a new position.” (p. 150)
So what happened? Why do I hear of Wesley and not Whitefield? I will try to give a brief background and summary of the connection of these two great men.
In the Fall of 1732, Whitefield began his education in the world-renown Oxford University. Soon he was invited to lunch by Charles Wesley, who soon introduced Whitefield to his brother, John. These three, with a few others, were involved in “The Holy Club”. This club was formed to “gain Christ” and to “prosper the inner man”. The three friends were zealous for the things of God, but their zeal did not shield them from theological disputes and seasons of disunity and discord.
John Wesley is described by those who love him or hate him to be “a man of discipline, great ambition and to have a strong sense of his own superiority”. These attributes undoubtedly made him into the leader, but it also played a significant role in the discord between the two great evangelists.
As both of their “Christian celebrity” grew, Whitefield continued to solidify his Calvinistic scheme, while Wesley cemented his Arminian roots, which apparently were taught to him by his mother. They both called themselves “Methodists” (i.e. the use of “method” in Christian Spirituality) and together they began to create these “Societies”, groups of people who were zealous for the gospel ministry. Yet soon their theological perspectives produced tension and John Wesley began to aggressively preach against the doctrines held by Whitefield, which led to broke fellowship and the creation of his own societies.
The verbal attacks (through his sermons) by John Wesley wounded Whitefield, but in the end, they reconciled and tried to co-exist together as the “two heads of Methodism”. Yet as time passed, it became increasingly clear that the tension between him and Wesley would not subside. Therefore, Whitefield decided to back away from his branch of Methodism and simply become “a servant of all”. Since no one took the “mantle” of Calvinistic Methodism, it soon died out and history now knows the name of Wesley, rather than the name of Whitefield.
What can we learn from Whitefield?
He cared about the unity of the body of Christ.
Oh how it grieved Whitefield to be separated from the Wesley brothers! For him, though the doctrine of election and predestination were important, it was NOT a central tenet of the Christian faith. Whitefield viewed the attacks of Wesley as petty, misguided and hurtful. The wounded evangelist defended his position on these “secondary doctrines” in pointed letters, but finally concluded that surrendering his headship was the only path to gospel reconciliation.
To be clear, Whitefield NEVER agreed with the doctrines of Wesley, nor compromised at any point regarding the gospel. But he did allow his child, the branch of Calvinist Methodism, to die from parental neglect.
But let us ask one final question, “Was it more damaging to the visible church for Methodism to become Arminian, or for two famous evangelists to split a denomination and bring reproach on the name of Christ? I admit I don’t know the answer, but I know that Whitefield took seriously these words “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Do we?
He was comfortable in his own skin.
From his early days of Christianity, Whitefield seemed to know his “calling”. He was an evangelist, a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even his nickname “the Seraph”, reinforced this clear reality…he was to proclaim the gospel to anyone and everyone.
So it should not be surprising to us that in the end Whitefield died an iterant preacher. That is who he was. That is what God had raised him to be. But I continue to grapple with these questions, “Should Whitefield have fought harder for Calvinistic Methodism”? or “Is he to blame for the spread of the Methodist movement (which is presently Arminian)”?
But here is the bigger issue. Whitefield was comfortable “in his own skin”. He did not have the organizational gifts of John Wesley, nor did he desire them. He provided the leadership over his brand of Methodism for a while, but in the end he was content to be “a servant to all”.
The example of Whitefield should encourage Christians to be comfortable “in their own skin”. God raises up certain people for specific tasks by using their unique gifts. In other words, stop trying to be someone else! Let us not forget the words of the apostle Paul, “But God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong” (I Cor. 1:27). How absurd it is to try to be someone else, when God has already ordained that “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).