Friday, September 30, 2011

George Whitefield—A man bound to Christ, not a denomination

Throughout the next few weeks, this blog will examine certain “snapshots” of George Whitefield, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation for this servant and a greater love for the God whom he gave his life to.

Here is a snapshot of a unique meeting Whitefield had during his life:
“Whitefield met with the Associate Presbytery as planned. He spoke of them as “A set of grave venerable men”. They immediately began to present their doctrine of church government and the Solemn League and Covenant, but he told them they might save themselves the trouble, for he had no scruples on the subject. He asked them what they would have him do, and the answer was that he was to preach only for them till he had further light. He asked why only for them. To which Ralph Erskine replied that “they were the Lord’s people.” He stated that he was “determined to go out into the highways and hedges; and that if the Pope himself would lend him his pulpit, he would gladly “proclaim the righteousness of Christ therein”. (p. 105)
Some context is probably needed to understand what is going on. Whitefield journeyed to Scotland to evangelize and observe the work being done there. The Erskine brothers (Ralph and Ebenezer) were influential pastors and ardent Presbyterians. They believed strongly that their method of church government was correct and apparently believed that Presbyterians (and only Presbyterians) were “the Lord’s people”. In the above paragraph, we see clearly Whitefield’s indifference towards “denominationalism”.
Yet in reading about Whitefield, we must remember that he himself never left the Church of England. Even more surprising was his unwaveringly loyalty to the mother church, since they themselves were the first (of many) to try to limit his preaching ministry.

A couple questions should be asked at this point: What did Whitefield think about denominations? How should we think about denominations?

Whitefield did not view denominationalism as a test of Christian fellowship.  

Some would call Whitefield an iterant preacher and that classification is probably appropriate. He understood that his calling was to preach the gospel to everyone, without partiality, which included Baptists, Presbyterians, independents, etc. Furthermore, the blessing of God on his ministry mandated that he preach in the open air (since very few churches could accommodate the crowds).  Obviously, this meant that people from all denominations were coming to listen to this increasingly popular preacher.
I think the issue was very basic for Whitefield. He believed that Christians are here to proclaim the gospel and live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Denominations are wonderful instruments that can promote better accountability, effectiveness and clarity in the areas of doctrine, discipleship, training and global missions. Yet Whitefield also experienced the glaring weakness of denominationalism, which is the temptation to elevate what is secondary to a place of primacy.
People today have a growing distrust of church denominations. The reasons are many, but I would venture to say that their distrust stems from the focus (of many churches) on petty issues or their disdain for a “black sheep” church that gets more notoriety (i.e. Westboro Baptist Church). This does not mean that denominations are not helpful or even valuable. The pages of church history are filled with stories of what they have done for the name of Christ. Yet it seems that when denominations begin to care more about their distinctives, policies, or by-laws rather than the gospel and the core doctrines of the Christian faith, then the effectiveness of their denomination begins to wane.
I grew up in a GARB church (General Association of Regular Baptists) and came to appreciate their focus on believer’s baptism, the separation of church and state and their view on eschatology (Pre-tribulational and pre-millennial). Yet their position on church government (i.e. deacon-led and congregational rule) does not reflect (in my opinion) the biblical data, which clearly teaches that local churches should be led by a plurality of elders.
Yet, in my assessment, the subject of church government is a secondary issue and therefore, should not be a test of fellowship with my brothers in Christ, who happen to attend a Baptist church. Christians that separate because of these “secondary” issues are immature in the faith and are unknowingly servants of Satan (Mark 8:33). We should be ashamed that many people are turned off by Christians, not because of our persistent presentation of the gospel, but because they don’t see a people committed to reconciliation, peace and love.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

George Whitefield—A man who (knowingly) married an unattractive woman

Throughout the next few weeks, this blog will examine certain “snapshots” of George Whitefield, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation for this servant and a greater love for the God whom he gave his life to.

Here is a quote from Whitefield:

“I married one who was a widow, of about 36 years of age….neither rich in fortune nor beautiful as to her person, but, I believe a true child of God, and would not, I think, attempt to hinder me in his work for the world.” (p.113)
If the words of Whitefield come as a shock to you, then the events leading up to the marriage will absolutely astonish you.
Whitefield himself never thought of himself as a lifetime bachelor. He assumed that God had someone special for him. Yet he would have never imagined that his friendship with the great Howell Harris would lead him to his wife.
Who is Howell Harris? History describes him as fearless, dynamic, tireless and “a man’s man”. From his conversion, this school teacher began to preach the gospel with uncompromising zeal. It is he, not Whitefield, who begin to preach in the open air to thousands of his countrymen. God blessed Harris tremendously and any Christian influence in the country of Wales can likely be traced back to the ministry of Howell Harris.
Now we come to the events leading up to the marriage of Whitefield:
Mrs. James (the future Mrs. Whitefield) was a widow and very much in love with Howell Harris. The problem was that Harris was convinced that God wanted him to remain a bachelor, which would allow him to minister “undivided” to the Lord. Convinced of this calling, Harris believed that Whitefield would be an ideal husband for Mrs. James and she would be a godly wife for the young evangelist.
When presented the possible arrangement to the widow, Mrs. James responded with understandable hesitation, anger and disappointment. She did not want to marry George Whitefield….she wanted Harris to recant his vow of celibacy and marry her. Yet Harris would not yield to her tearful request and through it all….the young Whitefield would not be discouraged by her lack of enthusiasm and preceded to promise to love her and not be jealous of her affection for the masculine Harris.
In the end, she accepted the proposal of Whitefield and said goodbye to her present love.  

What, if anything, can we learn from Whitefield?

First, Whitefield cared more about inner beauty than outer beauty.
People can say they prefer inner beauty over external beauty, but would any of these people make a lifetime commitment to someone they admit to being “unattractive”? Yet this was the sentiment of Whitefield. The bigger question we should ask is this: What would compel a man (one of global fame…mind you) to minimize the importance of external beauty. The answer is someone who cares more about the gospel than the fleeting pleasures of life. Maybe the answer is found in the definition of “helper”.  Apparently, Whitefield applied this verse primarily in the light of his gospel calling. He was convinced that she was a godly woman and would complement the ministry God had given him.
But what about “attraction”? Isn’t that important? I guess I would say preferable…yes, necessary….no. Let’s turn the logic around, shall we? If attraction is necessary, then why doesn’t the bible talk about it more? If attraction is necessary, then does that mean that you cannot actively love your wife unless there is daily attraction? Here is what I propose: Encourage young men to spend more time reading biographies of men like Whitefield, rather than buying into the “date till you find your soul-mate” nonsense.

Second, Whitefield’s marriage represented the mystery of Ephesians 5:31-32.
Ephesians 5:31-32 "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

Sadly, I have spent minimal time over the years thinking about “the mystery” of Ephesians 5:32. Yet in recent reflection, it is clear that part of the “mystery” is that Christ gave Himself up for the church. His sacrifice (both during His ministry and on the cross) is the perfect example for us of what a loving marriage is supposed to look like.  This is why we can say that Whitefield’s marriage portrayed well this mystery. Even without “romance”, their marriage began solely on their love for Christ and a commitment to actively love for each other. I would go so far to say that the Whitefield’s marriage looked more like the mystery (than most Christian marriages) because we know that Christ’s love for the church was similar to His love for the nation of Israel. Israel was loved, not because of anything within them (Deut. 7:6-7), but because God chose to set His unconditional love on them. May those who desire to marry choose someone who passionately loves Christ and to those who are already married.....commit to live together with an undivided zeal for the gospel and the glory of God!

Monday, September 26, 2011

George Whitefield—A man who chose to ‘let him name perish’

Throughout this month, this blog will examine certain “snapshots” of George Whitefield, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation for this servant and a greater love for the God whom he gave his life to.

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).

Friday, September 23, 2011

George Whitefield—A man who “redeemed the time”

Throughout the next few weeks, this blog will examine certain “snapshots” of George Whitefield, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation for this servant and a greater love for the God whom he gave his life to.

Here is one of the snapshots:
In 1738, George Whitefield stepped onto the Whitaker, employed as the chaplain of the ship, and eager to begin his journey. It was recorded that the young preacher declared to the staff (on the first day) that his intention was “to know nothing among them save Jesus Christ and Him crucified”. The zeal of the new chaplain was not well-received by the crew, who proceeded to ridicule their “religious leader”.
The living conditions on such a vessel were undoubtedly wretched. Whitefield had brought with him many tasty items of food and several medicines, and since there was much sickness among the passengers, he went among them every day dispensing of his supply and giving encouragement. Each morning and evening he read prayers on the open deck, although for the time being he did not attempt to preach, lest he deter the people from attending.
After four days however, he began a catechism class for the soldiers. Only six or seven  were present on the first morning, but the number steadily increased until in a week’s time the attendance mounted to twenty, and he added to the study an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. Then, finding this was accepted, he began to preach whenever he read prayers.
To these public efforts Whitefield added personal associations. He “breakfasted with some of the gentlemen” and reported an hour’s conversation with another “on our fall in Adam and the necessity of the new birth”. He walked at night on the deck in order to talk to the chief mate, and on another occasion stayed up till eleven at night “talking with the sailors in the steerage, reasoning with them about righteousness, temperance and judgment to come”.
Steadily gaining goodwill of all on board, Whitefield began a daily catechism for the women and soon added a Bible study. He also had James Habersham, a man he had brought with him, give instruction in elementary education for the children, and he invited any soldiers or sailors who wished to learn to read to attend.” (p. 34-36)

This was all at the ripe age of 23.

So what can we learn from one of the “giants”?

1)      Whitefield understood the importance of building relationships.
It is good to remember that Whitefield didn’t just hold up a sign or start passing out tracks, instead, he began to build relationships. His great oratory abilities would soon give him a platform, but not before he showed personal care. Here we see Whitefield apply Paul’s admonition to Timothy where he states “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (I Timothy 4:12).
2)      Whitefield understood the importance of meeting human needs.
Though the biographer does not give the exact reasons why Whitefield brought food and medicine on the ship, it certainly provided future opportunities for the gospel. It is unfortunate that many Christians who love the gospel fail to the see that showing mercy and love to your common man is part of living on mission (Matthew 5:16). Whitefield showed that he cared for their whole person, spiritual and physical. This holistic approach to mission shows a respect for man, who is still made in the image of God, though marred by sin. Let us not fail to love and serve our common man because of a fear of promoting a social gospel.
3)      Whitefield was not only shrewd but bold. 
From his claim of preaching Christ crucified to asking that first group of soldiers to attend a catechism, Whitefield showed boldness. Nothing is mentioned of his great faith, but we can assume it was there. The mockery unleashed by these unregenerate sailors did not faze the young preacher, probably because of his understanding of salvation, which he knew can only be accomplished by the supernatural work of the Spirit. This understanding should always produce a bold confidence for the Christian, since our job is to pray and proclaim the good news. How simple is our mission! Yet how often we neglect it!

Who is George Whitefield?

Throughout the next few weeks, this blog will examine certain “snapshots” of George Whitefield, which I hope will bring a deeper appreciation for this servant and a greater love for the God whom he gave his life to.

Why should you care about the life and ministry of George Whitefield?

1)      He was one of the first in history to do open air preaching.

2)      He was part of the Holy Club (included John and Charles Wesley).

3)      He was arguably one of the greatest preachers in all of human history.

4)      His theological conflicts with John Wesley led to modern day Methodism.

5)      His perspective on denominational loyalty is balanced and refreshing.

6)      His choice of a spouse was unique and the events surrounding it even more noteworthy.

7)      His gifts as an evangelist did not compete with his Calvinistic understanding of salvation.

8)      His worldwide fame seemed unknown to him, which is a great example to all Christian leaders.


George Whitefield was born in Gloucester, England, Dec. 27, 1714; died in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Sept. 30, 1770. He was the son of an innkeeper. At the age of twelve he was placed in the school of St. Mary de Crypt at Gloucester, and in 1732, after a year's intermission of his studies so that he might be drawer of liquor in the inn (kept by his mother since his father's death in 1716), he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. The religious impressions which he had felt on different occasions had been deepened while he was at school the second time, and at Oxford he fell in with the Wesleys, joined the "Holy Club," and observed its rules rigorously, being the first of the Oxford "Methodists" to profess conversion (1735). His health being impaired, he left Oxford for a year, returning in March, 1736, and was ordained deacon in the following June, taking his B.A. in the same year. He now spent much time among the prisoners in Oxford, preached in London and elsewhere, and speedily rose to great prominence as a pulpit orator.

Whitefield had been requested by the Wesleys to come to them in Georgia, and he finally resolved to go, though he did not sail until the beginning of 1738. He spent several months in Georgia, preaching with great acceptance, but in the same year returned to England to be ordained priest. Here he found many London churches closed to him because he was considered erratic and fanatical. Being excluded from the churches, he preached in the open air, and induced Wesley to take a similar step, thus establishing an innovation which gave opportunity to the Methodist movement.

Whitefield now began his career as an itinerant evangelist. But his critical characterization of the clergy as "blind guides" roused many to oppose him, and this hostile feeling preceded him to America, where some of the Anglican churches refused him their pulpits, though other churches were open to him. He preached in Philadelphia and New York, and on his way to Georgia; during a visit to New England the revival which had begun in Northampton in 1736 was renewed. Whitefield visited America on seven occasions, the results of his evangelistic tours being shared by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists from Massachusetts to Georgia.

Early in his ministry, he became Calvinistic in his views, and his association with Calvinistic divines in America deepened them. He complained to Wesley because he attacked the doctrine of election, and there was a sharp controversy between them which led to a temporary alienation, though the unwillingness of either to offend the other soon brought about a reconciliation. Whitefield was nominally the head of the Calvinistic Methodists, but he left to others the work of organization. His time was divided between Great Britain and America, and he preached among all denominations. He continued in active service until the end, preaching for two hours at Exeter, Mass., the day before his death, while it was his regular custom to preach every day in the week, often two and four times daily. 1