Scholars celebrate Whitefield’s evangelistic legacy in annual Fuller Center conference
Thousands of people flocked to the Bruton Parish Church in colonial Virginia on Sunday, Dec. 16, 1739, to hear a famous young preacher they called the “heavenly comet.” Church members were joined by curious onlookers and some eager visitors who traveled a then-remarkable 14 miles to hear the powerful voice of George Whitefield proclaim the new birth.
Though he made no mention of it in his journal, the “grand itinerant” turned 25 years old that day. Despite his youth, Whitefield had already attained a level of popularity in Britain and colonial America that arguably no one has since matched. Turning to his text, Matthew 22:42, Whitefield asked the congregation a classic question: “What think ye of Christ?”
He was received with unusual warmth from the Anglican minister and faced no immediate controversy from his sermon. By the time Bruton Parish received letters from the Church of England to bar Whitefield from its pulpit, the evangelist was already on his way through the colonies for “the greatest preaching tour of any preacher since the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul,” said Steven J. Lawson, president of OnePassion Ministries in Dallas, Texas.
Lawson, who wrote The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield, delivered a plenary address at the eighth annual conference for the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on “Whitefield and the Great Awakening,” Oct. 21-22. The two-day conference honoring the tricentennial of Whitefield’s birth featured key scholars such as Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University and author of the recent George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, and David Bebbington, professor of history at the University of Stirling and author of notable works on modern evangelicalism.
The reason Whitefield stirred so much anger with Anglican authorities, Lawson said, is because the evangelist used sermons like “What Think Ye of Christ?” to diagnose what he believed to be “the chief spiritual plague of the day: unconverted church members and, worse, unconverted ministers.”
“He saw the unconverted multitudes, but more than that, he saw the unconverted ministers who stood in pulpits,” Lawson said. “Whitefield saw the necessity of awakening slumbering sinners from their spiritual lethargy and from their lost condition.”
Whitefield’s preaching style was remarkable because he needed no electric amplification to project his voice to thousands. His background in theater empowered his inflection in such a way contemporaries envied how he could pronounce “Mesopotamia” and deliver an exclamatory “O!”
“Whitefield has been remembered as a preacher who might have graced the stage as much as the pulpit,” said Bebbington. For many of his hearers, the action of his preaching was the most dominant trait, Bebbington said of Whitefield’s legacy.
Whitefield’s content, however, was marked by rich Calvinist theology and a confrontation of sinners, both of which have carried on his legacy to the present.
“I fear many of us who are Reformed in our theology, who are Calvinistic, we never get to the ‘come,’” Lawson said about Whitefield’s evangelistic call in his sermons. “It’s not simply stating the plan of salvation, we must go further — we must plead, we must invite, we must urge those who are without Christ to come to faith in him.”
“Man is nothing,” Whitefield wrote in a letter to his friend and theological opponent John Wesley, “he hath a free will to go to hell, but none to go to heaven, till God worketh in him.”
His establishment of the Calvinistic Methodist Association in 1742 and decades-long theological controversy with John and Charles Wesley are evidence that Whitefield firmly rooted his evangelistic ministry and promotion of the new birth in the tenets of Calvinism.
"Whitefield’s convictions about man’s deep depravity melded with his belief in God’s sovereignty and in God’s predestination of the elect to salvation to make him a principled Calvinist, in addition to being the most accomplished revival preacher of the era," Kidd said.
Whitefield’s method of open-air preaching and the marketing strategy of publicizing his ministry and publishing his journals were innovative, Kidd said, but they did not detract from his traditional Calvinist teachings.
“I believe the doctrine of reprobation,” Whitefield wrote, “that God intends to give saving grace, through Jesus Christ, only to a certain number, and that the rest of mankind, after the fall of Adam, being justly left of God to continue in sin, will at last suffer that eternal death, which is its proper wages.”
His emphasis on the new birth prompted Whitefield to expand his evangelistic activities outside of the Church of England, preaching to and inspiring Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.
Whitefield declared he saw sincere Christians in every denomination, and thus filled pulpits for Congregationalist ministers like Jonathan Edwards and Presbyterian churches like the one in which he is buried in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall, who established the Baptist movement in the South, were converted under Whitefield’s revivalist preaching.
“The roots of Southern Baptists in revivalism,” Bebbington said, “are evident in the altar calls that still mark their services in all types of Southern Baptist churches to this day. Ultimately, that practice is testimony to the legacy of George Whitefield.”
Often considered a pioneer of ecumenical cooperation in this regard, Whitefield “drew sharp theological lines when it came to the doctrine of the new birth, as well as the doctrines of grace,” Kidd said. “He believed that no one could preach a full, biblical gospel while neglecting Calvinist principles.”
Even though he embraced an interdenominational spirit in his ministry, Whitefield’s Calvinism drew from the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, argued Lee Gatiss, director of the Anglican Church Society. “He always remained doctrinally in line with the Anglican heritage, even when he was being more venturous in terms of institutional order,” Gatiss said.
Yet it was Whitefield’s defiance of Anglican church order in a church-age society that may have contributed to the American Revolution, said Jerome Mahaffey, professor of communication studies at Northern Arizona University.
"Political power, not religious doctrine, fueled the controversy surrounding the Great Awakening. There was no separation of church and state in the colonies,” said Mahaffey, who authored The Accidental Revolutionary: George Whitefield and the Creation of America. “Shifts in religion held a profound impact on the evolution of political thought, and shifts of emphasis in the ministry of George Whitefield enabled democratic ideas to go viral and plow the colonies into fertile ground for the republican spirit."
Whitefield sympathized with Americans and helped overturn the Stamp Act placed on the colonies in 1765. His expansive ministry unified the colonies and provided a moral consciousness, Bebbington countered, “but he was no simple politician.”
The legacy of Whitefield’s Calvinism extends beyond the Great Awakening to a significant theological turn in the 20th century, said Bebbington. While a distaste for Calvinism marginalized Whitefield’s legacy in the centuries after his 1770 death, “his Calvinism was an active agent in subsequent history” through the efforts of Banner of Truth Trust and the ministry of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Bebbington said.
Whitefield’s evangelistic ministry remains a model for preachers today, according to Lawson. “The need of the hour is for spirit-empowered preachers of the Word of God,” said Lawson, who called for “an army of Whitefields in this land and around the world” to proclaim the nature and necessity of the new birth.
Other topics covered in the two-day conference included Whitefield’s piety, friendship with the Wesleys, and the hymnody of the Great Awakening.
Audio and video from the Andrew Fuller Conference are available at sbts.edu/resources.