George Whitefield: The Voice of the Great Awakening
One of my earliest understandings of the calling of a preacher came during my first semester during a preaching course in seminary. It was the fall of 1974, and we were given an assignment by Dr. Harold Freeman to seek out and define the words in the Bible that best described the roles and responsibilities of preaching. One of the words I came across was the Greek word, "kerusso." It meant to herald, to be a herald, or to proclaim. It was a word picture of a servant or soldier in the king's service who was given the assignment to ride into the village squares of the realm, to sound the trumpet to gather the people and to deliver faithfully the message sent by the king to his people.
The powerful connection with preaching and the herald of a king is rather obvious. The servant delivering the message focuses solely on what the king had to say, and does not detour from it. Heralds do not mistake the spotlight as an opportunity to tell the listeners what he has on his mind. Regardless of the reception the King's word received, the herald was to deliver it to the people, faithfully, consistently and accurately. His commission required him to overcome every hardship and obstacle to the mission. The herald was then to return and report to the king when his mission had been accomplished. Any honor or reward was not to be sought or received from the listeners to the message. The sender of the message was the one who had the authority to commend or compensate the herald. Preachers speak on behalf of The King. They must answer to Him for their stewardship of The King's message. The King has sent to His people, by means of His heralds, a message of faith, hope and love.
History is filled with the stories of the lives of men who fit this definition of a preacher. Perhaps no one has ever personified this kind of preaching more than the English evangelist, George Whitefield (1714-1770). He was an ordained Anglican minister, a contemporary and a personal friend of John and Charles Wesley. He had grown up in a humble home. His father owned a tavern in a pretty rough neighborhood, and he was frequent attender of bawdy stage shows, plays and theatricals of his day. His plight was not that of a child in abject poverty, but his family background provided him with no pedigree or status. He had to work his way through college as a servant waiting tables and running errands for the wealthier students. He experienced what he referred to has his "new birth" at the age of 21. His keen mind was ripe for learning and he graduated with his Bachelor's Degree from Oxford, and at 22 he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England. He preaching was marked by great power and persuasive oratory.
At the peak of his popularity Whitefield announced his intention to go to Georgia as a missionary. He had been influenced by the spiritual fervor and devotion of Moravian missionaries, who were the contemporary standard barriers for carrying the Gospel around the globe. His own personal call to missions took him to the city of Savannah in the Colony of Georgia. He discovered that many of the settlers that had come to America were unprepared physically or emotionally for the challenges they faced. The early deaths of parents left many children without the means to survive. On his return to England, he set about raising funds from wealthy friends and would later come back to Georgia to build an orphanage for the children of those who had died settling the frontier. The Bethesda orphanage still exists outside the city of Savannah today.
Factor out the voice of George Whitefield, and America might very well be a very different kind of a nation. His impact on America's religious, political and social standards was enormous. His preaching has been credited as a powerful force in unifying the people of the 13 separate British colonies. He moved up and down the eastern seaboard from Georgia to New England, and drew huge crowds everywhere he went. His listeners came together from various denominations and social backgrounds. His egalitarian messages focused on the unity of the Body of Christ that was based upon being adopted into the family of God through a life-changing surrender to the Person of Christ. As thousands of people all over the colonies began to gather at his open air meetings, a transformation took place on another level. They began to recognize they had a great deal in common. Whitefield's preaching did a great deal to help America avoid the religious blood baths that had taken place in Europe between the established church and the dissenters. He was instrumental in contributing to the people of the various colonies the concept that they were all Americans. They began to see that they had more in common with each other than a distant mother country.
Although an ordained Anglican minister, Whitefield opened his arms to preachers of other denominations, and persuasions. His meetings were marked by an openness and acceptance that was quite unusual for the days in which he lived. His powerful voice and exemplary life made him one of the most popular preachers in America. When Whitefield voyage home to England, he would publicly express his friendship for the American cause to the members of parliament, and raise funds for the mission work that he had started in Georgia. The City of Savannah, Georgia still honors his memory today with a beautiful city square that bears his name, and the Bethesda Orphanage that he began upon his second trip to America is still operational.
If Whitefield was the voice of The Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards was the intellect of it. Birth pangs of the The Awakening had broken out in small, isolated parishes in New England as early as the 1720's, but the full force of this movement rolled into his parish church in Northampton, Massachusetts by 1734. Edwards compiled a history of what had happened, and wrote a treatise that was printed and distributed throughout Great Britain. It became the impetus for a prolonged impact of the Great Awakening in the lives of people who read it, and longed to be a part of it.
Today Edwards is still considered to be one of the greatest preachers, theologians, scientists and philosophers America has ever produced. Both Edwards and Whitefield gave great encouragement to one another and to their followers in recognizing and emphasizing the importance of extraordinary, intercessory prayer in the arena of spiritual awakening. They understood prayer was the best resource a person could have when they came to the end of themselves.
Whitefield made seven trips from England to America. Those 13 crossings of the Atlantic in tiny ships that provided little shelter and comfort from raging storms were long and dangerous journeys. No doubt they did much to break down his body and lead to his early death. Whitefield's seventh journey across the Atlantic became his last trip to America. His exposure to the elements as he traveled by horseback and on leaky vessels from place to place to preach eventually took their toll on his body. He died in 1760 in New England shortly after preaching his last sermon. His body is buried there. No one deserves the title of Honorary American more than he. His prayer journals contain a simple phrase that gave him great confidence in God's provision no matter what trial, test, or triumph came his way. He was fond of saying. "Man's extremity is God's opportunity."
The impact of Whitefield's life on the spiritual climate of America through his mass meetings is well documented. The touch of his life on individual lives requires the use of history's magnifying glass. This intensified glimpse of his ministry reveals some astounding consequences, when it is seen through the lives of just three people who were influenced by this powerful preacher.
Samuel Adams: The Voice of the American Revolution
Adams was raised in Massachusetts in a devout home. Along with Puritan piety, he was immersed in the political activities of his father. From an early age he learned how the system worked and what it took to move the machinery of government to accomplish a task through the body politic. He was also influenced by the piety of his mother and sister. He often had the opportunity to listen to the leading preachers of his day, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards when they came through town. His sister took copious notes and they would discuss them together at length.
Before Adams headed to Harvard, at the age of 14, he had expressed a desire to be a minister. In his own autobiography, Benjamin Franklin mentions Whitefield made his triumphant way to Philadelphia in 1739. What impressed Franklin the most about Whitefield's preaching was the change that came over the people who heard him. Franklin testified that it was impossible to walk down any street in Philadelphia in the evening without hearing the singing of Psalms ringing out from within every house along the way. He was taken by the fact that a totally irreligious community could talk about nothing but the work of God in their city.
When Whitefield preached on the campus of Harvard in the fall of 1739, Samuel Adams was a student, and he had a life changing encounter. He totally embraced the Puritan piety that Whitefield espoused. He changed the way he dressed to somber Puritan gray, and though he didn't become a minister, he was encouraged to impact audiences the way he saw the great preachers of his day move them. This campus revival spread to Boston Commons and Whitefield preached to over 23,000 people who had come to Boston for the occasion. This crowd was larger than the population of the city of Boston. These days had to be indelibly imprinted on Sam Adam's memory.
After leaving school after the campus revival, Adam's father was brought to a serious financial crisis that evaporated a great deal of his fortune and by implication Samuel's inheritance. Arbitrary decisions from the royal governor and his officers were instrumental in stripping his father of office, land and cash. Samuel Adams never forgot it. While working on his Master's Degree at Harvard, He began to exhibit skills of a man who had an innate comprehension of the art of politics, but an understanding of the need to give those skills a voice that would move the people out of complacent acceptance to courageous action. For the next 40 years his writings, speeches, and personal influence impacted the leading men of his day, and infuriated the British establishment.
Samuel Adams became the voice of the American Revolution to the ears of the British authorities. Their focus on his capture and their obsession with the removal of this thorn in their side empowered Adams to be seen by his contemporaries as the Father of Independence. His keen insight into the needs of the American people stoked his passion to defend their rights with an evangelistic zeal. He understood before many other leaders that America must separate themselves from England. He believed if Americans missed the opportunity that was before them, they would be held in a permanent relationship as the subservient and weaker partner to Great Britain. His insight was not expressed in dry lectures or detailed legal briefs, but with a passionate proclamation that called on the people of America to claim their independence from tyranny by declaring a war of independence. He had been impacted by the voices of Great Awakening preachers who called thousands to accept their chance to be born again. His ministry became one that called them to have the courage to birth a nation. Samuel Adam's legacy is not as well known as some of the founding fathers, even though they made less of a contribution to the birth of America. He appears to have been quite content to pass the leadership baton to younger men who carried on his legacy.
Patrick Henry: The Voice of Liberty
Patrick Henry is best remembered for his famous statement before the Virginia House of Burgesses when he announced, "Give me liberty or give me death."
However, his life was impacted by the Great Awakening that swept through America as a result of the preaching of George Whitefield. The birth of the Great Awakening took place in Northampton in 1734, but its height came in 1740-1743. Although its greatest work took place in New England, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, it did reach Virginia as early as 1739 when Patrick Henry was only three years old. Samuel Morris, a brick layer, was concerned with the lack of spiritual devotion in the Anglican Church. Whitefield had made his way to Williamsburg by 1739, but the sermons of the era's great itinerant Anglican preacher were not embraced by the Anglican establishment. They saw him as a radical and a dangerous influence to the status quo. "Whitefield had recently captivated both Britain and America with his passionate rhetoric and open air meetings. In 1745 Whitefield came to Hanover and expressed his desire to preach in the Anglican church pastored by Patrick Henry's uncle'. When Whitefield arrived at the church followed by a large crowd, he had great reservations regarding Whitefield's motives, but he could see by the size of the crowd that he was powerless to stop him. Patrick Henry's mother joined a Presbyterian congregation sympathetic to the great evangelists preaching, and would take little Patrick with her each Sunday. After each sermon, she would ask him to recite the passage of Scripture used by the preacher and to give her a summary of that morning's message. The preaching of the Great Awakening was instrumental in removing the unchallenged authority from the hands of the politicians and the parsons, and placing it in the hands of the people. This is the climate in which Patrick Henry was raised. He grew up breathing the fresh air of religious liberty, and he never got over it.
Although he never left the Anglican church, as a young lawyer he took a case against an Anglican minister who was suing the local people for his salary. The government had assigned him to them, and they refused to pay someone they had not hired. His argument won the case, and was another sign of the broke grip the established powers had on the purse strings of the people, when they exercised their liberty.
As a representative of the frontier people who had no voice in the House of Burgesses, he began to stand firm for less government intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens. He championed their rights for more personal freedom. He became a spokesman for those who believed that more government control would always lead to tyranny. It is probably safe to say, Patrick Henry would not recognize the United States as the one that he helped birth.
Benjamin Franklin: The Voice of History
Benjamin Franklin is often portrayed as a non religious scientist, an agnostic politician or at the very best a benign Deist. It turns out that Franklin was a man who was aware of the importance, the impact and the implications of the Great Awakening more than some of the contemporary clergy of his day.
In his autobiography, Franklin mentions his friendship with George Whitefield. He was very impressed with his preaching, and took pains to note that when Whitefield arrived in Philadelphia in 1739 that the local pastors closed their doors to him and would not let him preach from their pulpits. This probably raised Whitefield's stock in the eyes of Franklin. He was not known to suffer fools gladly, and had no great love for the clergy as a rule.
Franklin enlisted Whitefield's help in raising money to build a large preaching hall so that the crowds who wanted to hear him could be accommodated. Later this hall was deeded to trustees who chartered what became the University of Pennsylvania. Today there is a statue dedicated to Whitefield on the campus of the university paying tribute to his investment in its founding.
What impacted Franklin the most about Whitefield was the immediate, and widespread influence Whitefield's preaching had on the citizens of the city of Philadelphia. His proof of the impact of Whitefield's ministry can be described his own words. In his autobiography he recalled the scene,
"One could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."
Always the shrewd businessman, Franklin contracted with Whitefield to print all of his messages and pamphlets, and he saw that they were distributed as well in the newspapers that covered the news of the city and surrounding colonies. He would often attend his open air meetings, and as a scientist took the challenge to verify the power and the range of Whitefield's voice. Franklin chose to place himself in the crowd of an open air meeting and pace from the platform to the edge of the crowd, and then measure the circumference of the audience, granting a two square feet allotment to those standing in the street. He determined by his own calculations that Whitefield's voice could be heard by 30,000 people until the sounds of a busy street began to interfere with a clear reception of his message. Franklin attributed this to the powerful voice of the man, his use of clear and precise diction, and the rapt attention of the audience. It gave him confidence to know that what he had read of king's and generals addressing large crowds of people or vast armies was indeed possible to achieve.
Franklin remained a friend of Whitefield until his untimely death and never forgot what he had seen happen through the life of the evangelist. He states in his autobiography that although Whitefield often prayed for his conversion, he was never given the satisfaction of knowing that his prayers were answered. After the American Revolution, Franklin was called as an elder statesman to attend a convention that commissioned to amend the Articles of Confederation. For several years the independent states had attempted to unite themselves under this document, but it had not resulted in a unified nation. The convention in Philadelphia became a quagmire of division. It seemed that every delegate was filled with suspicion and driven by personal or regional ambition. At one point the convention was close to dissolving into chaos, and concluding in disaster, Franklin begged to be heard. Although he had never professed a personal faith in Christ to Whitefield, or ever identified with a specific church or denomination, Franklin revealed that he had been paying attention to those who had placed their faith in God as their Guide and Christ as their Savior. He expected more of them. It took the oldest man in the room to remind them of what he had seen during those crucial and crisis filled days. He said,
"How has it happened, Sir that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly of applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding. In the beginning of our Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection. Our prayers sir were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have engaged frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid, We have been assured,Sir, in the sacred writings that ' except the Lord build the house they labor in vain who build it. ' I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. ...I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations to be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate. "
In spite of the opposition of Alexander Hamilton, Franklin's motion carried the day. As a side note, Hamilton feared that word would get out that it had come to this. His pride kept him from admitting that they were at an empasse, and that they were forced to call on God to intervene. As the discussion raged, opposition voiced concern that the people of the United States would lose confidence in the Assembly if they admitted they didn't know what to do, and sought God's counsel for the next step.
Preachers have tremendous opportunity to impact the lives of those who hear them. They may not always see what God is doing in the lives of those who sit in the pews. They may not have the satisfaction of knowing that the hand of God is using them at that very moment to bring about change in the life of another person. They may often times be discouraged that someone they have often prayed for and preached to remains resistant and unmoved by their message. It may be when they are least hopeful that they are being heard that their voices are being used by God as a catalytic converter to inspire the heart of someone that He will use in His way and in His time. Franklin's own words in his autobiography do not give us an indication of his acceptance of Christ as his Savior. However, Franklin certainly expected more of those who had given their hearts to God. He called on them to lean on Him for the direction, protection and correction, that he had personally seen provided to them in direct answer to their prayers.
The Convention did meet to pray, and in short order they came together in agreement on a founding document that they could present to the States. I was ratified by the various states, and as they say, the rest is history. To this day the Congress of the United States is called to order and a prayer is offered for the guidance of the business of the day. Sometimes it is those outside of the family of faith that God uses to call His children back to the promises He has given to them. Franklin was certainly used by God to implement the will of God for the Assembly that had come to the end of themselves. One can't help but wonder if Franklin recalled the very words or perhaps the passion of his young preacher friend, "Man's extremity is God's opportunity."
Preaching differs from politicking. The preacher is a herald with a message. The politician is an actor with a script. The preacher delivers a message to the audience sent to them from the King. The politician is an actor on a stage reading from a script written by the audience. He must become what the people want him to be or be replaced by someone who will. The preacher is a servant who has been given a message to deliver from his King, regardless of the reception to it or rejection of it. The audience does not dictate to the preacher what they want to hear. The King communicates to His people through His messenger. When the preacher takes his cues from the audience, he has become a politician, and forfeited his primary role as herald of the king. Preachers are not cheerleaders waving political pom poms for any political party. They are messengers of God who dare not flinch at the mission of delivering His Word to His people.
Thank God for a faithful preacher who had a lasting impact on the lives of these three men. George Whitefield was the voice God used to influence them, and they were used in a very special way to impact the birth and direction of a new country. The questions comes to mind, "What if?" What if Whitefield had listened to the voices of the audience, or compromised with the climate of his culture. If he had been driven to please the crowd rather than faithfully deliver the message of His King, the very unique history of this nation may have turned out to be very different from what it is today.
It is always a wonderful thing to see what a difference one life can make on the life of another person. Today use your voice to encourage someone to seize the moment and listen to the direction God has for their life through the Person of Jesus Christ. One voice really can make a difference. Let it be your voice today.
Praying for preachers today to...Sound the trumpet. Gather the people and...PREACH IT!
George Whitefield: The Voice of the Great Awakening