‘Blessed Are The Feet’ is a blog series offering a cursory overview of some of the most prominent persons from church history. Note: these blogs cannot nor do they intend to cover everything about any specific individual.
“Pick one person from church history and learn everything you can about that person.” An old professor gave me this advice a few years ago. The reason he gave was pragmatic. “You need a trusted ‘friend’ who has walked before you, failed as often as you, persevered longer than you, and then ended up seeing God more clearly and loving Christ more dearly at the end of it all.” In other words, you need encouragement when you’re coasting on fumes, comradery when faith feels impossible, and conviction when your life is falling short of the gospel call.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, this piece of advice has profoundly shaped me. It certainly changed my reading habits. I would guess that 40% of the books I read now are biographical. It’s also opened up my eyes to a fuller picture of global Christianity, different movements of God across time, and taught me much about historical theology. But maybe more than anything, it has been a constant reminder that God uses massively flawed people to do gloriously massive things for His name’s sake. It’s a beautiful testimony of God’s faithfulness to Himself to build His church with broken, sinful people who are simply trying their best.
As randomly as drawing a name out of hat, I chose to study George Whitefield. Once I started, I began ingesting everything I could find on the guy. I read book after book, listened to lectures, found sermons – I was captivated by this man’s life and ministry.
It isn’t an overstatement to say that George Whitefield forever changed the landscape of American Christianity. And he wasn’t even an American!
George Whitefield was born in 1714 in Gloucester, UK. He grew up poor and eventually made his way to Oxford. It was there that Jesus gripped his heart. He quickly developed an insatiable appetite for the Bible, holiness, and ministry. Sensing the call to be a missionary in the American colonies, Whitefield was ordained as an Anglican minister, although he wouldn’t adhere to their doctrines for long.
When Whitefield began preaching, he noticed something unique: his audiences hung on his every word. Soon enough, a buzz began to stir about this ‘Whitefield character’ and suddenly people were traveling from all over the colonies to hear him proclaim the gospel. He quickly became what is known as an itinerant preacher. That is, he spent his time traveling up and down the East Coast (and Europe), calling all who would listen to repentance and the new life that Jesus Christ offers.
The more popularity Whitefield gained, the more the religious establishment in the colonies became suspicious. He stirred up a new flavor of Protestant Christianity that paired both spiritual experience and autonomy, which went against the grain of what the establishment tried so hard to uphold. In an already tumultuous and fractured Church environment, the Whitefield effect all but ensured a civil war. Communities divided, debates began, and Whitefield was banned from preaching in many churches. So, what did he do?
He evolved again into an ‘Open-Air’ revivalist. In a culture that pedestalized and venerated the ‘pastor’ and ‘reverend’, Whitefield constructed a traveling pulpit and began preaching outside. It seems logical that this would have deterred or detracted from Whitefield’s influence, but quite the opposite was true! Whitefield began to see crowds of up to thirty thousand people attend his services; the largest gatherings to that point in American history.
What ensued was what historians call the First Great Awakening. For the first time in the American colonies, masses were coming to a new or renewed faith in Jesus Christ. Whitefield unintentionally transcended the role of preacher and became a celebrity; so much so, that at one point he was the most published and widely read author in the colonies. It is estimated that by the end of his life, 80% of every man, woman, and child in America had heard him preach at least once. Unfathomable!
What made Whitefield different? What was it that made Whitefield one of the most influential, if not the most influential, preacher of all time? Certainly there was a collision of social, political, religious, and cultural dynamics at play that aided his ministry, but the one word everyone would agree with, and what personally enticed me, was his passion.
At an early age, Whitefield was shaped by the theater. The way an actor could grip an audience, the use of language, the role that inflection played—it was, in itself, a spiritual experience. So when the Holy Spirit breathed life into him and anointed his already spectacular gift of oration, the man captivated an entire nation.
But it wasn’t only his spiritual gifting that attracted people. It was also his heart for people who didn’t know Christ. One comment you’ll often read in Whitefield biographies is that rarely was he able to make it through a sermon without weeping uncontrollably. He wept so intensely, in fact, that many thought he would be unable to recover in order to continue speaking. That gives us a glimpse into his heart. He was so broken and burdened for people to experience salvation in Jesus Christ that he gave his life to preaching, praying, and weeping over their souls.
The reason why I’ve continued to read and learn about Whitefield is not because he was perfect. In fact, he had some horrific blind spots. It’s not because of his preaching ability; that was irreplaceable spiritual gifting. The reason I love Whitefield is that he is an example and reminder to me to give my life wholly and zealously to the proclamation of the gospel. To have a deeply profound passion that God can send me anywhere—into the fields, into the mission field, into the fray—if it means Heaven will grow by a few.
Whitefield is regularly criticized for saying, “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” Meaning, he would rather run himself into the ground from exhaustion than sit in the rain doing nothing for the kingdom. In a very real sense, Whitefield did burn out. He died in 1770 after preaching himself to death. But that is not a stench to me like it is for many. To me, that points to a man who had both vision and resolve. Vision for what the Gospel can do; resolve and passion to do everything humanly possible to see it realized.