On the Death of the Rev. George Whitefield
Numbers 23:10 – “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”
In solemn praise we give thanks for a life well lived, for one who inspired us to know that nothing, in life or in death, can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:31-34). George Whitefield (often pronounced “Whitfield”) was born at Gloucester in December 1714. He went to grammar school there as well. When he was 17, he began a serious study of religion and was soon admitted to Pembroke College in Oxford. About a year after this, he became acquainted with the Methodists (so-called), whom from that time he loved as his own soul.
He joined this community in fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays; in visiting the sick and the prisoners; and in gathering up the very fragments of time, that no moment might be lost. In this community, he came to the conviction that we must all be “born again.” Without a changed heart, our outward religion will profit us nothing.
In this community of “Methodists”, he was tried by fire. He lost friends. He struggled inwardly, but he also had that experiential knowledge that he preached about from that day onward. In this community, God gave “the Spirit of Adoption,” and empowered a living faith within them. Through this faith, God would bring transformation to many of us.
At 21 he entered into holy orders. He was ordained on Trinity Sunday, 1736. He was then invited to London, to serve in the place of a friend who was in need of a time for healing. While there, he heard about missionaries in Georgia, and began to dream of going there. In the meantime, he served in several places where God began to bless his ministry in an uncommon manner.
On December 29th, he preached for the first time without notes. On December 30th, he left for Georgia, on a long and hard journey. From May to August 1738, he served in Georgia, where he prayer and preached twice a day. He visited the sick daily. He taught the Church Catechism as well. Oh, how much “easier is it for those here to find fault with such a laborer in the Lord’s vineyard than to tread in his steps!”
Observing the deplorable conditions of many children, God put into his heart the first thought of an “Orphan-house.” He was determined to raise contributions in England, if God should give him a safe return. He did return the next year, and was greeted with a mighty movement of the Holy Spirit. On Sunday, January 15, 1739, in the midst of winter, he preached in London, where the crowds were so large that hundreds stood in the courtyard and hundreds more returned home. This led him to the first thought of preaching in the open air. When he mentioned this to some friends, they accused him of madness, so he did not act upon this thought until after he left London. But on Wednesday, February 21, in Bristol he found all the church doors shut, so at three that afternoon he preached outdoors to nearly 2,000 people. On Friday, he preached to 4,000 or 5,000, and on Sunday it was an estimate of 10,000. The flame of holy love was kindled, a flame that cannot easily be put out. The same thing happened in many other places. Wherever he went, God abundantly confirmed the word of his messenger.
Whitefield returned to the Americas, with contributions for the Orphan-House in Georgia. He landed in Pennsylvania and preached all along the way – through Pennsylvania, the Jerseys, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina – to immense congregations with the same profound effect as in England. On January 10, 1740, he arrived in Savannah, and the Orphan-House was built. He continued his preaching up the coast. Incredible multitudes flocked to hear him, including an “abundance of negroes.” Many were deeply moved and truly converted to God. On this missionary journey, he preached 175 times with great fruit. He then returned to England.
By way of testimony we read from the Boston Gazette: “In his public labors he has, for many years, astonished the world with his eloquence and devotion. With what divine pathos did he persuade the impenitent sinner to embrace the practice of piety and virtue!”
And from the English papers we read: “The character of this truly pious person must be [deeply] impressed on the heart of every friend to vital religion. In spite of a tender and delicate constitution, he continued to the last day of his life, preaching with a frequency and fervor that seemed to exceed the natural strength of the most robust … even in the open fields, to rouse the lower class of people from the last degree of inattention and ignorance to a sense of religion. For this, and his other labors, the name of GEORGE WHITEFIELD will long be remembered with esteem and veneration.”
At the heart of his integrity, his courage, his patience, his tender-heartedness to the afflicted, and charitableness to the poor, was nothing less than his faith in crucified Lord. It was “a lively hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that does not fade away.” (I Peter 1:4). It was “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5). His whole life pointed to this blessing of God.
And how shall we build upon this legacy? By keeping close to the grand doctrines which he delivered; and by drinking of this same spirit. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature that have divided the church through the ages. In these we must think and let think. We can “agree to disagree.” But, in the meantime, let us hold fast to the essentials of “the faith delivered to us by the saints.”
Whitefield’s fundamental point rang out so clearly: “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and humans as low as possible.” All power to think, speak, or act faithfully and fruitfully is in from the Spirit of Christ. All human beings are dead in trespasses and sin. On our own, we are all helpless with regards to any power to overcome this condition. Our hope is found only in the One who paid the whole price for our pardon and opened the way to God.
The essential doctrines proclaimed by this servant can be summed up in two words: justification by faith and new birth. By the blood of Christ, we are justified, aligned, and reconciled to God. This is a gift to us. We do not have to do anything to earn this blessing. Through this justification comes new birth where God’s righteousness, love, peace, and joy are planted within and able to grow to full maturity.
It is not, however, enough to hold these doctrines in our heads. We are called to bring them to life, bearing the fruits that we have seen in this saint who we honor today – the fruits of gratefulness, courage, patience, and deep faith. If there is one fruit that we might lift up as an all-encompassing word, it might be “catholic love.” This is the universal love that loves all others as friends, as joint heirs with Christ in God’s eternal kingdom. This love is not focused on opinions or modes of worship. Rather, it embraces all who love God, who trust in the Lord Jesus, and who are zealous for good works by the power of the Holy Spirit. Those with a catholic love hold all others in their hearts and earnestly desire what is good for them.
What device of Satan causes us to stop short of this grace? The answer is the “audacity of judgment.” We excuse our lack of love by laying the blame on others. To cover our own evil tempers, we pronounce that others are children of the devil. Friends, beware of this evil, manifested as judgment, impatience, arrogance, and divisiveness. Escape this snare as soon as possible. Open your hearts to the truly catholic love that is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way (I Corinthians 13:1-8). This love shares the grace of God with all, whatever be their opinion or mode of worship.
This was the spirit of our dear friend. To honor him, and the Lord who worked in and through him, let us, as children of God, put on mercy and humility, kindness and gentleness, always bearing one another in love, working at every turn to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3). May we also be able to hear the words, ‘well done, good and faithful servant! Thy glorious warfare’s past; the battle has been fought, the race is won, and thou art crowned at last.” (Matthew 25:21). Amen.