What I learned from George Whitefield

What I learned from George Whitefield

Revivals were common fare in the Colonial Church, but only one came to be known as the First Great Awakening: that of George Whitefield. To get a glimpse of his success, when Whitefield departed from Boston at the end of a revival in October 1740, it is a reasonable estimate that 30,000 people showed up to hear him preach—this at a time when the entire population of Boston numbered 20,000.[1] Before the invention of microphones, it is likely that no one in human history had ever preached to larger crowds of people than George Whitefield.[2] The question I will try to answer is, “Why?”

Marketing

It turns out that George Whitefield was a supreme communicator through the press as well as from the pulpit. Far from simply showing up to throngs of eager hearers, it is now well established that Whitefield carefully planned and advertised his forthcoming revivals often as far as two years in advance.[3]

As the pro-revivalist Colonial printer Thomas Prince, Jr. recalled, Whitefield followed a particular program in advertising: his first wave consisted of journals and sermons for prominent ministers, which hit long before his arrival in town. Next he furnished newspapers with self-promoting reports which recounted his previous successes. Finally, he summoned his supporters in the area to publish “glowing testimonials extolling Whitefield’s evangelism and humanitarianism.”[4] In all these endeavors, Whitefield deliberately used commercial advertising techniques and verbiage, when other itinerant preachers never dared stray from more modest announcements of time and date.

Once he arrived in a city to preach, Whitefield only increased the flood of efforts to make himself and his mission known to everyone possible. In his visit to Pennsylvania in 1739, for example, Whitefield arrived with boxes of books, including copies of his sermons, journals, letters, and prayers, ready for distribution.[5] He then promoted himself and his ministry to those in power, and specifically “curried the favor of the political establishment rather than confront it.”[6] More often than not, Whitefield won favor and found a ready audience of people eager to hear the man from all the newspaper ads.

It is not terribly surprising, then, that Whitefield succeeded so wildly that his American revival (1739—1742) came to be known as a Great Awakening. Nor is it surprising that a growing number of scholars, upon reconstructing the meticulous commercialism employed in Whitefield’s revivals, have concluded that the first “Great Awakening” was a myth invented by contemporaries in order to explain why this man succeeded so completely where they failed. In other words, if revivals cannot be produced by any human effort, but must come from the hand of God alone, then those pastors who oversee less successful ministries cannot be held accountable for their failure. But if those ministers were wrong (however good and pious their intentions may have been), then church leaders are very directly responsible for the success or failure of their own ministries.

Sermons

To end the story Whitefield’s success at the level of advertising would be a hopeless reductionism, and neglect the most important element of his ministry: Preaching. Whitefield has been hailed repeatedly as one of the most powerful preachers in Christian history. Whitefield described the fundamental task of the preacher as such: “We must first show people they are condemned, and then show them how they must be saved.”[7] For him, all preaching is the call to repent and be saved, which is exactly what the multitudes of listeners did in response.[8] When Whitefield preached the crowds were spellbound, and thousands regularly fell to the ground and cried out to God for mercy.[9]

Whitefield’s oratory skill owed in part to his role as a traveling minister, though he also took an interest in theatre from a young age. While on the road, he preached the same sermons over and over, honing every syllable until it was perfected. Benjamin Franklin noted in his journal that he could easily distinguish the older sermons from the new, because the well-practiced messages were delivered with a flawless, captivating dynamism. A famous English actor in Whitefield’s day reported that Whitefield could captivate any crowd simply by saying the word, “Mesopotamia.”[10]

Yet, although there were other great preachers who reused their messages, no one else perfected them with such skill. For example, on July 8, 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God” in Enfield, CT. He had preached it before to his own congregation in Northampton, MA, and received no notable reaction. But this time, a near riot broke out. People wailed, and cried out in despair, “How shall we be saved?” They repeatedly interrupted Edwards, who barely finished the message. But what of his oratory skill? Edwards read the sermon in near monotone, eyes on the manuscript. Like many others, he had failed to learn from his friend Whitefield.

Finances and Connections

In order to understand Whitefield’s astonishing success, we must also see that he landed in America with substantial financial backing.[11] It is important to remember that while Whitefield tailored his message for “the people,” he and the rest of the early Methodists came from the well-to-do English middle class. The Methodist movement in fact arose out of the Holy Club, a group of students and professors formed by the Wesley brothers at Oxford University. In other words, the earliest Methodists were well-connected, well-to-do, and well-educated members of middle or upper classes—i.e. privileged kids who knew how to get things done.

Whitefield used his connections and his fluency in higher society throughout his ministry. His extensive newspaper campaigns, his boxes of pricey books ready for distribution, and his acceptance by other elites (as exemplified by his friendships with such members of leading Americans like Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin): These things did not come from nowhere. They came from connections, funding, and training in the privileged sectors of society. In other words, Whitefield led a well-funded mission precisely because he used every possible asset at his disposal.

Conclusion

Whitefield held staunchly Calvinist views, and he eventually broke with the Wesley brothers on theological grounds. Yet he saw nothing wrong with using every means possible to win some (1 Cor 9:22). He deliberately did everything in his power to increase the size of his crowds, even using “the meanest instruments” where other ministers were more cautious, in order to “excite people’s curiosity and serve to raise their attention.” While others found his style of marketing to be ruthless self-promotion, he expressed his motives thus: that “our Lord’s cause might be promoted thereby.” Moreover, he wondered, as did our Lord Jesus, “When will the children of light be as wise in their generation as the children of the world?”[12]

The lesson of George Whitefield is that God reigns over the world, and that he calls his people to make every use of human invention and available devices in order to promote the Gospel of Jesus. Unfortunately, most Calvinists have rejected Whitefield’s efforts in advertising, planning, and executing evangelistic campaigns to win souls for Christ. Even in his own day very few in the Reformed tradition stood up in Whitefield’s defense. Most condemned him as an enthusiast, and thus ensured the calcification of the established church in America.

In the next century, Finney, the Methodists and the Baptists, and later the Catholics formed extensive revivalist campaigns, and all of their efforts boomed while the old mainline withered.[13] The twentieth century saw the rise (and fall) of Lutheran evangelism, and the unparalleled Billy Graham crusades. The leaders in each of these endeavors made extensive use of the exact same tactics as George Whitefield, and met similar rates of success. They combined vigorous outreach, intimate networks for followers, and a compelling message of salvation from sin and death by the power of God in Christ.

We cannot allow the status quo to reign any longer. It is our Christian responsibility to take strategic action toward the revival of ourselves and our neighbors. As I have researched and written this argument, I have been overwhelmed by grief at my own arrogant preconceptions, and hope that God might still use me in the cause of the Gospel. It is with passion, hope, trepidation, and love that I urge you: Let’s do something about this now. 

 

[1] Finke and Stark (2005), 51.

[2] Moses is a possible exception to this.

[3] Finke and Stark (2005), 88.

[4] Lambert (1990), 814

[5] Lambert (1990), 812.

[6] Butler (1989), 516.

[7] From “The Seed of the Woman, and the Seed of the Serpent,” Selected Sermons of George Whitefield (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1999).

[8] The idea of calling even Christians to be saved may sound like a redundant theological error, but there is reason to believe that the error is on our part. Luther, for example, held that “dying with Christ is not an event which takes place once”, but that even those who are in Christ through faith must be repeatedly crucified with him (Althaus 1966, 214; see Luther’s commentary on Galatians 2:19). Augustine seems to have believed this as well.

[9] Finke and Stark (2005), 52–53.

[10] Finke and Stark (2005), 53.

[11] Finke and Stark (2005), 49.

[12] Whitefield’s Journals, quoted in Lambert (1990), 814–816.

[13] These efforts are extensively documented in Finke and Stark’s The Churching of America, 1776—2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy.