“Book Review: George Whitefield” by David Chilton

By David H. Chilton (1980?)

George Whitefield: The life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival, by Arnold A. Dallimore (Cornerstone Books, 1980). Two volumes, $19.95 each.

Early in the eighteenth century, a high-society lady once joked that Parliament was “preparing a bill to have ‘not’ taken out of the Commandments and inserted into the Creed.” It was not far from the truth. By all descriptions of the period, it was characterized by rampant ungodliness and almost complete disregard for Christian standards in any area of life. J.C. Ryle wrote that “Christianity seemed to lie as one dead…There was…a gross, thick, religious and moral darkness” pervading England. The government and the courts were corrupt: open bribery was a continual practice, and the poor were flagrantly oppressed — which is not to say that the poor were any better.

Crime was abundant, and the attempt of the authorities to suppress it (by making 160 offenses punishable by death) was to no avail. Whole districts were sunk in abject heathenism, ignorant of the most basic principles of the gospel. And what were the churches doing? Says Ryle: “They existed, but they could hardly be said to have lived. They did nothing; they were sound asleep.” In short, England was well down the road which, for a nation just across the Channel, climaxed in the orgy of horror known as the French Revolution.

Yet within a few years, the situation for England had entirely changed. Thousands were converted to vital Christianity; the slave trade was abolished (in a matter vastly different from the Unitarian-inspired Abolitionist movement of America); widows, orphans and poor were cared for; hospitals were established; missionary and tract societies flourished. What made the difference? To a great extent the change can be traced to the labors of one of the most unworthily-neglected men in history — George Whitefield.

While Whitefield’s associates in the revival (John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and others) have received much attention through the years, Whitefield has been thrust into the background — largely due to his reluctance to promote himself — and historians have tended to treat him as one of Wesley’s lieutenants. In fact, Whitefield was the evangelist of the revival, a fact undisputed by his contemporaries. He was the founder of Methodism (and even, indirectly, of the Presbyterian Church of Virginia). The extent of his ministry is staggering: he evangelized England, Scotland, Wales and the American colonies, preaching about 40,000 sermons in a thirty-year period.

With the publication of the long-awaited second volume of his biography by Arnold Dallimore, the record has at last been set straight. Dallimore’s treatment is both sympathetic and discriminating (although the work still falls into the typical Banner-of-Truth biographical style, i.e., there is a relative disregard of Biblical standards in law, economics and social relationships).

The story of Whitefield’s conversion bears a strong resemblance to that of Martin Luther. Like the Reformer, Whitefield went through an extended time of trying desperately to be justified by works, and he almost killed himself through severe punishment of his body. At last he discovered justification by faith; he wrote later in his Journals of the “joy unspeakable” that filled his soul “when the weight of sin went off, and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God, and a full assurance of faith, broke in upon my disconsolate soul!” He began preaching, and the crowds soon became so huge that he initiated the practice of preaching in open fields — a practice which soon became the trademark of the early Methodist movement, as John Wesley and others became convinced of its propriety and effectiveness (Wesley, in his own words, had “thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church”)

While at first they worked together, a serious split occurred between Whitefield and the Wesley’s. It began as a doctrinal dispute: as Whitefield became more committed to the doctrines of Calvinism, Wesley firmly adhered to the Arminianism of his Anglican upbringing. Whitefield constantly worked for peace (perhaps more than he should have), but Wesley was adamant and offensive in his handling of their differences, indulging in relentless personal attacks. In what is perhaps the single most shocking revelation in Dallimore’s work, he demonstrates irrefutably Wesley’s treachery in taking over the organization of the Methodist movement.

Whitefield sought simply to preach the gospel of Christ; Wesley schemed to build a structure around himself. He followed Whitefield around, denouncing him and trying to draw away his congregations. Whitefield established a school for children; when he returned from a trip, he found that Wesley had quite literally stolen it from him. These dishonest tactics were repeated again and again, with Whitefield never once publicly making any statement against Wesley or bringing charges against him. The result has been a massive misrepresentation of the facts in the controversy, to Whitefield’s damage and Wesley’s immense profit. Yet throughout his life, Whitefield continued, for the sake of his concept of “unity,” to support and aid Wesley in every way possible — often under extreme abuse from the very one he was helping.

This fact illustrates a continuing problem in the last two and one-half centuries of evangelicalism: the combination of neoplatonism and antinomianism. I can think of no outstanding 18th-century leader who was not deeply infected with these two errors. There is no doubt in my mind that God greatly used Whitefield and his associates for the extension of His kingdom; with me, at least, that is not the point at issue. But the presuppositions of their age were not called into question by these men — and one result has been that their followers, whether Wesleyan or Calvinist, have regarded their serious errors as evangelical orthodoxy.

Their working definition of “spirituality” — i.e., that salvation is fundamentally individualistic, internal, and immaterial — comes straight from the Apostle Plato. One example of this is Whitefield’s amusing, and very sad, experience of courtship and marriage (see esp. vol. I, pp. 468-472; vol. 2, pp. 101-113). He couldn’t bring himself to admit he actually loved the girl of his dreams —that would be too “carnal” — and his businesslike proposal (which she rejected) had a human tenderness matched only by that of frozen fish.

When he finally did marry, he became quickly disappointed, and in less than two months he was longing “for that blessed time when we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be as the angels of God!” Marriage, you see, was a hindrance to his ability to serve the Lord. As he phrased it: “What room can there be for God, when a rival hath taken possession of the heart?”

We may laugh (or cry) at this, but let us be careful that our ideas of God, man and salvation are not just as distorted. We need to keep men like Whitefield in the Biblical perspective: neither attaching ourselves to his unbiblical worldviews just because God used him, nor rejecting the validity of much of what he did simply because his views were repulsive. He did preach the gospel, and he preached it with a greater degree of purity than most of his contemporaries. One of my favorite passages in the book comes from the diary of an unlettered American farmer, converted through hearing Whitefield preach on justification:

…he looked as if he was Clothed with authority from ye great god and a sweet solemnity sat upon his brow and my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound & by god’s blessing my old foundation was broken up & i see my righteousness would not save me.

Thus, Whitefield’s preaching did often have the good effect of leading people to flee from their own filthy rags to the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Whitefield’s neoplatonism was never fully rooted out. Neoplatonism is essentially an attempt to deny one’s creaturehood and humanity, the vain wish to be pure spirit and flee earthly cares and human relationships. Christian spirituality becomes defined in terms of transcending our creaturely limitations, rather than serving God in every sphere of life. We see the same thing today: someone wants to “serve the Lord,” to enter “full-time Christian service,” and so he abandons his trade and becomes a full-time preacher or missionary.

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but why do we feel that a preacher is more consecrated or spiritual than a salesman or electrician? It is simply because the preacher’s work seems less tied to earth and creaturely activity. The laborer, who spends most of his time working with material reality, cannot be as spiritual as the preacher, who deals with immaterial things — “the things of the Lord” — a higher level of reality. But the Bible says that all things are the Lord’s. Unfortunately, what someone once observed of philosophy could also be said of modern theology and Christian activity: “a series of footnotes to Plato.”

When we look at the lives of the Revivalists, we can see the needless suffering they endured because of their unbiblical concepts of reality. John Wesley had a very unhappy marriage: his wife constantly opposed him in his work, physically assaulted him on occasion, and finally left him. She is usually condemned (or dismissed as insane) by his biographers, but we should approach this matter with care. Here was a woman who was often left alone while her husband was out evangelizing and organizing, doing “the Lord’s work.”

But notice what the Bible demands of a church officer: he must he a godly husband and father, governing his home faithfully, loving his wife sacrificially, as Christ loved the church. The Old Testament required that a newly married man. “shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business: but he shall be free at home one year, and shall cheer up his wife which he hath taken” (Deut. 24:5). Surely this reveals God’s major concern for the home and family. The wife is a helper, and marriage is an asset, not a liability. But the revivalists often considered marriage a hindrance, and they accorded to soul-saving a priority over the clear demands of Scripture.

In examining Wesley’s troubles, therefore, we must ask: Who deserted whom? We cannot excuse Wesley on the mere grounds that many were converted under his ministry. God used him, as He has used many who disobeyed Him. God’s sovereignty is no excuse for man’s irresponsibility. Wesley’s ministry was lawless: soul-saving does not take priority over a man’s duty to his wife.

Whitefield’s marriage was certainly not the stormy ordeal that was Wesley’s, but he held the same distorted view of its proper place. Elizabeth Whitefield was apparently able to cope with the loneliness that had broken Mrs. Wesley. Still, she came to see herself as “nothing but a load and burden to him.” He was engaged in spiritual work, and made no attempt to hide the fact that he “looked back longingly on the days when there had been no husbandly responsibilities to hinder his service for the Lord.”

Again, these men often felt it was their duty to live as close to poverty as possible, and much of their activity was spent in trying to take care of the debts they incurred. Their sermons and writings flow incessantly with longings to leave earth and go to heaven — a common theme in evangelical hymns since their time. The fact that the Bible tells us little about heaven, and a great deal about our duties on earth, seems not to have occurred to them.

As I noted, Whitefield was better than most. His meetings never approached the irrational fervor (e.g., spasms, fainting fits and glossolalia) that were common under the ministry of many of his contemporaries. His humility and willingness to be corrected were exemplary, and guarded him from the errors into which many of his colleagues fell. But in the course of bringing revival, he and the other preachers took the reigning philosophical ideas and presented them as Christian orthodoxy. Christianity became a mystical experience of the spirit, rather than the whole man submitting all his thought and activity to the covenantal demands of Jesus Christ.

This false spirituality has tainted virtually everything in the last two centuries of evangelicalism. Consider two ways in which it has affected Christian schools. First, in contradiction to Scripture, teachers are often paid the lowest wages possible. Why? Because, like preachers, they are doing “the Lord’s work”; it is a ministry, and they should therefore be satisfied with their heavenly reward. The laborer is worthy of his hire unless he’s in “full-time Christian service.” (Incidentally, when Paul said elders should be paid “double honor,” he meant double wages. I’m not sure how much “double wages” are, but I’ll bet my Social Security it’s more than minimum wage.)

Secondly, Christian schools are often seen as centers for evangelism: instruction and preparation of the children for godly dominion in every sphere of life takes second place. We want the kids to get saved, but we don’t bother much with things such as economics, law, labor principles, training in useful trades, preparing for family life, and so on. This is not a practice derived from Scripture. It derives from our view that man’s purpose on earth is to get saved. Period. (A variation might be that man’s purpose is to get saved, and then to get everybody else saved, but that’s about the extent of it.) But man’s purpose is godly dominion — salvation is necessary in restoring fallen man to the place where he can again serve God as ruler over the earth. This central Biblical teaching was neglected in the revivals, and that crucial omission was the deathblow for Christian dominion in the following generations. True, the face of England was remarkably changed — evidence that the revival was genuine — but the nation as a whole was not captured. Eventually, the good fruit of the movement was taken over by the humanists — and there, I think, is a lesson. Many in our day are praying for another Whitefield-type revival. But if it is not accompanied by Scriptural reformation and Christian reconstruction, it will fail