A History of the Christian Church
Part Twenty Five
compiled by Denis Jenkins
Title A History of the Christian Church
Part Twenty Five
Theme Bringing the Reformation Back on Track
This is Part 25 in the series. Parts 1 to 24 can be found by referring to the index of articles via this link --> Index to Articles
In 1714, Whitefield was born in Gloucester. Whitefield's birthplace is associated with many great protestant reformers which included Tyndale; the most notable English translator of the Bible. Hooper was also a notable reformer, the Bishop of Gloucester who was burnt at the stake in Queen Mary's reign.
While Gloucester was the seat of so many reformers, it was not Whitefield's early environment that inspired him to work for God. In fact his early life was far from any desire or concept of God. Whitefield had no rich or influential connections. His mother ran the Bell Inn in Gloucester which did not particularly feature as a great business success.
During his early childhood Whitefield admits to being a habitual liar. He frequently used filthy language, rude filthy jokes and foolish jesting. Whitefield was a theatre-goer, card player and was totally hooked on questionable, sexually self indulgent, romance novels. This was the pattern of his life until he was about 15 years old. He then focused his attention on his final years at the free Grammar School in the city of Gloucester. Whitefield must have been a diligent student over those years, as, the next thing we know about Whitefield , at the age of 18, he ended up in Pembroke College at Oxford university. Pembroke college was a place of religious influence for Whitefield. He listened to compelling arguments setting a good case for changing his life from a worldly self absorbed, self centered individual - to serving God. This interest grew into conviction. Soon these convictions developed into serious commitment to Christianity.
His life changed from impure thoughts and selfish desires to visiting prisoners; reading to them from the scriptures, thus bringing hope to the hopeless. At this time, Whitefield became friends with John Wesley. While Whitefield was pursuing God, satan saw to it that Whitefield would be deviated from the Truths of scripture. He was influenced toward asceticism, mysticism and placing his entire religious experience around self denial and bodily punishment for his sins. He chose the worst food so that he would not be in danger of indulging himself. He wore patched clothes. He fasted three times a week. This nearly cost him his life through serious illness. Whitefield had moved from self indulgence in his early youth to self denial and personal bodily punishment. Satan saw to it that self was still the centre of his life. Through all of this Whitefield had been derailed from understanding a loving, caring God who wished to save him from being absorbed in his own self efforts to attain goodness in his life.
Through the advice of friends, who could see the destructive path that Whitefield was taking, he began to study the scriptures instead of being consumed by scholarly literature based on man's thoughts about God, that was leading him along these deviant paths of error. For the first time, through actually reading scripture, Whitefield began to really understand God as a loving father. He was excited by what he was discovering, he wanted to tell the world. No longer did he find his university career applicable or interesting. The unadulterated Truth of scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit, grabbed Whitefield's mind and heart and compelled him to tell others the good news of the Gospel.
From here on in Whitefield's University life, he decided to leave what he was doing to become a minister of religion. Whitefield eagerly pursued his ministerial training. During this period of study Whitefield was not idle. He formed home study groups. Later he formed a small society of his own whose members were dedicated to studying the scriptures together. He led them into the understanding of the saving Grace extended to all people. As in the Bible times, Jesus chose his disciples from the humblest of origins. Christ chose the foul-mouthed sons of thunder and the impetuous Peter. John Whitefield was one such flame set alight in the revived reformation. He came from a humble unsavoury background but was a man who realised his need of his Lord and saviour. Being a new convert to Christ Whitefield had fire in the belly for God.
Bishop Benson of Gloucester called for Whitefield. The Bishop had been told of Whitefield's exemplary character by Lady Selwyn and others he had been talking to about the young Whitefield. On Whitefield's arrival, Bishop Benson offered to ordain him at any time he wished. This took Whitefield completely by surprise. Whitefield was only twenty two years of age and this unexpected offer came at a time when he was grappling with the concept of his own fitness for the ministry. Besides, he was being ordained in the very town where people knew of his wayward past and might question his genuineness. Through much prayer and discussion with trusted friends and with those whom he had led to Christ, Whitefield was convinced that he must accept the offer as a calling from God to join the ministry. So, on Trinity Sunday, 1736, the twenty two year old Whitefield submitted to ordination before God and those whom he knew in Gloucester. This takes a lot of courage for a twenty two year old man in his own town
As soon as Whitefield was ordained, his friends and those whom he had led in study and instruction in his small society, pressed him to begin preaching right away. Whitefield lacked courage to stand before the people thus, saying to his friends," if I start preaching I will have to preach the Truth then the parishioners and the church fathers may not like what they hear!!"
Whitefield gave in to the request to preach. His first sermon was preached in St Mary-le-Crypt in the very town in which he was born and known as a wayward young man. Whitefield's own description, in his diary, gives the very best understanding of the circumstances surrounding his very first sermon.
"Last Sunday, in the afternoon, I preached my first sermon in the church of St. Mary-le-Crypt, where I was baptized, and also first received the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Curiosity, as you may easily guess, drew a large congregation together upon this occasion. The sight at first a little awed me. But I was comforted with a heartfelt sense of the divine presence, and soon found the unspeakable advantage of having been accustomed to public speaking when a boy at school, and of exhorting the prisoners and poor people at their private houses while at the university. By these means I was kept from being daunted overmuch. As I proceeded I perceived the fire kindled, till at last, though so young and amidst a crowd of those who knew me in my childish days, I was enabled to speak with some degree of gospel authority. Some few mocked, but most seemed for the present struck; and I have since heard that a complaint was made to the bishop that I drove fifteen mad the first sermon! The worthy prelate wished that the madness might not be forgotten before next Sunday." (' Historic Baptist, Reformed & Puritan Resources, "George Whitefield and His Ministry" by JC Ryle)
Bishop Benson had given Whitefield five guineas so that he could buy his books for his theological training. Almost as soon as he had been ordained to the ministerial order, White field went to Oxford to do a degree in Bachelor of Arts. Whitefield's ministerial life began with part time duties for two months at the Tower Chapel in London. Other churches in London invited Whitefield to preach while at the Tower Chapel. In fact, he became so popular like no other preacher before or since. It did not matter whether he preached on weekdays or Sundays, Whitefield drew very large crowds. With an attractive voice and manner as inspired through the Holy Spirit, Whitefield shared the simple gospel Truth that the Lord had laid on his heart and mind. Whitefield was faithful to his calling to preach God's Truth however unpopular it might have been. But God gave Whitefield a manner and tone of voice that drew people producing a great sensation among the congregations. The educated congregations were taken off guard as they had not experienced any compelling message such as Whitefield was sharing.
Whitefield in his personal journal stated," ..singers go on tours and sing in public places. They draw crowds where people follow after their every word. Why can't a preacher go on tour and sing psalms in public places. Much good could come from being bold to show ourselves to the world". (Paraphrased from George Whitefield's Three Journals page 126, copyright by Jay P Green Senior, 2000. Google Books) As a result of holding this view, Whitefield began to travel. In a public house at Basingstoke Whitefield had agreed to meet some friends where he became engaged in conversation. He soon learned that they wanted him to share with them what he was preaching in the London churches. As Whitefield began to expound on the gospel topics, uninvited listeners began to gather . As he spoke more of the guests gathered around. Noticing this Whitefield thought he should gain permission to speak to this growing crowd in the public house dining room. Permission was granted but the proprietor sent an open invitation to the other guests who eventually filled the dining room. For an hour, Whitefield had the opportunity of sharing the Gospel with a hundred attentive and eager souls. From this experience Whitefield was encouraged to visit many places to spread the Gospel to a wide number of people. He was led to say," if churches close their doors to the Gospel, there is no place that is unsuitable to share God's word, not even a public house. (from George Whitefield's Three Journals page 126, copy right by Jay P Green Senior, 2000. Google Books)
God had another part of Whitfield's training to complete. This was to move him from the educated, well positioned and wealthy congregations to a little place, in a rural parish, called Dummer. For Whitefield's quick and agile brain, it was like being intellectually buried alive and he felt as though he was sinking in the quick sand of illiteracy and poor comprehension. Over the two months that he spent at this little rural town in Hampshire, Whitefield learned to adapt to the needs of the poor and illiterate. He learned to present the gospel simply and to apply these learnings to their local needs within their comprehension and limited experience in life generally.( ' Historic Baptist, Reformed & Puritan Resources, "George Whitefield and His Ministry" by JC Ryle)
For months the Wesley's had been pressing George Whitefield to join them in the colony of Georgia in North America. Whitefield saw that there was so much work to be done in England. So Whitefield left Dummer and resisted Wesley's requests to preach for a few months in Gloucestershire. He preached at Bristol and Stonehouse and finally the Wesleys won. Whitefield sailed for the colony of Georgia at the later part of 1737.
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