Imitating George Whitefield

A Brief Introduction

George Whitefield’s natural birth was on December 16, 1714, in Gloucester, England. His parents were Thomas and Elizabeth Whitefield. 

Nineteen years later, he was born again from above while he was a student at Oxford. Thus, the most effective evangelist since the days of the Apostle Paul was just converted.

His Life’s Labor

J.C. Ryle, the famous Anglican pastor of the 1800s, said this regarding Whitefield, “He was one of the most powerful and effective preachers that ever lived.” That is high praise, but it is not an exaggeration. Whitefield truly was, and remains, one of the most powerful and effective preachers that has ever lived. Steven Lawson said, “Since the time of the Apostles, the annals of church history record no other individual who possessed such gospel ambition and relentless determination.” Whitefield was resilient. As one flips through the many pages that have been written by Whitefield or about Whitefield, they stand in absolute amazement at the amount of labor Whitefield did day in and day out in his thirty-four years of ministry.

Early on in his preaching ministry, he confined himself to pulpits. He preached the gospel as often as he could wherever he could as long as there was a pulpit for him to preach from. As he was waiting on a ship to take him to the colonies for the first time, he was preaching in London. He was twenty-two years old at this time. At the age of twenty-two Whitefield said, “I now preached generally nine times a week.” It’s important to keep in mind that he had just preached his first sermon at the age of twenty-one. This is remarkable labor for the Lord. However, he left London and went to the colony of Georgia. Later he returned to England and began laboring in Bristol. 

It is in Bristol that he left the pulpit and began preaching in the open fields (which was unheard of at this point in history). This was not something that Whitefield chose to do on his own. This was something that was forced upon him by the Church of England. Regarding this, Whitefield said:

Let not the adversaries say, I have thrust myself out of their synagogues. No; they have thrust me out. And since the self-righteous men of this generation count themselves unworthy, I go out into the highways and hedges, and compel harlots, publicans, and sinners to come in, that my Master’s house may be filled.

So Whitefield saw an incredible opportunity when he was no longer confined to the Church of England’s pulpits. He realized that this would allow him to preach far more often than he was originally preaching. That means he is preaching over nine times a week now. He is only twenty-four years old at this time. He was a laborer. He never took his eyes off the gospel. When he began preaching in the open fields, it opened a door for him to proclaim the gospel to myriads of people on two continents.

To put his labor in perspective, eighty percent of the colonies had listened to Whitefield preach (keep in mind that there were no radios, televisions, computers, etc.)! When he entered a town, it was not uncommon for the multitudes that were listening to him to outnumber the actual population of the town. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean thirteen times in order to preach the gospel to as many people as he possibly could (this voyage would take 8-12 weeks…..that means he spent over 3 years of his life on a ship). He is estimated to have preached over eighteen thousand times in his ministry. Some even say that he may have preached over thirty thousand times if you count exhortations in homes and other private areas. His constant refrain was, “We are immortal until our work is done.” Whitefield was indeed immortal until the Lord was finished with him. With the amount of labor he did day after day, he should have died long before he did. However, it was not until the age of fifty-five that Whitefield breathed his last breath from an asthma attack. 

What is remarkable is that hours before his death from an asthma attack, he preached a two-hour sermon to a crowd of thousands in an open field! So at the age of fifty-five, he went from laboring for the Lord, to an eternal rest with the Lord. This was just the way he wanted it. Just moments before he preached Whitefield preached last sermon, a man told him, “Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach.” To which Whitefield responded, “True sir.” Then he uttered a prayer saying, “Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.” Thus, the greatest evangelist since the days of the apostles breathed his last breath after urgently pleading with people to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ.

Imitating Whitefield

Jonathon Edwards made a list of resolutions that he sought to uphold to the glory of God. One resolution of his that has made a profound impact on my life is this, “Whenever I hear anything spoken in conversation of any person, if I think it praiseworthy in me, resolved to endeavor to imitate it.” So, he is saying, “If I am listening to some people praising a certain individual for a certain thing, then I resolve to imitate that which is praiseworthy.” This is a helpful mindset to have, and we are going to seek to do it with Whitefield. So, we have gone through a brief introduction about his pulpit ministry, now we are going to seek to look at three praiseworthy aspects of Whitefield’s life that we can imitate.

The first praiseworthy aspect of Whitefield’s life that we can seek to imitate is his discipline of studying the Bible. He was, by all accounts, a student of the Word. He studied the Scriptures diligently. Early in Whitefield’s life, he said, “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word.” This incredible discipline of reading the Word helped to make him the remarkable preacher/evangelist that he was. This is something that we ought to imitate. We need to seek to be acquainted with the Word of God. We need to read it diligently seeking to learn all that we can from it. We need to read through it in its entirety to learn all that God has to say.

The second praiseworthy aspect of Whitefield’s life that we can seek to imitate is his discipline of prayer. He was a man of prayer. He was always speaking with God. Regarding this, Steven Lawson said, “From the moment Christ dawned in his heart, Whitefield was absorbed in intimate prayer.” And this life of prayer was not dreadful to Whitefield. It was sheer delightful. He saw each and every time he prayed as an intimate encounter with Almighty God. We can learn from this. We need to be a people that are always speaking with God. And this prayer life that we need to cultivate does not need to be dreadful to us. We need to delight in it. We get to speak to our heavenly Father.

The last praiseworthy aspect of Whitefield’s life that we need to seek to imitate is his zeal to do good works. The Apostle Paul says that, “We are his (God’s) workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Also, Paul says in his letter to Titus that we that we are to be, “Zealous for good works” (Titus 3:14). Whitefield was most certainly zealous to walk in good works to the glory of God. On one occasion he said, “I am never better than when I am on the full stretch for God.” On another occasion he said, “God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking Christ to them.” He was all about the Lord’s work! And as Whitefield progressively got older, people kept telling him that he was going to wear himself out if he continued to work as hard as he was working. To this, Whitefield responded, “I would rather wear out than rust out.” This man was immovable in his resolve to labor for the Lord Jesus Christ. This is something that we can imitate! 

A Word of Caution

However, as I mention these three praiseworthy aspects of Whitefield’s life that we can imitate, you must not misunderstand me. I am not saying we need to do the same works as Whitefield. Nor am I saying that we need to work to the same extent as Whitefield. For example, I am not saying that you need to get on your knees and read the Bible for hours! And I am not saying that you need to cross the Atlantic thirteen times in order to preach thirty-thousand times in thirty-four years. Rather, I am simply saying that you would be wise to strive to imitate Whitefield’s love for the Bible, his delight in prayer, and his zeal to do good works for the glory of God.

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