Book in Review: George Whitefield

George Whitefield was the “central figure” of the Great Awakening of the mid 1700s, and quite possibly the first English celebrity. It can be estimated that he preached over 18,000 sermons in his lifetime, commonly featuring audiences in the ten, twenty, and thirty plus thousands (remember this is before microphones, P.A. systems, and online marketing). There is no question that Whitefield is a hero of the faith and a founder of Western Evangelicalism. This was a necessary biography.

Whitefield, pre-conversion, was a man of immense struggles—almost Martin Luther like. There was even a season in his life at Oxford where Whitefield felt tormenting assaults from the devil, where he could be found writhing "on the floor day and night, praying and commanding the devil to leave his body, in the name of Jesus" (430). Whitefield fasted, mourned his sin, struggled, and made penance—until God met him. Whitefield was "born again," proclaiming, "the Day Star arose in my heart" (451). This conversion experience would come be the focal point of his preaching.

Whitefield called the new birth: "one of the most fundamental doctrines of our holy religion, the very hinge by which the salvation of each of us turns" (1198). But do not think Whitefield preached salvation at the expense of a life of commitment as "he closely linked conversion with a life of holiness and benevolence" (1228).

I was surprised to find out that Whitefield theologically was somewhat of a "Calvinistic Charismatic." By today’s standards those two seem almost incompatible, but not to Whitefield. Kidd writes that Whitefield was "convinced that a recovery of robust Calvinist teaching was essential to a renewal of pure gospel preaching" (1718). This Calvinism caused a major rift between Whitefield and the Wesley brothers (and many others) that only grew with time. To Whitefield, Calvinism (primarily the doctrine of election) was fundamental because it made Christians forever secure in their standing before God.

But Whitefield was perhaps more so accused of his "enthusiasm," almost akin to forms of the Charismatic movement. He would claim that the Holy Spirit made him do things. Kidd writes, "He was certain that the Holy Spirit had moved powerfully not just in the gospels or the book of Acts, but that he was 'the common privilege and portion of all believers in all ages'" (1279). The Holy Spirit was real and alive to Whitefield and he believed the same Spirit must be alive in every Christian. "He did not let the charge of enthusiasm dissuade him, for he believed that 'every Christian, in the proper sense of the word, must be an enthusiast—that is inspired of God, or have God in Him'" (1605).

Whitefield achieved much for the Kingdom of God. But I was surprised that though the Great Awakening was a powerful revival—there was much opposition against Whitefield. For the Anglicans, Whitefield was far too ecumenical and accepting of other denominations. The Wesleys spurned him for his Calvinism and many others were wary of Whitefield’s reliance on the Holy Spirit’s "revelation." There was much in anti-revivalist, anti-Whitefield propaganda—which shows that there will always be intense opposition to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ no matter the fruit.

The itinerant had a grueling pace to his life: ever on the move (13 trips between England and the colonies); preaching multiple times a day, often exhaustingly seven days a week. It could be said that Whitefield preached unhealthily too much—ultimately preaching himself to his death in September of 1770 at the age of 55. Fifteen years earlier he only wished he could spend a day in "retirement and deep humiliation before that Jesus for whom I have done so little" (4838).

Kidd’s biography is good, scholarly, and enjoyable. He also gives an evangelical perspective necessary for a good recounting of this great life. My only concern is the price--$19.99 for the Kindle edition is a little steep for any book no matter the quality. The biography also is a tad repetitive, but that is more due to Whitefield’s life than Kidd’s retelling of it.

4/5 stars

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