George Whitefield: The Purposed Wanderer
One of the most popular preachers of the First Great Awakening was a British man named George Whitefield (also known as Whitfield). Around the age of 25, Whitefield set himself apart from his contemporaries in England by preaching God’s Word with passion and authority. This new approach drove people from all around to hear him speak and, at times, would cause a riot-like atmosphere among his audiences with people responding in desperation to hear what he had to say.
Around 1740, Whitefield brought his emotion-filled traveling ministry to America. Unlike other preachers of his time, who would manuscript their sermons and read them in monotone fashion, Whitefield embraced his background of stage acting. He memorized his sermons which allowed him to speak with enthusiasm and energy and bring that emotion into the pulpit. He didn’t shy away from yelling or waving his arms frantically to get his point across. This approach of sermon delivery captivated his audiences so much that at times the crowds grew so large it prevented everyone in attendance from hearing the sermon because they were such a great distance away.
A Message for All People
Whitefield was not content to share with just one particular audience. For instance, in one year, Whitefield traveled up and down the coasts, covering over 5,000 miles and preaching more than 350 times. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Whitefield believed his message was for all. He would preach to the free man, the slave, the commoners, the rich and famous, the Colonists, and the Native Americans. He preached the gospel to groups of thousands of people at a time. Whitefield understood the truth of Colossians 3:11: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
Whitefield’s passion for Jesus was contagious and would be the catalyst for sweeping change throughout American churches. Parishioners would no longer approach God with a lackadaisical mentality, they would begin to live out the command of Deuteronomy 6:5 and love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, emotions, and beyond.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
With few exceptions, Whitefield was not impressed with the quality of the preachers around him. In one of his writings, he penned, “I am verily persuaded, the generality of preachers talk of an unknown, unfelt Christ. And the reason why congregations have been so dead, is because dead men preach to them.” This was a harsh but honest indictment of the American church that we must even be cautious of to this day. A Christ-less church is a powerless church.
If we want Christ to work in our churches as he did during the times of the Great Awakening, we must remember the truth of John 15:5. Jesus tells us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Whitefield on his own didn’t start an awakening, but Jesus did, and Jesus allowed him to be a part of the work that he wanted to accomplish.
Whitefield and the other leaders of the Great Awakening did not seek to accomplish a movement, they simply sought after Jesus. It is no coincidence that this major movement of God began with these men who were willing to be passionate and open about Jesus and boldly proclaim his Word.
Starving for Authenticity
In our culture, there appears to be falsehood everywhere we look. We cannot even trust our news sources to give us accurate and unbiased information. This means that in this environment people are starving for authenticity.
For those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, we can learn great lessons from Whitefield and other church leaders. Boldness, energy, charisma, passion, and integrity are great tools to use in communicating the truths of Scripture. However, these characteristics mean nothing without Christ’s power infusing them.
We must listen to the words of Hebrews 12:1-2:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
We must look to Jesus.
We must follow the examples set by men like Whitefield, who was not perfect in any way but pointed others to the one who is. When we obey Jesus, he does great things through us. Who knows, perhaps Jesus will use our boldness, obedience, and authenticity to spark another great movement of spiritual awakening like that of the Great Awakening.
Lucas Smith has served in full-time ministry since 2011 and holds MDiv and MA in Biblical Languages degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.