Highlights from Whitefield’s Journal (1740-1745)
George Whitefield (1714-1770) has been rightly called “America’s Spiritual Founding Father.” Born, raised, and educated in England, he made thirteen trips across the Atlantic and had an unparalleled spiritual impact on the American colonies. Each transatlantic trip would have taken around twelve weeks. In his thirty years of ministry, Whitefield preached around 1,000 times a year. This includes an estimated 18,000 sermons and 12,000 talks and exhortations according to one estimate.
It was not unusual for Whitefield to preach to crowds of five or six thousand, and one time there were approximately 20,000 in attendance. Of course, crowds this large necessitated that meetings be outdoors. The population of the American colonies was far less than that of the nation today, and travel was practically always by horseback. Yet, it is estimated that 80% of American colonists heard Whitefield preach at least once.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been reading through Whitefield’s journal and I want to share some highlights with you that have been tremendously impacting to me.
Whitefield’s Message and the Results
Whitefield preached strongly on repentance and faith. He emphasized the personal nature of faith and was a strong proponent of the New Birth. He often gave descriptions of people coming under great conviction in his meetings, and often referred to people “melting” in the Presence of God.
- Hundreds were graciously melted; and many, I hope, not only thronged round, but also touched the Lord Jesus Christ by faith.
- Great numbers were melted down, and brought under convictions, when I made free offers to them of Jesus and His benefits, if they would believe on Him.
- …a gracious melting was visible in most that heard.
- God’s Spirit came upon the preacher and the people, so that they were melted down exceedingly.
- The Word, I believe, was both like a fire and a hammer; for many were melted, and one cried out most bitterly, as in great agonies of soul.
- A lovely melting was visible in several parts of the auditory [auditorium].
- People began to melt soon after I began to pray, and the influence increased more and more during the whole sermon. The Word seemed to pierce through and through, and carried such conviction with it.
One of Whitefield’s description is truly amazing:
I had not spoken long before I perceived numbers melting. As I proceeded, the influence increased, till, at last (both in the morning and the afternoon), thousands cried out, so that they almost drowned my voice. Never did I see a more glorious sight. Oh what tears were shed and poured forth after the Lord Jesus. Some fainted; and when they had got a little strength, they would hear and faint again. Others cried out in a manner as if they were in the sharpest agonies of death. Oh what thoughts and words did God put into my heart! After I had finished my last discourse, I was so pierced, as it were, and overpowered with a sense of God’s love, that some thought, I believe, I was about to give up the ghost. How sweetly did I lie at the feet of Jesus! With what power did a sense of His all-constraining, free, and everlasting love flow into my soul! It almost took my life.
Whitefield used other descriptions (beside melting) of people being impacted by the power of God:
- A young woman under deep convictions… was struck down by the power of God’s word. I talked and prayed with her, and with near twenty more that came into the room. I also gave them a strong exhortation. They wept sorely and prayed earnestly; and I have not seen circumstances more like those of the Apostles when the Holy Ghost shook the room…
- In the afternoon sermon, had I proceeded, I believe the cries and groans of the congregation would have drowned my voice. One woman was struck down, and a general cry went through the assembly.
- A wonderful power was in the room, and with one accord, they began to cry out and weep bitterly for the space of half an hour.
- A great many, and some even of the most polite, wept much.
- But when we came to public prayer, the Holy Ghost seemed to come into the congregation like a mighty rushing wind… I had not long begun, before several fell a-weeping sorely; and the number still increased, till young men and maidens, old men and children, were all dissolved in tears, and mourning after Jesus.
- God has often been pleased… to make Himself known in our sanctuary and has caused a mighty power to attend the Word preached.
- I began to speak to them of the things of God. Their concern increased, till many burst into tears, and one fell on the ground.
Whitefield did not always see massive results. One time he writes:
Seeing no immediate effects of the Word preached, I was a little dejected; but God, to comfort my heart, sent one young man to me, crying out in great anguish of spirit, “What shall I do to be saved?”
Whitefield’s Deep Concern About Unconverted Preachers
One of Whitefield’s great grievances was that many “official” ministers, in his opinion, had never experienced true regeneration. In one stark statement, he said:
The Lord enabled me to open my mouth boldly against unconverted ministers; for, I am persuaded, the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead is, because they had dead men preaching to them. O that the Lord may quicken and revive them! How can dead men beget living children?
In another place, he refers to “dead, half-hearted preachers… who hold the form of sound words, but have never felt the power of them in their own souls.”
He also writes, “I insisted much in my discourse upon the doctrine of the new birth, and also the necessity of a minister being converted, before he could preach Christ aright. The Word came with great power, and a strong impression was made upon the people in all parts of the assembly. Many ministers were present. I did not spare them.”
Whitefield describes even further the spiritual decline that had happened amongst some New England preachers:
They have, in a great measure, lost the old spirit of preaching. Though all are not to be condemned who use notes, yet it is a symptom of the decay of religion, when reading sermons becomes fashionable where extempore [extemporaneous] preaching did once almost universally prevail. When the Spirit of prayer began to be lost, then forms of prayer were invented, and, I believe the same observation will hold good as to preaching.
Realizing the large number of dead churches, Whitefield writes:
What I mostly fear is, now there is such a general awakening, the people will not know where to go for proper food… Lord Jesus, look upon them, and… raise them up pastors after Thy own heart.
Whitefield distinguished between churches (proper) and meeting-houses. He had earlier written in one place, “I advised the people, since the Gospel was not preached in the church, to go and hear it in the meeting-houses.” Of course, there were churches that did preach the gospel, but Whitefield knew that some did not.
Whitefield was friends with and preached for another great leader in the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, MA. Whitefield writes:
Preached this morning, and good Mr. Edwards wept during the whole time of exercise. The people were equally affected; and in the afternoon, the power increased yet more.
Miscellaneous Quotes by Whitefield
“In the afternoon [I] preached on the common to about 15,000 people. Oh, how did the Word run!”
“Oh, how comfortable is sleep after working for Jesus.”
“Oh, that God may quicken ministers! Oh that the Lord may make them a flaming fire!”
“I believe that my Lord never lets me preach in vain.”
“What is the Lord Jesus about to do! If the beginning is so great, what will the end of these things be!”
“Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance before he goes to the graduate school of election and predestination.”
“I thought it best to trust in God.”
“The Holy Ghost applied the Word with power.”
“I wrapped myself in God.”
“Sweet was the power that attended the word preached.”
“Everywhere visible tokens of the Divine Presence attended the word.”
“Oh what a good Master is Jesus Christ.”
“Oh what a blessed thing it is to live upon God!”
“God never sends any of his servants on a needless errand.”
“Oh how Divine truths make their own way when attended by Divine power!”
“The Lord preserve my dear lambs and flock, in my absence; bring them into green pastures, and lead them beside the waters of comfort, for His own Name’s sake.”
“The power of the Lord accompanied the Word.”
Of one communion service, Whitefield said:
The King was pleased to sit at His Table: He brought us into His Banqueting House, and caused it to be a feast of fat things to our souls. Many, I believe, fed on Jesus in their hearts with thanksgiving.
Once, when weak in body, Whitefield writes:
…but God, by His blessed Spirit, greatly refreshed and comforted my soul. I drank of God’s pleasure as out of a river.
What Do We Make of All This?
George Whitefield was clearly called and anointed by God to do a specific work at a strategic time in what would become the United States of America. I don’t think Whitefield “tried” to make people melt (to borrow his term), but strong repentance, involving a deploring of and turning from sin, seems to have been a hallmark of his ministry. Though it might not look exactly the same as it did in Whitefield’s day, our nation (and the world) needs a deep working of God that would cause people to be deeply impacted by God’s power. We need a penetrating move of God that will lead multitudes beyond casual, lukewarm, and half-hearted Christianity.