Wesley vs. Whitfield: Brothers in Conflict
Tony Cooke

George WhitfieldDuring a July 2005 trip to England, I was able to visit to John Wesley’s house and chapel (as well as his grave). A few months before that, I also was privileged to visit the grave of George Whitfield in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A casual glance at church history reveals that these two men of God were at the forefront as leaders of England’s Evangelical Revival in the 1700’s.

If you dig a bit deeper into the historical record, you discover that these two great preachers, even though they had been close friends at Oxford, were often in sharp disagreement with each other. Wesley held strongly to Arminian beliefs (emphasizing free will), while Whitfield was a Calvinist (emphasizing predestination). Both men led countless thousands to faith in Christ, but they were at odds theologically.

When Wesley first began to preach against predestination (he called it a “monstrous doctrine” and “blasphemy”), Whitfield said to him, “Why dispute? I am willing to go with you to prison, and to death, but I am not willing to oppose you.” Whitfield, though, was outraged when Wesley wrote an anti-predestination pamphlet and sent it to America, where Whitfield had been having great success.

Later, Whitfield had a heated meeting with Wesley back in England, and Wesley gave the following account of that confrontation: “He (Whitfield) told me that he and I preached two different gospels; and therefore, he would not only not join with me or give me the right hand of fellowship, but was resolved publicly to preach against me and my brother (Charles), wheresoever he preached at all.”

In addition to their theological differences, there were some methodological issues as well. Wesley had a number of manifestations that occurred in his meetings, such as people falling out, crying out under conviction, and shaking. Whitfield was uncomfortable with these, and suggested that Wesley was inappropriately encouraging these manifestations

Even though they never came to terms over their theological differences, they eventually learned to respect each other. One of Whitfield’s followers (who obviously still held great animosity against Wesley) said to Whitfield, “We won’t see John Wesley in the heaven, will we?” Whitfield humbly replied “Yes, you’re right, we won’t see him in heaven. He will be so close to the Throne of God and we will be so far away, that we won’t be able to see him!”

At one point, when Wesley appeared to be near death, Whitfield wrote him and said, “…a radiant throne awaits you, and ere long you will enter into your master’s joy. Yonder he stands with a massive crown, ready to put it on your head amidst an admiring throng of saints and angels.”

Wesley, though, recovered from his illness, and Whitfield eventually died first. At Whitfield’s request, Wesley preached at three memorial services held for Whitfield in London. Wesley spoke lovingly and respectfully of Whitfield and said, “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature with regard to which even the most sincere children of God…are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’”

Lessons from Wesley and Whitfield

The conflict between these two great men wasn’t the first time outstanding men of God clashed. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas had a painful split, and Paul and Peter had a head-to-head confrontation that is recorded in Galatians 2:11. Having been rebuked by Paul, Peter could have written him off as a life-long enemy. Instead, he later referred to

“…our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

The tendency of human nature, when any type of conflict occurs, is to defend oneself. After all, “every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 21:2). If we have theological insecurity in our own life, we not only feel a need to defend ourselves, but also to discredit those that take an opposing position. Dr. Bob Cook wisely said, “God reserves the right to use people who disagree with me.” One observer noted the phenomenal effectiveness of both Wesley and Whitfield in reaching untold thousands for Christ, and noted that in their minds, they were “convincing the free” and “harvesting the elect” respectively.

Is it appropriate to have strong convictions about what we believe? Certainly, but we would also be wise to differentiate between the negotiable and the non-negotiable. Blaise Pascal, a French theologian of the 17th century said: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. And in all things, charity.”

Perhaps the greatest deception any of us could walk in is to have the attitude, “I’m right about everything, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is obviously wrong.” While we need to be grounded in the basic and essential truths of the faith, we all need to have the humility to realize that God has given others wisdom and insights as well, and we need to remain teachable in our lives and ministries. Proverbs 27:17 (NLT) says, “As iron sharpens iron, a friend sharpens a friend.” Dudley Malone said, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.”

One time Brother Hagin spoke of listening to a minister who said something with which he strongly disagreed. A few minutes later, though, that same minister shared something that answered a question Brother Hagin had wondered about for many years. He said he was so grateful that he didn’t tune the minister out when he made the one statement he disagreed with because he would have then missed the nugget that was shared shortly after that. What Brother Hagin did in that situation is consistent with what he always said about listening to any minister, “Eat the hay and spit out the sticks.”

May God give each of us the wisdom to discern truth, and to proclaim it graciously and redemptively.

Note: Most of the information about Wesley and Whitfield in this letter is from John Wesley: A Biography (by Stephen Tomkins, Lion Publishing) and George Whitfield: Supreme Among Preachers (by J.P. Gledstone, Ambassador Publications).