His gifts for oratory were so strong that people are said to have wept just hearing him pronounce the word “Mesopotamia.” For among his contemporaries, no one came even close to being as good in the pulpit as he did, with one pastor calling him “the prince of preachers and the least imperfect character I ever knew.”
Likewise, despite the fact that most will customarily think of John Wesley as the founder of our church, the first real Prime Minister of England, Robert Walpole, considered another figure instead to be the actual “Patriarch of the Methodists.” Even Mr. Wesley himself accorded him pre-eminence when it came to winning others to Christ, asking, “Have we read or heard of any person who called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners to repentance?”
What’s more, when he made his second trip to America in 1740, he began a series of revivals along the Eastern Seaboard that came to be known as The Great Awakening in this country, too. It was in Philadelphia, in fact, that he first met Benjamin Franklin who was intrigued by his ability to speak to enormous crowds all at once and still be understood. Franklin went so far as to scientifically calculate the area around which his voice could carry, determining that he could actually be heard by over 30,000 persons in the open air at once–all without the benefit (or distraction) of audio-visual volunteers.
The famous Founding Father was so struck by the power of the man’s preaching, however, that he soon learned to leave his wallet at home whenever he went to hear him. For inevitably his sermons wove their way into his otherwise thrifty disposition, resulting in the inexplicable emptying of all of his pockets, followed by Franklin even asking friends nearby to loan him some funds so that he could give more.
It’s no real wonder, thus, that the figure who could preach such sermons became one of the first celebrities in this country, despite his small stature and cross-eyed appearance. For in addition to delivering some 18,000 messages on both sides of the Atlantic–which he crossed 13 times, by the way–George Whitefield also founded an orphanage in Bethesda, Georgia, which is even today the oldest extant charity on the continent.
To be sure, when it came to certain theological positions, Whitefield differed from his long-time friends from Oxford, John and Charles Wesley, preferring Calvinism over the Arminian views of his former “Holy Club” colleagues. Likewise, though Whitefield was the stronger preacher, it was John Wesley’s methodical organizational skills that made the Methodist movement so enduring and clearly made it into a force to “spread scriptural holiness all across the land.”
It’s worth noting, however, that when Whitefield died in America and his will was opened in London, the last item in it was a ring which he left to his dear friends the Wesleys in token of “the indissoluble union with them in heart and Christian affection, notwithstanding our difference in judgment about some particular points of doctrine.” Unsurprisingly thus, when a memorial service for Whitefield was held in London in 1770, by his own request, it was John Wesley who preached it.
And in a day of depressingly disputatious discourse and “winner-take-all” wrestling matches within the church and the culture over its polity and policies, there is perhaps a lesson worth learning from the relationship that the leaders of different ends of the early Methodist movement were able to maintain.
We even have Whitefield to thank for changing the opening words of a hymn that Charles Wesley wrote in1739, one you will no doubt hear in the days ahead, “Hark, How All the Welkin Rings” to the more familiar imagery, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” For clearly that spiritual grandfather of all evangelists knew how to speak so that people could understand what he was saying.
The calendar has changed since then, but George Whitefield was born 300 years ago this week. Though few will probably remember his birthday, however, maybe we can at least remember the message that he fervently offered at the end of many of his sermons: “Come, poor, lost, undone sinner–come just as you are to Christ.”
No wonder all the welkin went wild.