George Whitefield (1714-1770) is known to some as the greatest English preacher ever to live, yet he is largely unknown today. This likely would have been his desire, as was his favorite expression,
“Let the name of George Whitefield perish, so long as Christ is exalted.”
Christ’s name was most certainly exalted through this man. Not because he started a major denomination or because he left us with volumes of work; Christ’s name was exalted through Whitefield because Christ was his singular focus and message.
It was Whitefield’s zeal for God’s glory—combined with an uncompromising commitment to the Gospel’s unchanging message—that led to the great “Evangelical Awakenings” of England and North America in the 18th century. He lived during a time of spiritual deadness in the Church of England, and it was the Church’s rejection of Whitefield’s heart-piercing call to repentance and new birth that literally pushed him out of the churches and into the streets to preach. This rejection catapulted his ministry into over thirty years of “open-air preaching,” where tens of thousands of people would gather to hear the Gospel message throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and North America.
Whitefield, however, was not simply attracted to large crowds and popularity—a temptation we see amplified in today’s information age. Whitefield was known to preach wherever and whenever possible. Whether it was in the fields or in a small chapel or a large church, Whitefield found it worthwhile to preach the Gospel and to see lives converted for Christ. One account estimates that Whitefield preached 40 to 60 hours a week, 1,000 times a year for 30 years. Despite the large volume of messages delivered, we are left with only 100 or so of his sermons, of which 58 can now be read on Blue Letter Bible.
On the night before his sudden death at the age of 56, before delivering his last sermon, and feeling ill, Whitefield remarked: “Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for three more in the fields, seal thy truth, and come home and die.” That night, Whitefield would preach to a “great multitude in the fields from the text 2 Corinthians 13:5, for the space of nearly two hours.” He bid his ‘good byes’ and retired to his room that evening only to be taken from this world by His beloved Savior to Whom he had devoted his entire life.
We have much to learn from men of God like George Whitefield, not so much to duplicate his ministry, but to carry on his legacy: that of having a singular focus on Christ and an unwavering commitment to His glorious Gospel (Acts 20:24). In this way, may Christ be exalted in and through our lives.
“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24 ESV)
If you’ve never read a sermon by George Whitefield, you may want to begin with one of his classic sermons, The Method of Grace.
All quotes taken from J.C. Ryle’s Christian Leaders of the Last Century (1873), republished in Select Sermons of George Whitefield (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997).
George Whitefield’s Published Sermons. Quinta Press. Retrieved at http://www.quintapress.com/allwhitefieldpublishedsermons.html on September 4, 2015.
Lloyd-Jones, D.M. The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. The Banner of Truth Trust. Edinburgh, 1996.
Larsen, David L. The Company of the Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era. Kregel Publications. Grand Rapids, 1998.
Select Sermons of George Whitefield. The Banner of Truth Trust. Edinburgh, 1997.