Some historians believe that so-called heretic Anne Hutchinson may have begun paving the way for an evangelist who later was credited with playing a significant role in the First Great Awakening of the eighteenth century (1730-1755).
Hutchinson was known for her boldness in challenging the Puritan “status quo” by teaching that salvation came by grace and not works. Puritans believed that there were no guarantees of salvation, and because of Adam’s fall all men were condemned, with hell as their destiny. The only way to avoid hell was to study one’s Bible and live as pious and devoted a life as possible. Neither was it supposed to be an easy path – Puritans expected to wrestle their entire lives with the concept of salvation.
Anne, a follower of John Cotton, himself a Puritan minister with a doctrine of “absolute grace”, believed that the Spirit of God spoke directly to her. Her message drew her own followers away from the strict Puritan message, much to the consternation of Governor John Winthrop and Puritan ministers. After a trial she recanted everything, but was still banished to Roger Williams’ colony (later Rhode Island). Still, someone had dared to challenge the Puritans and thus the Church of England. In the next century, others would be further enlightened and again challenge the Puritan way of thinking, especially in colonial America.
George Whitefield (sometimes spelled Whitfield, which is how it’s pronounced) was born in 1714 to parents Thomas and Elizabeth (Edwards) Whitefield, inn keepers in Gloucester. Early in life he became interested in theater and became an accomplished actor, something that would no doubt help him convey his messages later as he traveled to America as a missionary and evangelist.
Whitefield’s family could not afford his tuition to Oxford. Instead he was admitted as a servitor, one who basically served more well-to-do students in return for free tuition. Some of those menial tasks included tutoring, helping them bathe, taking out their garbage, carrying their books, etc. As humbling an experience as this was, George determined to live a holy and disciplined life.
His life changed after making the acquaintance of John and Charles Wesley. As a servitor, George would not have been allowed to approach someone with the social stature of the Wesleys, but his religious fervor came to the attention of Charles who invited him to breakfast. Their friendship grew and lasted a lifetime.
George became a member of a group of religiously-fervent students, of which the Wesleys were also members. So fervent was their faith they were mocked and called variously “Bible Moths”, “Bible Bigots”, “Sacramentarians”, “Methodists” or the “Holy Club”. Charles described his friend as “a modest pensive youth, who mused alone. . . an Israelite without disguise or art, I saw, I loved, and clasped him to my heart . . . and unawares received an angel-guest.”
George had been born with crossed eyes, or as one historian described it a “slight squint in one eye”. Even though that may have been a somewhat startling feature, it didn’t prevent people from listening to what he had to say later when he was called to the ministry of evangelism.
George was greatly influenced by the Holy Club which consisted of eight or nine young men who regularly met to study God’s word, to assist each other in academic endeavors and encourage one another to remain pure and disciplined. His own faith outlook was broadened and challenged when he read a book by Scotsman Henry Scougal, entitled The Life of God in the Soul of Man.
There he read of a new teaching, the miracle of the “new birth”. His efforts to live a disciplined and holy life had been fueled by the desire to do good works to avoid eternal damnation. After reading Scougal’s book, he became convinced otherwise and said:
God showed me that I must be born again, or be damned! I learned that a man may go to church, say prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian. . . Shall I burn this book? Shall I throw it down? Or shall I search it? I did search it, and holding the book in my hand I thus addressed the God of heaven and earth: “Lord, if I am not a Christian, or if not a real one, for Jesus Christ’s sake show me what Christianity is, that I may not be damned at last!”
God soon showed me, for in reading a few lines further, that “true Christianity is a union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us, a ray of divine light was instantaneously darted into my soul, and from that moment, and not till then, did I know I must become a new creature.” (George Whitefield: God’s Anointed Servant, by Arnold A. Dallimore, p. 17)
He wrestled with what he had read and decided he would discontinue his association with the Holy Club. He called it a “sore trial” but was resolved to renounce it, “though dear to me as my own soul.” As the Lenten season of 1735 approached, George decided to embark upon a fast of sorts, taking only coarse bread and sage tea without sugar.
However, by the time Passion Week arrived, he was feeble, confined to his bed and unable to pursue his studies. He compiled a list of his sins, past and present, and for seven weeks would confess those sins morning and night. Still he struggled until he made a personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ. He described it like this:
God was pleased to remove the heavy load, to enable me to lay hold of his dear Son by a living faith, and by giving me the Spirit of adoption, to seal me, even to the day of everlasting redemption.
O! with what joy – joy unspeakable – even joy that was full of and big with glory, was my soul filled when the weight of sin went off, and an abiding sense of the love of God broke in upon my disconsolate soul! Surely it was a day to be had in everlasting remembrance. My joys were like a springtide and overflowed the banks. (Dallimore, p. 18)
Years later George Whitfield would still remember the exact place and time when his life was transformed.
At the time of his conversion, George was a young man of twenty years old. Needing to further recuperate, he returned to Gloucester. Despite his frail state, he was eager to share his faith. His prayer time and Bible reading proved to be revitalizing, as he described it:
My mind being now more open and enlarged, I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees . . . This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.
Oh, what sweet communion had I daily vouchsaved to me with God in prayer. How often have I been carried out beyond myself when sweetly meditating in the fields! How assuredly have I felt that Christ dwelt in me and I in him. And how did I daily walk in the comforts of the Holy Ghost and was edified and refreshed in the multitude of peace. (Dallimore, p. 21)
He witnessed everywhere he went and was especially influential in the conversion of several young people of Gloucester who decided to form an association much like the Holy Club. According to Dallimore, “this was an historically important event, for this group at Gloucester was the first Methodist Society in the permanent sense of the word, and it remained a unit of Whitefield’s work throughout his life.” (p. 22)
Since his youth, George had thought he might one day become a minister. To test the waters, he asked God to supply the money for him to return to Oxford and finish his education. Following his return to Gloucester, he also made the bold move to request ordination, even though he was only twenty-one years old.
On June 20, 1736 George was ordained at Gloucester Cathedral, where, as he said later, “I attempted to behave myself with unaffected devotion, suitable to the greatness of the office I was to undertake.” He soon preached his first sermon which, although some mocked it, was generally well received. George, however, was determined to not let it “go to his head”. After three days he said, “the people grow too, too fond of me. It is time to be going.” After only nine months in Gloucester he was able to return to Oxford. Now more than ever he was convinced of his ministry calling, he who was determined to “be first a saint and then a scholar at Oxford.” (Dallimore, p. 25)
After returning to Oxford he was invited to speak in London and later in the village of Dummer. It was there he made the decision to become a missionary to colonial Georgia – it would change both his life and the course of American religious history.
Stay tuned next week for the conclusion of “George, The Cross-Eyed Preacher and The First Great Awakening”. The following week the new Sunday series “Preacher’s Wife” will be launched with the story of George Whitefield’s wife Elizabeth.