Preacher’s Wife: Elizabeth Whitefield

PWLogoGeorge Whitefield was indeed a great and passionate minister of the Gospel (see previous articles here and here), but unlike some of his contemporaries, he had not married.  He wrote a friend in 1740 expressing his belief that it was God’s will for him to marry, but with some reservations: “I pray God that I may not have a wife till I can live as though I had none.”  As one historian observed, that ambivalence was later reflected in what might be termed a less than fulfilling marriage by the standards of that day.

Before he sailed for America the first time in 1739, George had met twenty-five year old Elizabeth Delamotte, but struggled with his feelings at the time.  Frustrated, he set out for America determined to put her out of his mind – except that by the time he arrived in Georgia a letter from Miss Delamotte was waiting for him.  He wrote her back saying, “What room can there be for God when a rival hath taken possession of the heart?  I could almost drop a tear, and wish myself, for a moment or two, in England.  But hush, nature.”

Clearly, Whitefield was conflicted but decided to propose to Elizabeth by letter anyway.  It might be characterized as the worst marriage proposal ever though, as he began listing all the suffering and trials she would have to endure as his wife.  He pointedly asked her, “Can you, when you have a husband, be as though you had none, and willingly part with him, even for a long season, when his Lord and Master shall call him forth to preach the Gospel?”

One more statement perhaps ended any chance he had of winning Elizabeth Delamotte’s hand in marriage: “I write not from any other principles but the love of God . . . . The passionate expressions which carnal courtiers use . . . . ought to be avoided by those that would marry in the Lord.”  His proposal was rejected by Elizabeth Delamotte, yet George still felt he was to have a wife.

George confided his thoughts to fellow evangelist Howell Harris.  Harris had fallen in love with Elizabeth James, a Welsh widow.  Their love for one another was strong, but Howell struggled with the same feelings as his friend George – wanting “no creature between my soul and God.”  Howell had tried repeatedly to end his relationship with Elizabeth but had failed several times.

When George mentioned his dilemma, Howell must have thought perhaps he could solve his own dilemma by introducing Elizabeth James to his friend.  George was impressed by her devotion to God, and then teamed up with Howell in writing to Elizabeth to propose the “swap”.  Put yourself in Elizabeth’s shoes – she was angry that Howell would propose such a thing behind her back: “If you were my own father you had no right of disposing me against my will.”

George and Elizabeth corresponded for a time, and while George became convinced he had found the right person, Elizabeth “objected much.”  She was still in love with Howell Harris, and he admitted as much: “her regards to me and that she could not help it still.”  However, Elizabeth finally acquiesced and married George on November 11, 1741 – and Howell Harris gave her away.

George had already vowed in his heart that marriage would not change his busy schedule.  He “would not preach one sermon less in a married than in a single state.”  During their “honeymoon” George preached twice a day, and through the years of their marriage she more often than not remained in London while he traveled far and wide.

Even though he had vowed to keep his relentless preaching schedule, George lamented a mere two months following his wedding: “O for that blessed time when we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be as the angels of God.”  George’s struggles with marriage and an earthly love life continued.

One historian notes that Elizabeth’s letters showed it took her quite a while to put Howell Harris out of her mind.  She struggled with childbearing, suffering four miscarriages.  Their only child, a son, died at the aged of four months – George preached three times before his son’s funeral.

Elizabeth had become a Christian just three years before marrying George Whitefield, yet she had a passion for God that was perhaps the only “glue” that held their marriage together.  Once, in a letter to a friend, George had written about Elizabeth: “neither rich in fortune, nor beautiful as to her person, but, I believe, a true child of GOD, and would not, I think, attempt to hinder me in his work for the world.”  Ultimately, George had wanted a “helpmeet” and found that in Elizabeth despite his frequent absences.

Elizabeth died on August 9, 1768 and while their lives were so often spent apart, George wrote of her death: “I feel the loss of my right hand daily.”

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.

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