George Whitefield (1714 – 1770) looked out over a sea of faces darkened by coal dust from the pits. He saw “white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully ran down their black cheeks.”1 It was late winter 1739, the third day that Whitefield had preached the gospel to this unlikely crowd, known for their godlessness. These men (estimated at twenty thousand) were a terror when provoked, and the preacher rightly feared they might attack him. Still, he was confident of God’s providence, and so he preached on—with great effect.
One historian has noted that “[18th century] Anglican Evangelicals had . . . [a] profound effect on the middle classes.”2 Yet to a significant degree the Church had lost contact with the neighborhood where the poorest people lived and worked. The clergy of the day held little hope for their conversion to Christ and for the moral reform of their communities, but Whitefield was determined to try. When he saw that the area God had laid upon his heart had no schools or churches, he took to the outdoors.
This was curious behavior in the eyes of his contemporaries. Even so bold a preacher as John Wesley had his reservations. As he wrote in his journal, March 31, 1739:
“[I]n the evening I reached Bristol, and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday: having been all my life . . . so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in church.”3
Of course, Wesley himself became an open-air preacher, but it took Whitefield to break the mold.
When God has an unusual work to do, He raises up unusual men. George Whitefield was such a man. His parents owned an inn, and his earliest years were spent in its coarse and ungodly environment. He was not a man of great stature, and he had a squint, which his enemies in later life exploited with the nickname, “Dr. Squintum.” Yet from his unpromising background, he went up to Pembroke College at the University of Oxford and was later ordained as an Anglican clergyman. He would emerge from its rarified confines as an evangelist for people at all levels of society.
Whitefield is a prime example of anointed service outside the minister’s comfort zone. Ignoring physical danger and the threat of “professional suicide,” he was faithful to God’s calling—and God used him mightily to stoke the fires of the Great Awakening. Whitefield took great risks and enjoyed great manifestations of God’s power.
Many pastors pray for Awakening in this day. To this end, they might well follow Whitefield in the prayerful question, “Lord, is there an unusual work for me to do?”
1 Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England: From Watts and Wesley to Maurice 1690-1850, vol. 2 (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), 147.
2 Ibid., 238
3 John Wesley, The Works of Reverend John Wesley, vol. l (New York: J & J Harper, 1827), 251.