George Whitefield, Principled Calvinist 1: Froward From My Mother's Womb
At the outset of the Anglican baptismal liturgy, an eighteenth-century rector would say “Dearly beloved, for as much as all men are conceived and born in sin. . .I beseech you to call upon God.” Ask God, he urged, to show the infant mercy, and to make him part of the divine kingdom. Here the minister identified the fundamental problem with humanity, even with the seemingly innocent baby before him: all people were tainted with sin – original sin, the sin of Adam – which separated them from their Creator.[i]
George Whitefield, who would go on to become the greatest Anglo-American evangelist of the eighteenth century, received baptism in that Anglican ritual three hundred years ago in Gloucester, England. Whitefield came to recognize the truth about his own sinful nature as a young man. In the best-selling account of his life, Whitefield opened the narrative by describing the corruption of his heart, in language directly repeating the rector’s prayer. “I can remember such early stirrings of corruption in my heart, as abundantly convinces me that I was conceived and born in sin; that in me dwelleth no good thing by nature, and that if God had not freely prevented me by his grace, I must have been for ever banished from his divine presence.”[ii]
The doctrine of original sin – the notion that we are all corrupted by, and even guilty for, Adam’s sin – was coming under criticism at the time of Whitefield’s birth in 1714, but the rector’s prayer, and Whitefield’s wholehearted acceptance of the principle, remind us that Whitefield grew up in a world largely convinced of the depravity of man and the brokenness of creation. These grim realities entered the world upon Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. The idea of original sin was a hallmark of Reformation thought. John Calvin, the French theologian and pastor of the Protestant movement in Geneva, Switzerland, wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that “original sin is a hereditary corruption and perversity of our nature. . .all are tangled up in original sin and stained with its spots.” Even children were fatally tainted with this sin nature, Calvin wrote, so that their moral character “can only be displeasing and hateful to God.”[iii]
Anglo-Americans in Whitefield’s world widely accepted Calvin’s views, even if more liberal theologians had begun to question his tenets. The “Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion” of the Anglican Church (1563), a codification of English Protestant theology, defended the principle of inherent depravity. Original sin, said the ninth article, “is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man. . .therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.” Recalling the corruptions of one’s childhood became a standard feature of evangelical autobiography.[iv]
Whitefield’s English people did not just believe in sin because of statements like the Thirty-Nine Articles. They saw evidence for the brokenness of creation all around them. War, disease, fire, and crime ravaged their world. Just a year before Whitefield’s birth, the Treaty of Utrecht had ended the War of the Spanish Succession, the latest in a long line of conflicts over religion, monarchies, and the European balance of power. The Battle of Malplaquet (1709), pitting allied British and Dutch forces against the French, was the bloodiest battle in eighteenth-century Europe, with 30,000 casualties out of a combined 120,000 troops who fought there, resulting in a pyrrhic victory for the British. A devout British officer walked the battlefield afterwards, and found that his horse could not move without treading upon the bodies heaped across the bloody ground. “God makes the nations a scourge to each other to work his holy ends,” the soldier mused, “by sweeping sinners off the face of the earth.”[v]
Most English people needed no convincing about the world’s pervasive iniquity. Whitefield, though, saw his sin manifested not in titanic battles or nefarious crimes, but in his mundane life as a child in Gloucester. Other than Whitefield’s Journals, we do not have much information on Whitefield’s early childhood, but with him growing up in an inn, without a father in his house between the ages of two and eight (his father died in 1716), we might imagine that Whitefield had some exposure to the temptations of the flesh. He surely amplified his sinfulness for literary and theological effect, writing bluntly “I was froward from my mother’s womb.” “Froward” is a term from the King James Bible meaning wandering or perverse. Its first appearance in the Bible refers to the sins of youth: “they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith” [Deuteronomy 32:20].[vi]
This article is taken from Professor Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014).
[i] The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments (London, 1717), 89.
[ii] Whitefield, A Short Account of God’s Dealings with the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield (London, 1740), 8-9.
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: The First English Version of the 1541 French Edition, trans. Elsie Anne McKie (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2009), 52-53.
[iv] Articles Agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of Both Provinces, and the Whole Clergy, in the Convocation Holden at London in the Year 1562 (London, 1720), ninth article.
[v] Andrew Crichton, The Life and Diary of Lieut. Col. J. Blackader (Edinburgh, 1824), 352; Geoffrey Treasure, The Making of Modern Europe, 1648-1780, 3d ed. (New York, 2003), 175.
[vi] Whitefield, Short Account, 9.
Thomas Kidd (Ph.D. University of Notre Dame) is Professor of History at Baylor University and is Senior Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. His books include George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2014), Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.