George Whitefield, Principled Calvinist 2: Defending Calvinism

Whitefield’s Calvinism precipitated recurring theological feuds in his career with evangelical associates who believed in free will and the possibility of sinless perfection. By June 1739, as Whitefield was preparing for his return to America, his relationship with John Wesley – his onetime “spiritual father” from Oxford - began to disintegrate. The Arminian Wesley had decided to declaim against predestination and Calvinism, and to teach that Christians could achieve a state of sinless perfection in this life. Wesley began preaching on “Free Grace” in Bristol by the end of April, and soon correspondents apprised Whitefield of Wesley’s theological turn. Whitefield wrote to an English pastor that he “by no means” approved of Wesley’s teachings on perfection. Later he explained to a Scottish minister that he was “no friend to sinless perfection,” for he believed that “relics” of the sinful nature always remained in Christians’ hearts. In the succeeding months, Whitefield still warmly encouraged his old mentor to preach alongside him. But their breakup was imminent.[i]

Behind the scenes, Whitefield wrote to Charles Wesley and pleaded with him to try and avoid a public split. “If your brother will be but silent about the doctrine of election and final perseverance, there will never be a division between us. The very thought of it shocks my soul.” But John had made a firm decision. He told James Hutton that, via the casting of lots (a common practice of Wesley’s), God had not only confirmed his teaching against Calvinism, but had told him to publish his views.[ii]

Whitefield and Wesley’s divide over predestination reflected a larger, long-term split among Anglicans on this issue. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Calvinism had few strong Anglican advocates, even though the church’s Thirty-Nine Articles explicitly affirmed predestination and taught against free will. The Wesleys’ mother Susanna had brought them up with hostility to Calvinism, telling John in 1725 that rigid predestination “charges the most holy God with being the author of sin.” Whitefield, conversely, became convinced that a recovery of robust Calvinist teaching was essential to renewal of pure gospel preaching. The theological controversy also became an outlet for John Wesley and Whitefield to vent their personal frustrations with one another. Whitefield would never question Wesley’s salvation (as he did with latitudinarians), probably because of their personal relationship, and because he knew that John had a clear testimony of conversion. Still, their theological rift would become vicious.[iii]

On June 25, 1739, Whitefield addressed Wesley directly, telling him that he had heard of Wesley’s intention to “print a sermon against predestination. It shocks me to think of it. What will be the consequence but controversy?” Whitefield implored him to maintain silence, and reminded him that there were already public rumors about animosity between them. A week later, Whitefield asked him again not to distribute the sermon, but glumly noted that Wesley had cast the lot. “Oh! my heart in the midst of my body is like melted wax!” Whitefield exclaimed.[iv]

But the die was already cast – literally. Wesley published the sermon in Bristol. Although Wesley opened with an appeal for civility, he left no doubt that he considered the doctrine of election to be abhorrent and blasphemous. Limited atonement suggested that “God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire. . .for want of that grace he will not give them.” Surely God would not willingly “doom his creatures whether they will or no, to endless misery.” With Whitefield and other Calvinistic Methodists directly in his sights, Wesley stubbornly declared “here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every asserter of it. You represent God as worse than the devil.”[v]

With his “fixed foot,” Wesley intended to cause a public rift with Whitefield. The doctrine of predestination certainly caused consternation among its opponents, and Wesley joined a long line of Arminian theologians who have begged Calvinists to consider the logical implications of their theology, and the awful light in which it ostensibly presented God. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Wesley had also determined, for whatever reason, that he would use such inflammatory language that it would inevitably cause a split. It was a perennial Christian theological dispute playing out between two strong personalities. The clash over Calvinism badly damaged not only Wesley and Whitefield’s relationship, but the British evangelical movement. (American evangelicals’ feuding over Calvinism largely came later, after the Revolution.) One of Wesley’s biographers notes that “the Calvinist controversy would be a running sore in the bowels of the Revival.”[vi]

Whitefield did not immediately take Wesley’s bait. He continued to speak of Wesley as his “honoured friend,” and wrote to Wesley in March 1740, saying “provoke me to it as much as you please, I do not think ever to enter the lists of controversy with you on the points wherein we differ.” But Whitefield’s printed reaction to Wesley would eventually come, in late 1740, after Whitefield had spent a year in America, where effectively all his revivalist allies were Calvinists.[vii]

During his time in America, Whitefield continued to cultivate his Calvinist convictions; or, as Wesley later put it, he continued “warping towards Calvinism.” (Whitefield, for his part, also worried about those “warping toward Arminianism.”) The itinerant told Wesley that he had actually “never read any thing that Calvin wrote,” and that he took his doctrine from the Bible alone, as God taught it to him. But of course, the Bible was not the only book Whitefield read. He was perusing pro-Calvinist books, and he told his his Welsh friend Howell Harris that since they last met, “God has been pleased to enlighten me more in that comfortable doctrine of election. . .At my return, I hope to be more explicit than I have been.” At some point he would need to confront John Wesley’s Arminianism in print. Growing contemptuous toward Wesley’s notion of free will, Whitefield wrote that “Man is nothing: he hath a free will to go to hell, but none to go to heaven, till God worketh in him.”[viii]

Because of his familiarity with polemics for and against Calvinism, Whitefield knew that it was under assault in the eighteenth century as part of intellectual changes historians often call the “Enlightenment.” Pressure against Calvinist doctrine came from Arminians such as Wesley, who considered predestination irrational and unreasonable. Other critiques came from humanitarian voices who emphasized God’s benevolence over his sovereignty. Historians have also noted a growing sentiment against “cruelty” in eighteenth-century thought, a development that would ultimately help birth the antislavery movement. To humanitarian critics such as Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, notions such as eternal torment in hell, original sin, and predestination cast God as a merciless tyrant. To Shaftesbury, the Calvinist belief in a wrathful God spoke only to Calvinists’ own disturbed, fearful psychology. He proposed that God was better understood as compassionate, loving, and “truly and perfectly good.”[ix]

Whitefield may have adopted modern marketing and communication methods, then, but his message was traditional and Calvinist, standing against the “humanitarian” challengers of the day. Instead of softening his view on the depravity of man in response to critics, he emphasized original sin even more. Whitefield spoke regularly of how in their lost state, people became “sunk into the nature of the beast and the devil.” His hearers repeatedly noted this phrase in reminiscences about his preaching. One of them, Margaret Austin, found herself agreeing with the itinerant, writing that she really was “half a beast and half a devil.”[x]

[i] Whitefield to John Miller, June 8, 1739, in Boyd Stanley Schlenther and Eryn Mant White, eds. Calendar of the Trevecka Letters (Aberystwyth, Wales, 2003), 24; Whitefield to Rev. James Ogilvie at Aberdeen, Aug. 3, 1739, in Graham Thomas, ed., “George Whitefield and Friends,” The National Library of Wales Journal 26 (1990):” 433; Timothy L. Smith, “George Whitefield and Wesleyan Perfection,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 19, no. 1 (Spring 1984):  67-70, at, accessed 12/21/12.

[ii] John Wesley to James Hutton, May 8, 1739, Whitefield to Charles Wesley, June 22, 1739, in Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley: Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford, Eng., 1980), 25: 644, 661 n.3.

[iii] Peter J. Theusen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (New York, 2009), 73, 76.

[iv] Whitefield to John Wesley, June 25, 1739, July 2, 1739, in Baker, ed., Works of John Wesley, 25: 662, 667.

[v] John Wesley, Free Grace (Bristol, Eng., 1739), 24-25.

[vi] Henry D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, 3d ed. (London, 2002), 198-202; Gareth Lloyd, Charles Wesley and the Struggle for Methodist Identity (Oxford, Eng., 2007), 57.

[vii] Whitefield, A Continuation of the Reverend Mr. Whitefield's Journal, During the Time he was Detained in England by the Embargo (London, 1739), 23; Whitefield to John Wesley, Mar. 26, 1740, in Letters of George Whitefield for the Period 1734-1742 (Carlisle, Pa., 1976), 156.

[viii] John Wesley made his own note on George Whitefield to John Wesley, Nov. 8, 1739, in Baker, ed., Works of John Wesley, 25: 699; Whitefield, The Believer[’]s Golden Chain (Glasgow, 1741), 6; Whitefield to the Reverend Mr. J[ohn] W[esley], Aug. 25, 1740, Whitefield to “Dear brother H.,” Nov. 10, 1739, and to “the Rev. Mr. P--,” in Letters of Whitefield, 87, 90, 205; Jonathan Warne, Arminianism, the Back-Door to Popery (London, 1738), 13; Whitefield, From his Embarking to Savannah, 19.

[ix] Ava Chamberlain, “The Theology of Cruelty: A New Look at the Rise of Arminianism in Eighteenth-Century New England,” Harvard Theological Review 85, no. 3 (July 1992): 345-346; Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America  (New Haven, Conn., 2013), 83; Norman S. Fiering, “Irresistible Compassion: An Aspect of Eighteenth-Century Sympathy and Humanitarianism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37, no. 2 (Apr.-June 1976): 215-216.

[x] Whitefield, The Indwelling of the Spirit (Glasgow, 1741), 16; Austin quoted in D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford, Eng., 2005), 139, Claggett in Hindmarsh, Evangelical Conversion Narrative, 189. 

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.

Thomas Kidd