George Whitefield, Principled Calvinist 3: Networks and Conflicts

Befitting his far-flung travels and correspondence, Whitefield’s Reformed influences ranged widely. He sought out a wider Anglo-American Calvinist network in travel, correspondence, and reading. In a letter to Ralph Erskine, Whitefield noted that he “exceedingly” liked the Scottish Presbyterian minister Thomas Boston, especially Boston’s massive tome Human Nature in Its Four-Fold State (1720). The book had been “of much service” to his soul, Whitefield said. Boston’s Four-Fold State portrayed sinful men and women as totally corrupt, with a “load of wrath” hanging over them. Yet Boston insisted that the sinner also suffered from an “utter inability to recover himself.” Salvation was entirely a work of God’s grace. Through works such as these, Whitefield told Erskine, the Holy Spirit had convinced him of “our eternal election by the Father through the Son, of our free justification through faith in his blood,” and other Calvinist precepts.[i]

The conflict between the Wesleys and Whitefield’s Calvinist allies reached another crescendo in a controversy over the Methodists’ school near Bristol. John Cennick, the master of the Kingswood school, clashed with the Wesleys as John worked to consolidate control of Methodist societies and to marginalize Calvinists. Cennick wrote to Whitefield to apprise him of the crisis. Somehow Wesley acquired a copy of the letter and read it aloud to a meeting of the Bristol society. Cennick had written that he believed “no atheist can more preach against predestination” than did the Wesleys. “All who believe [in] election are counted enemies to God, and called so” by the Wesleys, he said. Cennick admitted that he wrote the letter, but would not retract what he said. Therefore, John expelled him and his allies from the society for scoffing “at the preaching of Mr. John and Charles Wesley” and for speaking “evil of them behind their backs.”[ii]

Whitefield did not yet know about this episode as he penned another letter to Wesley while traveling to England. Why did John and Charles not remain silent about their disagreements with him, he asked? Charles had exacerbated the tension when he published an anti-Calvinist verse in 1740’s Hymns and Sacred Poems, declaring “Horror to think that God is hate! Fury in God can dwell! God could a helpless world create, to thrust them into hell!” Whitefield insisted that he could no longer preach the gospel without referring to predestination and election. He informed them that he had prepared a response to John’s sermon Free Grace, that he had left it to be published in Philadelphia and Boston, and that he would also publish it in London.[iii]

Whitefield’s A Letter to the Reverend John Wesley: In Answer to His Sermon, Entitled Free-Grace was published in London, with other editions appearing in the colonies. He professed profound hesitation in confronting Wesley publicly: “Jonah could not go with more reluctance against Nineveh, than I now take pen in hand to write against you.” But Whitefield reminded his audience that Wesley had initiated the public controversy nearly two years earlier, having cast lots prior to publishing Free Grace. Whitefield wondered whether this method did not improperly “tempt the Lord.”[iv]

Much of Whitefield’s concern focused on Wesley’s handling of the controversy, but he objected to Wesley’s theology, as well. Whitefield stated his own position succinctly: “I believe the doctrine of reprobation, that God intends to give saving grace, through Jesus Christ, only to a certain number, and that the rest of mankind, after the fall of Adam, being justly left of God to continue in sin, will at last suffer that eternal death, which is its proper wages.” Wesley argued that if God offered saving grace only to the elect, then preaching was pointless. Whitefield countered that the preaching of the gospel was God’s means of saving the elect. Pastors and evangelists could never know who in their audience was elect, and who was reprobate, so they should “preach promiscuously to all,” as a matter of obedience.[v]

Whitefield also contested Wesley’s concept that believers could achieve perfect holiness in this life. While he had confidence of salvation through Christ, Whitefield knew that he sometimes still sinned. The Bible presented this as the common struggle of all Christians. Unfortunately, Whitefield set up a straw man by arguing that Scripture and experience contradicted the notion that “after a man is born again he cannot commit sin.” This was not Wesley’s position, although Whitefield did occasionally encounter followers of Wesley who claimed not only to have reached a state of sinlessness, but that it had become impossible for them to sin. Regardless, speaking personally to Wesley, Whitefield speculated that his “fighting so strenuously against the doctrine of election, and pleading so vehemently for a sinless perfection, are among the reasons or culpable causes, why you are kept out of the liberties of the gospel, and that full assurance of faith, which they enjoy, who have experimentally tasted, and daily feed upon God’s electing, everlasting love.” Whitefield counted himself among those who had “experimentally tasted” that love. The itinerant predicted that when they reached heaven, he would be proven correct, while he envisioned Wesley “casting your crown down at the feet of the Lamb, and as it were, filled with a holy blushing for opposing the divine sovereignty in the manner you have done.”[vi] This was harsh talk. Wesley found the letter revolting, “imprudent,” and “burlesque,” and told Whitefield as much shortly after receiving a copy. It made “an open (and probably irreparable) breach between him and me,” Wesley concluded.[vii]

Wesley tartly vowed not to “dwell on those things which have an immediate tendency to make [Whitefield] odious and contemptible,” promising not to return Whitefield’s attacks in kind. But if the Wesleys did not indict Whitefield and his associates by name, they made clear that their followers should avoid them and their Calvinism. John Cennick, for one, said that Charles “called Calvin the first-born son of the devil.”[viii]

[i] Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Four-Fold State (Edinburgh, 1720), 193; Whitefield to [Ralph Erskine], Nov. 28, 1739, in Letters of Whitefield, 128-129.

[ii] W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds., The Works of John Wesley: Journal and Diaries II, 1738-43 (Nashville, 1990), 19: 182-184; Dallimore, Whitefield, 2: 38-39.

[iii] Whitefield to John Wesley, Feb. 1, 1741, in Baker, ed., Works of John Wesley, 26: 48-49; Tyerman, Life of Whitefield, 1: 464.

[iv] Whitefield, A Letter to the Reverend John Wesley (London, 1741), 5, 7.

[v] Whitefield, Letter to the Reverend John Wesley, 10-11.

[vi] Whitefield, Letter to the Reverend John Wesley, 19-20, 27; Timothy L. Smith, “George Whitefield and Wesleyan Perfectionism,” Wesleyan Theological Journal, 19, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 71-72, at, accessed 12/21/12; Arnold A. Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival (Carlisle, Pa., 1970, 1980), 2: 66.

[vii] Ward and Heitzenrater, eds., Works of John Wesley, 19: 189-190.

[viii] John Wesley to Whitefield, Apr. 27, 1741, in Baker, ed., Works of John Wesley, 26: 59-61; Dallimore, Whitefield, 2: 70.


Thomas Kidd