George Whitefield, Principled Calvinist 4: The Full Biblical Gospel
Although Whitefield’s style moderated in the years after the height of his Great Awakening preaching, his basic Calvinist convictions did not change. In the late summer of 1762 Whitefield made his annual journey to Scotland, giving his departing sermon at Edinburgh on Aaron’s blessing to the children of Israel in Numbers 6. The published text of the sermon, “taken in short-hand from his mouth,” revealed that Whitefield had not muted his Calvinist convictions, though perhaps he emphasized them more before a friendly Scottish audience. He challenged those “who talk so much of the power of their free will. A free will of one kind to be sure you all have. But a free will to what? To everything that is wrong.” Similarly, Whitefield sought to pass on Calvinist convictions to converts and pupils. A 1765 observer at Whitefield’s Georgia orphanage noted that students learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, and boys who seemed promising pastoral candidates studied Greek and Latin. All memorized the Westminster Catechism. “The Calvinist religion is the dominant religion in the orphanage,” the observer recorded.[i]
Even though Whitefield’s Calvinism did not flag in the later decades of his preaching, he and John Wesley did tentatively reconcile in the 1760s, and Wesley preached a memorial sermon for Whitefield upon news of Whitefield’s death in Massachusetts in 1770. “An immense multitude” gathered there, Wesley wrote. “All were still as night.”[ii]
Given the occasion, one might expect Wesley to have given an admiring sermon about Whitefield’s public ministry, and he did so, but Wesley also expressed appreciation for Whitefield as his personal friend. Indeed, Wesley identified Whitefield’s generous friendship as “the distinguishing part of his character.” Given the bitter lows their relationship had seen, this was a surprising and revealing assertion. Although Whitefield substantially contributed to his difficulties with the Wesleys, it is notable that he did not precipitate the first public split over Calvinism (John did), and that he remained committed to staying in contact with John and Charles over the years, even when misunderstandings kept buffeting their relationship. According to Methodist historian Gareth Lloyd, “the fact that their friendship managed to survive in the long term was due in large measure to Whitefield’s willingness to forgive and forget.” Wesley did allude to their past disagreements over “doctrines of a less essential nature,” but said that he and Whitefield finally agreed on fundamental doctrines, which he summed up as “the new birth, and justification by faith.” His life – and now his death – reminded Wesley that Christians united by those essential beliefs should love one another, and promote the common cause of the gospel.[iii]
During his career, and in the three centuries since, many have suggested that Whitefield was shallow theologically. Whitefield’s memory was a fixture of nineteenth-century evangelical culture, but certain journalistic and literary voices regarded him as an intellectually lackluster figure. An 1877 article from the London Quarterly Review, which the New York Times reprinted, asked “what was the secret of Whitefield’s success?” The publication of the two-volume Whitefield biography by the English Methodist minister Luke Tyerman prompted the question. The review offered no definitive key to Whitefield’s achievements, aside from his obvious preaching talent. Regarding Whitefield’s publications, the writer sniffed, “we must agree with the opinion pretty generally passed on them by critics, and endorsed by the oblivion into which they have sunk, that they add nothing to the reputation of their author.” Some thought that it would have been better for these publications not to have survived, but if they had not, the reviewer reckoned that Whitefield’s devotees would have credited him with a “majestic intellect” which he clearly had not possessed.[iv]
More recent scholars have tended to echo the notion that Whitefield was theologically “shallow.” But Whitefield’s commitment to Calvinism illustrates that he was, in fact, a studied and theologically precise gospel preacher.[v] (I am not trying to put him on par with the theological brilliance of Jonathan Edwards, of course, which is hardly a fair standard – the point here is that Whitefield was a person of serious, thoughtful, and consistent principles.) Part of the evidence for his theological substance was the fact that he held closely to his doctrinal convictions throughout his career, often to the point of provoking schism. Denominational boundaries mattered little to him, but he marked out well-defined convictions on key points of Protestant theology. He was a principled Calvinist, and he had robust, practical theologies of conversion, the Lord’s Supper, and the Holy Spirit’s role in the believer’s and the church’s life. If he did not have strong views on these subjects, he could have saved himself time and emotional energy in repeated fallouts with the Wesleys, as well as Moravians, Anglican adversaries, and others. But he felt that he was defending the best of the Reformed theological tradition in taking his positions, so he would accept doctrinal conflict if necessary. Whitefield certainly deserves his reputation as a phenomenally popular preacher who played fast and loose – for better or worse - with denominational boundaries. He did so because, as he put it, he found converted people among many Christian denominations. But we should not overstate Whitefield’s ecumenical tendencies, either: he drew sharp theological lines when it came to the doctrine of the new birth, but also the doctrines of grace, or Calvinism, and he believed that no one could preach a full, biblical gospel while neglecting them.
[i] George Fenwick Jones, ed., “A Letter by Pastor Johann Martin Boltzius about Bethesda and Marital Irregularities in Savannah,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 84, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 289-290; Whitefield to Mr. S—S--, Jan. 14, 1765, in Gillies, ed., Works, 3: 320; “Extract of a Letter from a Young Gentleman at Georgia,” Boston Evening-Post, May 6, 1765; London Chronicle, Apr. 20, 1765.
[ii] William Jay, ed., Memoirs of the Life and Character of the Late Reverend Cornelius Winter (Bath, Eng., 1808), 103, Lloyd, Charles Wesley, 57-58; W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds., Works of John Wesley, 22: 259.
[iii] John Wesley, A Sermon on the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield (London, 1770), 19, 23, 25; Ward and Heitzenrater, eds., Works of John Wesley, 22: 259-260.
[iv] “George Whitefield’s Success,” New York Times, Aug. 12, 1877.
[v] J. C. Ryle, A Sketch of the Life and Labors of George Whitefield (New York, 1854), 28; Lee Gatiss, ed., The Sermons of George Whitefield (Wheaton, Ill., 2012), 1: 19. Bruce Daniels refers to Whitefield’s “shallow theology” in his review of Jerome Mahaffey’s Preaching Politics, Journal of American History 95, no. 3 (Dec. 2008): 819. While Harry Stout concedes that Whitefield was a thoroughgoing Calvinist, he also argues that Whitefield often “showed no interest in theology,” and that he had to sell the new birth “with all the dramatic artifice of a huckster.” Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1991), 39-40. Daniel Pals says that Whitefield blithely “passes over scriptural exegesis or doctrinal exposition” in favor of simplistic “evangelical moralism.” Daniel L. Pals, "Several Christologies of the Great Awakening," Anglican Theological Review 72, no. 4 (Fall 1990): 425.