George Whitefield’s Text by Frank W. Boreham
George Whitefield: December 16, 1714 – September 30, 1770
GEORGE WHITEFIELD was the first man who treated Great Britain and America as if they both belonged to him. He passed from the one to the other as though they were a pair of rural villages, and he was the minister in charge of the parish. George Whitefield took a couple of continents under his wing, and the wing had the capacity to accomplish the task.
In days when the trip was a serious undertaking, he crossed the Atlantic thirteen times; but, of all his voyages, this was the worst. Day after day, plowing her way through terrifying seas, the good ship had shuddered in the grip of the gale. The sailors were at their wits’ end; the sails were torn to ribbons and the tackling was broken. George Whitefield, who, wrapped in a buffalo hide, sleeps in the most protected part of the vessel, has been drenched through and through twice in one night. The ship has been so buffeted and beaten that nearly three months have passed before the Irish coast is sighted. Rations have been reduced to famine fare. The gravest anxiety marks every countenance.
Today, however, there is a lull in the storm. The seas have moderated and the sun is shining. In the afternoon, Mr. Whitefield assembles the passengers and crew, and conducts a service on the deck. Have a good look at him! He is twenty-five, tall, graceful, and well-proportioned; of fair complexion and bright blue eyes. There is a singular cast in one of those eyes, which, though not unsightly, has the curious effect of making each hearer feel that the preacher is looking directly at him. There is something extraordinarily commanding about him. It was said that, by raising his hand, he could reduce an unruly crowd of twenty thousand people to instant silence. His voice, strong and rich and musical, was so perfectly modulated and controlled that his audiences were charmed into rap attention. It had phenomenal carrying power. While Whitefield was preaching in the open air one day, Benjamin Franklin, who was present, made a singular computation. He walked backwards until he reached a point at which he could no longer hear every word distinctly. He marked the spot and afterwards measured the distance. As a result, he calculated that Mr. Whitefield could command an audience of thirty thousand people without straining his voice in the least.
Today, however, instead of thirty thousand people, he has barely thirty. Standing on the hatchway with a coil of rope at his feet, he announces his text: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). The passengers lounging about the deck, and the sailors leaning against the bulwarks, listen breathlessly as, for half an hour, an earnest and eloquent man pours out his heart in personal testimony, powerful exposition, and passionate entreaty. “Every man,” he cries, “who has even the least concern for the salvation of his precious and immortal soul should never cease watching and praying and striving till he finds a real, inward, saving change wrought in his heart, and thereby knows the truth that he has been born again.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That is George Whitefield’s text in the mid-Atlantic because it is George Whitefield’s text on both sides of the Atlantic. In season and out of season, in public and in private, he ceaselessly proclaimed that message. He felt that he was sent into the world to call the attention of men to that one mandatory word. He is known to have preached more than three hundred times from this memorable and striking passage. And nobody who has read the story of his spiritual travail will marvel for a moment at his having done so.
For it was that great text about the new birth that had thrown open to him the gates of the kingdom of God. He was only a schoolboy when it first dawned upon him that, between him and that kingdom, a frightful chasm opened up. “I got acquainted,” he says, “with such a band of debauched, abandoned, atheistic youths that if God, by His free grace, had not delivered me out of their hands, I should long ago have remained a scoffer. I took pleasure in their lewd conversation. My thoughts of religion became more and more like theirs. I tried to look worldly and was as close to being as infamous as the worst of them.” Then came the sudden change of course, the quick realization of his folly, and the vision of the hideous blackness of his own heart. But how to cure it? That was the problem. He resolved to change, at any rate, his outward appearance. “As, once, I had tried to look more worldly, so now I strove to appear more serious than I really was.” This, however, was cold comfort; it was like painting rotten wood. He was conscious all the time of the concealed corruption and tried another course. He denied himself every luxury; wore ragged and even dirty clothes; ate no foods but those that were repugnant to him; fasted altogether twice a week; gave his money to the poor; and spent whole nights in prayer lying prostrate on the cold stones or the wet grass. But it was all to no avail. He felt that there was something radically wrong in his heart, something that all this penance and self-degradation could not change. Then came the Angel of Deliverance, and the Angel of Deliverance bore three golden keys. One was a man, one was a book, one was a text.
The man was Charles Wesley, the musician of Methodism. George Whitefield and Charles Wesley were, by this time, fellow students at Oxford. Wesley noticed the tall, grave youth, always walking alone, apparently in deep thought; he felt strangely drawn to him. They met. Forty years afterwards, Charles Wesley commemorated that meeting:
“Can I the memorable day forget,
When first we by divine appointment met?
Where undisturbed the thoughtful student roves,
In search of truth, through academic groves;
A modest pensive youth, who mused alone,
Industrious the beaten path to shun,
An Israelite, without disguise or art,
I saw, I loved, and clasped him to my heart,
A stranger as my bosom friend caressed,
And unawares received an angel-guest!”
But, if Whitefield was “an angel-guest” to Charles Wesley, Charles Wesley was certainly no less to Whitefield. Whitefield often referred to him as “my never-to-be-forgotten friend.” In those days Charles Wesley also was groping after the light. He could not, therefore, solve his new friend’s aching problem, but he could lend him the books that he himself was reading. And he did.
The book that Charles Wesley lent George Whitefield was Henry Scougal’s The Life of God in the Soul of Man. He read it with amazement and delight. It told him exactly what he longed to know. He learned for the first time that true religion is a union of the soul with God; it is Christ formed within us. “When I read this,” he says, “a ray of divine light instantaneously darted in upon my soul; and, from that moment, but not till then, did I know that I must become a new creature.” He is a young man of twenty-one. “After having undergone innumerable buffetings by day and night, God was pleased at length,” he says, “to remove my heavy load and to enable me, by a living faith, to lay hold on His dear Son. And oh! With what joy – joy unspeakable and full of glory – was I filled when the weight of sin left me and an abiding sense of the pardoning love of God broke in upon my disconsolate soul!” The first act in his ecstasy was to write to all his relatives. “I have found,” he tells them, “that there is such a thing as the new birth.”
“I must be a new creature!”
“There is such a thing as the new birth!”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
It was thus that the man introduced the booktext; and the text led George Whitefield into the kingdom of God. “I know the exact place,” he says. “It may perhaps be superstitious, but, whenever I go to Oxford, I cannot help running to the spot where Jesus Christ first revealed Himself to me and gave me a new birth.”
“A new creature!”
“The new birth!”
“Unless a man be born again….”
What does it mean? It means, if it means anything, that the miracle of Creation’s morning may be re-enacted. A man may be made all over again. He may be changed root and branch; the very fiber and fabric of his manhood may be transfigured. You ask me to explain this new creation: I will do so when you have explained the earlier one. You ask me to explain this second birth: I merely remind you that the first birth – the physical and intellectual one – is involved in inscrutable mystery.
“I cannot explain the creation of the universe; but, for all that, here is the universe!”
“I cannot explain the mystery of birth, but what does it matter? Here is the child!”
“I cannot explain the truth that, darting like a flash of lightning into the soul of that Oxford student, transforms his whole life. However, explained or unexplained, here is George Whitefield!”
“O Lord,” muttered Alexander Pope one day, “make me a better man!”
“It would be easier,” replied his spiritually-enlightened page, “to make you a new man!”
And in that distinction lies the whole doctrine that so startled and captivated and dominated the life of George Whitefield.
With this text burned into his very soul, and inscribed indelibly upon his mind, George Whitefield mapped out the program of his life. He set himself to a stupendous and world-wide campaign; he determined that he would carry that one message everywhere. He was forever on the move, and he was forever and ever proclaiming, with the most affecting fervor and persuasion, that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” David Garrick used to say that he would gladly give a hundred guineas to be able to pronounce the word “Oh!” as movingly as Whitefield did. The secret was that all of Whitefield’s soul was in that yearning monosyllable. He was hungry for the salvation of men. He remembered his own bewilderment, his own frantic struggle for freedom, and he longed to shed upon others the light that had broken so startlingly and joyously upon him. He could scarcely speak of anything else. In preaching a funeral sermon soon after Mr. Whitefield’s death, the Rev. Joseph Smith said, “There was scarcely one sermon in which Mr. Whitefield did not insist upon the necessity of the new birth.” With passionate vehemence and earnest repetition he cried again and again: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He found that the hearts of men were longing for that message.
He tells us, for example, of one of his earliest efforts. It was at Kingswood [Note: Kingswood is a village and civil parish within the Stroud district of Gloucestershire, England]. He was refused permission to preach in the church unless he would undertake to say nothing about the new birth. But that was the very subject on which he was determined to speak. He therefore resorted to the open fields, and the miners in their thousands, thronged around him. “I preached,” he says, “on the Savior’s words to Nicodemus, ‘You must be born again;’ and the people heard me gladly. Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were delighted to hear of One who came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by the tears which streamed plentifully down their black cheeks as they came fresh from the coal mine. Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep conviction which happily ended in sound and thorough conversion. The change was visible to all.”
The news spread through the country that a cultured and eloquent preacher was declaring to great multitudes on village greens, at street corners, fairs and bazaars, festivals, on bowling greens and in open fields that men might be remade, regenerated, born again. The inhabitants of towns that he had not yet visited sent for him, begging him to come. When, for example, he was approaching Bristol, multitudes went out on foot to meet him. The people saluted and blessed him as he passed along the street. The churches were so crowded that it was with difficulty that he could obtain access to the pulpit. Some hung upon the rails of the organ loft; others climbed upon the lead roofs of the church; at every crack and crevice ears were straining to catch the message. When he preached his last sermon in the town and told the people that they would see his face no more, they all – high and low, young and old – burst into tears. Multitudes followed him to his rooms weeping; the next day he was employed from daylight until midnight in counseling eager inquirers. In the end, he left the town secretly at dead of night, in order to evade the throng that would have insisted on attending him.
George Whitefield made the doctrine of the new birth his universal message because he found that it met a universal need. I catch glimpses of him under many skies and under strangely varied conditions, but he is always proclaiming the same truth – and always with the same result.
Here he is, seated with an Indian in a canoe on one of the great American rivers! He is visiting the various encampments of the Delawares. He loves to go from tribe to tribe, and from wigwam to wigwam, telling the red men, by the aid of an interpreter, that a man of any kind and any color may be born again. For hundreds of miles, he trudges his way through the solitudes of the great American forests that he may deliver to Indians and backwoodsmen the message that is burning in his soul.
Here he is, preaching to the black men of Bermuda! “Unless,” he cries, “one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “Attention,” he tells us, “sat on every face. I believe there were few dry eyes. Even the Negroes who could not get into the building, and who listened from without, wept plentifully. Surely a great work is begun here!”
Here he is in Scotland! He is visiting Cambuslang, and there is no building large enough to accommodate any considerable fraction of the crowds that throng to hear him. He therefore preaches in the glen. The grassy area beside the creek and the steep bank which rises from it in the form of an amphitheater, offer a noble and impressive auditorium. “He dwelt mostly on Regeneration,” the record tells us. And the result vindicated his choice of a theme. On the last Sunday of his stay, he preached to between thirty and forty thousand people, while over three thousand participated in the closing communion.
Here he is in the Countess of Huntingdon’s drawing-room! The sumptuous apartment is thronged by princes and peers, philosophers and poets, intellectuals and statesmen. To this select and aristocratic assembly, he would deliver his message two or three times each week. “Unless one is born again!” he says, and he implores his titled hearers to seek the regenerating grace that can alone bring the joy of heaven into the experiences of earth.
Here he is, bending over his desk. He is writing to Benjamin Franklin – “the man who wrenched the scepter from tyrants and the lightning from heaven.” “I find,” he says, “that you grow more and more famous in the learned world. As you have made such progress in investigating the mysteries of electricity, I now humbly urge you to give diligent heed to the mystery of the new birth. It is a most important and interesting study and, when mastered, will richly repay you for your pains.”
I could change the scene indefinitely. But in every country, and under every condition, he is always speaking at length on one tremendous theme:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
He cannot help it. When, at Oxford, he first discovered the necessity, and experienced the power, of the new birth, he could speak of nothing else. “Whenever a fellow-student entered my room,” he says, “I discussed with him our Lord’s words about being born again.” For thirty years he preached night and day on the theme that had torn the shackles from his own soul. Towards the close of his Life of George Whitefield, Mr. J.P. Gledstone gives a list of the eminent preachers, poets, and philanthropists who, together with countless thousands of less famous men, were led into the kingdom and service of Christ as a result of Mr. Whitefield’s extraordinary ministry. He often said that he should like to die in the pulpit or immediately after leaving it. He almost had his wish. He preached the day before he died, and he remained true to his own distinctive message to the last. “I am now fifty-five years of age,” he said, in one of these final addresses, “and I tell you that I am more than ever convinced that the truth of the new birth is a revelation from God Himself, and that without it you can never be saved by Jesus Christ.”
“Why, Mr. Whitefield,” inquired a friend one day, “why do you so often preach on ‘you must be born again?’”
“Because,” replied Mr. Whitefield, solemnly, looking full into the face of his questioner, “because you must be born again!”
That is conclusive. It leaves nothing more to be said!
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