When everyone seemed to be blogging their favorite books at the end of 2007, I noticed an old book making a few of the lists: George Whitefield Volumes 1 and 2 by Arnold Dallimore. Dallimore was a pastor in my denomination who pastored a church just a few hours west of here. I’ve read his biography of Spurgeon before, and had always meant to get around to this one. Michael Haykin’s recommendation was all the prompting I needed to finally put this volume at the top of my list.
George Whitefield is a name that is known to many who have dabbled in church history, but he is not as well known as others of his era like the Wesleys and Jonathan Edwards. Whitefield was in many ways the first celebrity preacher of North America. It was said that he could throw his listeners into paroxysms by merely pronouncing “Mesopotamia”.
One unlettered man reports what it was like when Whitefield came to town to preach:
Now it pleased God to send mr whitefield into this land & …i longed to see & hear him…& then one morning all in a Suding there came a messenger & said mr whitefield…is to preach…I dropt my tool that i had in my hand & run home and throu my house and bad my wife to get ready quick to go and hear mr whitefield preach at middletown…
i saw before me a cloud or fog i first thought of from ye great river but as i came nearer ye road i heard a noise something like a low rumbling thunder & i presently found out it was ye rumbling of horses feet coming down ye road & this Cloud was a Cloud of dust made by the running of horses…when we gat down to ye old meeting hous thare was a great multitude it was said to be 3 or 4000..when i see mr whitefield come up upon ye scaffold he looked almost angellical a young slim slender youth before thousands of people and with a bold undainted countenance & my hearing how god was with him everywhere as he came along it solemnized my mind and put me in a trembling fear…my old foundation was broken up & i see my righteousness would not save me.
This type of experience was repeated all over England and America as Whitefield came to preach.
George Whitefield was born in 1714 and lived a rather unremarkable childhood. He was friends with John and Charles Wesley, but little in his early life would lead us to expect how profoundly Whitefield would be used in adulthood.
Ordained in the Church of England, Whitefield began to preach in the open air when churches refused to admit him. He preached to thousands of people without amplification, and with great results. Whitefield eventually moved to America, preached to half of its population, and founded an orphanage in Georgia when it was still in its early days.
As you read Dallimore’s book, you get a sense of how greatly God used this man. You also get a sense of the pressures that go along with a high profile ministry: jealousy, criticism, disagreements over theology, and the crushing weight of responsibility. At the end of volume 1, the stresses are still accumulating. Many seek greatness; it’s good to be reminded that not many of us could handle it if we had it.
What I appreciate about this biography is that it is not hagiography. Whitefield makes mistakes and shows his immaturity. He pushes himself to extremes and devalues marriage. Yet he is also a man of incredible devotion and giftedness who was greatly used by God.
Biographies like these remind us how God has worked through ordinary people in the past, and remind us of the stress that comes with high-profile ministry. I can’t wait to read the second volume.