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Whitefield And Calvinistic Methodism

Whitefield And Calvinistic Methodism


George Whitefield was born in 1714. His father, who was an inn-keeper in Gloucester, died while George was in youth, and the care of his education devolved upon his mother. At the age of eighteen he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. His straitened circumstances had previously compelled him, at least for a time, to do menial duties at the inn, and at college he was obliged to work his way as a servitor. His early life had exhibited a mixture of religion and irreligion, but at college the religious impulses of his nature gained the ascendency. After passing through a profound and painful struggle, he issued into a clear experience of divine grace. In 1736 he was admitted to orders, and began directly his remarkable preaching career. His very first efforts produced an extraordinary impression. In 1738 he visited America, and conceived the project of the orphan house in Georgia, an institution which continued to claim his affectionate interest till the end of his life. Early in 1739, as already stated, he led Methodism to the field of victory, by initiating outdoor preaching. In the same year he visited Wales, and started a second time for America. His first trip to Scotland occurred near the middle of 1741. But our space forbids us to particularize. Suffice it to say that, in his almost ubiquitous evangelism, he traversed England repeatedly, made numerous visits to Wales and Scotland, twice crossed into Ireland, made seven voyages to America, preached through the colonies on the Atlantic border, and died a few hours after delivering his last sermon, at Newburyport, Sept. 30, 1770.


Whitefield possessed but moderate learning and intellectual breadth. He was rather lacking in precision and poise. Cast out upon a conspicuous and tumultuous career as early as the age of twenty-three, he naturally exhibited some of the faults of immature thought and precipitate zeal. Of this he himself became conscious, and we find him writing, in 1748, as follows: "In how many things have I judged and acted wrong! I have been too rash and hasty in giving characters both of places and persons. Being fond of Scripture language, I have often used a style too apostolical; and at the same time I have been too bitter in my zeal. Wild-fire has been mixed with it; and I frequently wrote and spoke in my own spirit, when I thought I was writing and speaking by the assistance of the Spirit of God. I have, likewise, too much made impressions my rule of acting; and have published, too soon and too explicitly, what had been better told after my death. By these things I have hurt the blessed cause I would defend, and have stirred up needless opposition." Tyerman, Life of Whitefield. But for special errors of the head, and some lack of intellectual delicacy, there was a noble compensation in Whitefield. A more affectionate heart than his scarce ever beat in a human bosom. No one was ever more ready with a humble confession when once convinced of a fault.


Sacred oratory was the luminous centre in the genius of Whitefield. In natural gifts of thrilling and persuasive address he was one of the most remarkable men that ever lived. His power as an orator, however, was wrapped up with his personal presence, with his voice of wonderful compass and flexibility, with his action at once the height of grace and energy, with his manner shaped and informed by such intensity of conviction that he seemed to speak from the border of the spiritual world. His printed sermons fail almost utterly to reveal the orator; and indeed they are none too ample as specimens of his mere words and ideas. While he preached upwards of eighteen thousand times, only eighty-one sermons were committed to print, and of these, eighteen were issued without his revision or consent of the sixty-three authentic sermons remaining, at least forty-six-six were preached and printed before he was twenty-five years of age. The proof of his eloquence lies not here, but in the effects of his preaching, and in the testimony of all classes of witnesses. While he melted the rude and the abandoned to repentance, he commanded the plaudits of the learned, the aristocratic, and the sceptical. Benjamin Franklin narrates how the orator got the best of him. He fully resolved to give nothing for the orphan house, because Whitefield insisted upon having it in Georgia, instead of accepting his advice to locate it in Philadelphia. "I happened?" he says, "soon after, to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived that he intended to finish with a collection; and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded, I began to soften, and concluded to give the copper. Another stroke of his oratory determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and all." The same writer instances the fact that the utterance of Whitefield was most perfect and effective in sermons which he had many times repeated. Equally significant of the eloquence of the great preacher is the testimony of David Hume. He considered Whitefield the moat ingenious preacher to whom he ever listened, and records this item from his recollections of his preaching: "Once Whitefield addressed his audience thus: 'The attendant angel is about to leave us and ascend to heaven. Shall he ascend and not bear with him the news of one sinner reclaimed from the error of his way?' And then, stamping with his foot, and lifting up his hand and eyes to heaven, he cried aloud, 'Stop, Gabriel, stop, ere you enter the sacred portal, and yet carry with you the tidings of one sinner being saved.' This address surpassed anything I ever saw or heard in any other preacher." The celebrated actor, David Garrick, is reported to have said, "I would give a hundred guineas if I could only say 'Oh !' like Mr. Whitefield." Lord Chesterfield also paid tribute to Whitefield's genius. "On one occasion when the great preacher was representing the sinner under the figure of a, blind beggar, whose dog had broken from him, and who was groping on the brink of a precipice, over which he stepped and was lost, Chesterfield was so excited by the graphic description that he bounded from his seat and exclaimed, 'By heavens, the beggar is gone !'" The testimony of a prominent American ship-builder is worth adding. Having been persuaded to hear the noted evangelist, he was asked, "What do you think of Mr. Whitefield?" "Think? "said he, "I never heard such a man in my life. I tell you, sir, when I go to church I could build a ship from stem to stern under the sermon; but were it to save my soul, under Mr. Whitefield I could not lay a single plank."


Whitefield's earlier sermons show no trace of a specifically Calvinistic belief, and the causes of his preference for it are not very definitely given. Probably his reading and his intercourse with Congregationalists and Presbyterians in America were prominent factors in determining his bias. Passing hastily over the graver implications of the doctrine of unconditional election, he was attracted by its apparent exaltation of sovereign grace and its elimination of all contingency respecting the ultimate fortune of the converted person. In 1740 we find him unwaveringly entrenched in the Calvinistic tenet. About this time Wesley sent forth his most vigorous blast against the tenet, his sermon on Free Grace. The cause determining him to this step was by no means an ardent love of controversy. As he emphatically affirmed, he did not make the holding of the doctrine of election a bar to membership in the societies which he superintended. It was only the contentious advocacy of the same that he considered insufferable. On this principle he dealt with his lay helper at Kingswood, John Cennick, who, on the score of his Calvinistic belief, alienated the people from their leader, and wrote to Whitefield, then in America, to return and assist in opposing the Armenian errors. Wesley could not do otherwise than complain of such conduct. A rupture of the society at Kingswood ensued. The minds of not a few in the neighborhood were perplexed over the doctrinal question at issue. Under these circumstances, Wesley thought himself justified in publishing the sermon mentioned above. Whitefield was much offended by the sermon, and prepared an answer. Wesley was still ready for continued fellowship, and was far from the idea of opposing by name the advocates of predestination. But Whitefield, whether by his own choice or under the influence of more ardent partisans, decided that fellowship was out of the question. Referring to an interview held in March, 1741, Wesley says: "He told me he and I preached two different gospels; and therefore he not only would not join with me, or give me the right hand of fellowship, but was resolved publicly to preach against me and my brother, wherever he preached at all." This estrangement, if ever it really sundered the bond of affection between the two men, was of short duration. Before the close of 1742 they seemed to have been united in heart, and addressed each other in friendly terms. Under date of November, 1755, Wesley wrote in his journal: "Mr. Whitefield called upon me. Disputings are now no more. We love one another, and join hand in hand to promote the cause of our common Master." Of Whitefield's regard for Wesley we have a striking index in the answer which he made to a censorious Calvinist who asked him whether they were likely to see John Wesley in heaven. "I fear not," was the reply; "he will be so near the throne, and we shall be at such a distance, that we shall hardly get a sight of him." This friendship remained unbroken, and after the death of Whitefield, which occurred before the outbreak of the more virulent Calvinistic controversy, both of the Wesleys lovingly commemorated the departed evangelist, the one in a funeral sermon, and the other in an elegiac poem.


But the heart union of the leaders was not destined to be represented by an organic union of Methodism. The Calvinistic and Armenian types made for themselves separate channels, as respects the organizing of the former, Whitefield took only a subordinate part. In the first stage of the history he exhibited a measure of activity in organizing societies; but as early as 1749 he had resolved to be simply an evangelist, to sow the seed in every open field, and leave others to do the harvesting. If in this way he failed to build up a compact organization wherewith to perpetuate his memory, he did not fail of permanent results. The churches of England, Scotland, and America received from him a lasting impulse in vital religion. In the second stage the most prominent organizer of Calvinistic Methodism, at least on English soil, was Lady Huntingdon. After the death of her husband this remarkable woman devoted her heart and fortune to the interests of religion. Whitefield was constituted her chaplain, and preached in her mansion to the most aristocratic audiences assembled in England. The ample fortune of the countess was lavishly employed in building chapels, to which her influence secured the appointment of men of an earnest and devout spirit. A college for the training of ministers was endowed by her at Trevecca, in Wales. The idea was entertained, and in no small degree fulfilled, of leavening the Church of England with an evangelical ministry. "Like Wesley, Lady Huntingdon, with Whitefield, Howell Harris, and most of her preachers, was strongly attached to the Church of England. They wished not to be classed with Dissenters; but in order to protect her chapels from suppression, or appropriation by the Established Church, she had to avail herself, in 1779, of the 'Toleration Act,' a law by which all religious societies that would not be subject to the established ecclesiastical power, could control their own chapels by an avowal direct or virtual, of dissent. Her 'Connection' thus took its place among the Dissenting churches, and Romaine, Townsend, Venn, and many others of her most influential co-laborers belonging to the establishment, ceased to preach in her chapels." Stevens, History of Methodism, i. 170, 171.


In England, Calvinistic Methodism, as a distinct organization, made but moderate progress after the death of Whitefield. One wing, the so-called Tabernacle Connection, or Whitefield Methodists, inclined toward the forms of the Congregationalists, and a large proportion of their societies were absorbed by that denomination. Lady Huntingdon's Connection, on the other hand, adhered to the liturgical forms of the Anglican Church. Trevecca, and later Cheshunt College, served as its educational centre. The Connection continued to hold its ground, but was not favored with any marked advancement.


Wales was the preferred ground of Calvinistic Methodism in its organized form. Among those who figured in the heroic age of Welsh Methodism a foremost place belongs to Howell Harris and Daniel Rowlands. The former was a veritable Boanerges, whose impromptu speech rose above the din of mobs, and whose courage was ready for a new trial before yet he had been healed of the bruises received in a preceding encounter. Rowlands was a pulpit orator, who carefully prepared his sermons, but put into them the living energy of intense conviction. Multitudes came from far and near to hear his quickening message while he served as rector of Llangeitho. At length, in 1763, the hostility of his clerical brethren drove him out of the Established Church. A quieter, but no less enduring service than that of these hardy evangelists was rendered by a convert of Howell Harris, William Williams of Pantycelyn, the sacred poet of his country, whose hymns still claim pre-eminence in the Welsh collection, and whose talent has also very beautiful memorials in English hymn-books. Thomas Charles, of Bala, who cast in his lot with the Methodists in 1785, wrought efficiently in the promotion of education among the common people, and in the organization of the societies. It was first in 1811 that the Welsh societies entered upon the status of an independent communion. Before the year 1880 the number of members had exceeded a hundred thousand. See W. Williams Welsh Calvinistic Methodism.

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