Whitefield and Harris in Bristol – some further observations

Believers Baptism in the 18th Century
Believers Baptism in the 18th Century

Honouring Christian Leaders from other Church Backgrounds

Whitefield’s friendship with Howell Harris proved to be strategic in a number of ways. Firstly, he began preaching the gospel to massive audiences in the fields. As Whitefield once remarked of Harris, ‘I follow him!’

But due to Harris’ rejection by the Church of England and his friendship with leaders from other church groupings, Whitefield began to meet many other Christian leaders of real weight and authority. Reading his journals, he gives the ‘dissenters’ (non CofE) equal standing with those from the traditional Church.

That openness to evangelical leaders from other church backgrounds was to prove pivotal in Whitefield’s ministry in America (and Scotland) and has been a healthy feature of Evangelists that have followed in Whitefield’s footsteps.

Writing of the Welsh ministers Harris introduced him to, he says, ‘They have many burning and shining lights among both the Dissenting and Church ministers…so that there is a most comfortable prospect of the spreading of the Gospel in Wales.’ (George Whitefield’s Journals, Banner of Truth edition, p.231)

We would do well to follow these Evangelists’ example as we seek to see churches planted and the gospel extended around the world.

Whitefield’s gracious leadership before Wesley fully enters the work

One of the frustrating factors for those who know the history of this period is the oft-repeated and incorrect impression that John Wesley was acknowledged as the leader of the new movement at this point.

This simply wasn’t the case. We shall see how Wesley’s formidable preaching and organisational gifts certainly did establish him as the clear leader in Whitefield’s absence. But at this point Wesley, though older in years, and though leading the Society at Oxford, was actually following Whitefield, even as Whitefield was following Harris!

Wesley sent Whitefield a letter about this time in which he excitedly spoke of meetings attended by crowds of two or sometimes three hundred (p.224). Those numbers were not inconsiderable, but he was apparently unaware that Whitefield was preaching out of doors to crowds of 10,000 and 14,000!

Whitefield himself says, ‘I now preach to ten times more people than I should if I had been confined to the churches…Every day I am invited to fresh places.’ (p.233)

Wesley, on seeing Whitefield in action, soon abandoned his stuffy sense of decorum and bravely became a great evangelistic preacher in his own right.

23,000 gather to hear George Whitefield in Bristol!

But before Wesley arrived in Bristol to see the work that Whitefield began, Whitefield himself broke yet another attendance record: ‘Sun Mar 25. Preached at Hannam to a larger congregation than ever, and again in the afternoon to upwards (as was computed) of 23,000 people…Oh may God speak to them by His Spirit.’ (p.238)

Joy in the Holy Spirit

A recurring feature of Whitefield’s beautifully written Journals is the joy he experienced when the Holy Spirit came upon him. Constantly serving those who came to hear him, he speaks of his wages being joy!

‘Mon Mar 26. After I had done [preaching to about 1000], I went to a Christian house, where many waited for me. At my return home, my Master paid me my wages: for my soul was filled with an intenseness of love, and I knew what it is not only to have righteousness and peace, but joy in the Holy Ghost. This is my continual food.’ (p.239)

While we must always remember that our joy is ultimately in our salvation (Luke 10:20) we must also fully embrace the outpoured love of God into our souls as we experience the joy of serving Christ in our generation.

You can purchase Whitefield resources here

© 2009 Lex Loizides

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