Persecution was on its way. But it was first experienced as a voice raised in mockery rather than a fist raised in violence.
George Whitefield was far and away the most successful preacher the English-speaking world had ever known. Inevitably, as the populations of London, Bristol and Gloucester became more familiar with him, the jokes began.
He had been born with a slight squint. While this is overlooked by the many descriptions of his appearance on a platform as being ‘full of authority’ or, even, ‘angelic’, those who were less ready to receive his message were more inclined to snigger at his appearance. He was mocked as ‘Dr. Squintum’.
His increasing success did nothing to diminish the laughter. Nothing quite like this had ever been seen before. Who could estimate crowds that were clearly in excess of thirty or forty thousand? ‘Success’ brought scepticism.
In London, May 1739, on the eve of his second trip out to Georgia where he intended to build an orphan house, he writes:
‘Preached this morning to a prodigious number of people in Moorfields, and collected for the orphans £52, 19s.6d, above £20 of which was in halfpence.’ (This was a massive amount and would have needed several to carry it.)
‘Went to public worship twice, and preached in the evening to near sixty thousand people.’ (The editor of the 1756 edition of the Journals adds, ‘to so many thousand that many went away because they could not hear.’)
Whitefield continues, ‘It is very remarkable what a deep silence is preserved while I am speaking…I doubt not but that many self-righteous bigots, when they see me spreading out my hands to offer Jesus Christ freely to all, are ready to cry out, “How glorious did the Rev. Mr. Whitfield look today, when neglecting the dignity of a clergyman, he stood venting his enthusiastic ravings in a gown and cassock upon a common, and collecting mites from poor people.”
‘But if this is to be vile, Lord grant that I may be more vile. I know this foolishness of preaching is made instrumental to the conversion and edification of numbers. Ye Pharisees mock on! I rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.’ (George Whitefield Journals, Banner of Truth edition, p.264-265)
© 2009 Lex Loizides