Setting the scene
‘Farewell to olde England forever
Farewell to my olde pals as well
Farewell to the well known Old Bailey
Where I once used to look such a swell.
Singing Too-ral Li-ooral li-ad-dity
Singing too-ral li-ooral li-ay
Singing too-ral li-ooral li-ad-dity
And we’re bound for Botany Bay!’ (From a song of the ‘first fleeters’ who sailed from England to Australia in 1787 see http://firstfleet.uow.edu.au/s_ballad.html)
They were unusual times. British law was harsh. The death penalty was handed down for convictions as slight as petty theft.
As time went on, many judges became increasingly uneasy about sentencing to death those convicted of relatively petty crimes.
In fact, in 1800, Sir Samuel Riley declared that ‘there is probably no other country in the world in which so many and so great a variety of human actions are punishable with loss of life than in England.’ (Quoted in 1788, David Hill, William Heinemann Australia, p.8)
Transportation to America
The merciful alternative was to reduce the sentences to ‘transportation’, where the convicted criminal would be shipped off to one of Britain’s colonies, rather than be ‘launched into the next world.’
It sounds like an unusual solution to us now, but back in the 18th century it was the English solution to the unpleasant problem of dealing with the unruly and lawless!
Up until the revolutionary war, the American colonies were considered the perfect place for such convicts. And the English Judges, reluctant to so easily send people to their death, sent some 40,000 convicts to America instead.
However, a new option was now necessary, and a new community would be settled in a very far off place.
For the second installment of this story click here
So George Whitefield, merely months before becoming one of England’s youngest and most popular preachers, discovers that he needs to be born again in order to get right with God. He discovers that spiritual life is imparted by God through faith.
But strangely, he then acts in the opposite direction – throwing himself into a round of even more exacting religious exercises and good works, desperately trying to appease God.
Self-denial, satanic oppression, sickness and scaring Charles Wesley!
He increases his fasts, he stops eating fruit, giving the money he would have spent to the poor, he goes outside in rain and storm to cry out to God and confess his sinfulness.
Rather than finding relief from any of these exercises he becomes even more disconsolate, fearful and insecure. Feeling himself to be horribly oppressed by the devil he finally decides to ‘forsake’ all, including his new friends and stays in his study for days on end. He becomes physically ill and his tutor sends a physician.
His gloomy, depressed demeanour, the terrible loss of weight, all of this alarms the other students.
Charles Wesley is way out of his depth, doesn’t know what to do, and so refers him to his older brother John (already in his thirties, clearly the leader by this time, but not yet converted).
John painstakingly talks George down from the extremity of legalism in which he is bound and gives him Thomas a Kempis to read. Perhaps John realises even at this point that the strictness of the lifestyle he is promoting, the intensity of examination of every moment, is not working.
Locked in the second half of Romans 7
George seemed to have been caged in experience into what Paul merely illustrates in Romans 7:7-25.
There, Paul illustrates the inability of the Law to produce freedom from sin. Life is in the Gospel not in the Law. George Whitefield, having been awakened to the rightness of God’s Commands, then went on to try and justify himself through religious duty to fulfill those Commands. But Paul clearly demonstrates that the Law cannot produce life – only Christ can.
But, as in Paul’s illustration, so in real life, and as Whitefield was about to experience – the bondage of the cycle of sin and death is broken only by the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Finally the breakthrough
Whitefield had come to that great pre-conversion cry, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me?’ (Rom 7:24)
In his Journal he records, ‘God was pleased to set me free in the following manner. One day, perceiving an uncommon drought and a disagreeable clamminess in my mouth and using things to allay my thirst, but in vain, it was suggested to me, that when Jesus Christ cried out, ‘I thirst!’ His sufferings were near at an end. Upon which I cast myself down on the bed, crying out, ‘I thirst! I thirst!’’
From Mourning to Dancing
Although it seems a small thing – to be desperately thirsty, and to somehow see that when Christ cried out that He thirsted, it was near the end of His anguish – yet, here’s the point, when George Whitefield cried out to God, God intervened and heard him.
‘Soon after this’, writes George, ‘I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me. The spirit of mourning was taken from me and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour; and, for some time, could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was…’
‘Thus were the days of my mourning ended. After a long night of desertion and temptation, the Star, which I had seen at a distance before [referring to the doctrine of the New Birth in Scougal’s book], began to appear again, and the Day Star arose in my heart.
Now did the Spirit of God take possession of my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.’ (GW Journals, Banner of Truth, p.58)
Well, he had wrestled and struggled and, at last, discovered God’s free and Sovereign grace. Being now certain of the new birth in his own experience he began to proclaim the message of it to the English speaking world.