God gives us encouragements in the midst of difficulties. And each encouragement is deeply appreciated. Your leadership challenge may be tough for reasons that are entirely outside yourself.
It’s great to hear news of numerical breakthroughs and blessing in other places. We’re often helpfully stirred to pray and believe for greater breakthrough in our own towns.
But faithfulness to God’s call, with a heart toward God and a helping hand toward man, can sow spiritual seed that will produce fruit not only in our generation but also in the one to come.
After preaching each day for a week in his home-town of Epworth (Lincolnshire, England), John Wesley describes the huge crowd who heard him and reflects on the faithful labours of his father, Samuel Wesley, who was a minister in that town.
Wesley preaches to ‘a vast multitude’
He writes, ‘At six I preached for the last time in Epworth church-yard [he had been preaching on his father’s grave stone, after being denied the use of the church pulpit] to a vast multitude gathered together from all parts…
‘I continued among them for near three hours; and yet we scarce knew how to part.
‘O let none think his labour of love is lost because the fruit does not immediately appear!
‘Near forty years did my father labour here; but he saw little fruit of all his labour…but now the fruit appeared.
‘There were scarce any in the town on whom either my father or I had taken any pains formerly, but the seed, sown so long since, now sprung up, bringing forth repentance and remission of sins.’ (John Wesley’s Journals, Vol 1, Baker edition, p.379-380)
Galatians 6:9 says, ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’
1 Corinthians 15:58 says, ‘Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.’
Be encouraged as you seek to share the gospel of grace in your community – and remember Epworth and how years of sowing did eventually produce a massive harvest!
On Sunday June 6th 1742 John Wesley, the English Evangelist re-visited his home town, Epworth in Lincolnshire.
This was the town of his birth and his father had been the Pastor of the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church there. The Wesley children had been raised there.
Prior to the Sunday service beginning Wesley offered to assist the Curate with the service, either by preaching or ‘reading prayers’ (from the Book of Common Prayer, then used by Anglicans).
The curate wasn’t keen, and we pick up the story from Wesley’s Journal:
‘He did not care to accept my assistance. The church was exceeding full in the afternoon, a rumour being spread that I was to preach.
‘But the sermon on ‘Quench not the Spirit’ was not suitable to the expectation of many of the hearers. Mr. Romney told them one of the most dangerous ways of quenching the Spirit was by enthusiasm; and enlarged on the character of an enthusiast…’
It’s quite likely that John Wesley, his friends and many of the people could clearly understand that the dodgy ‘character’ being described was Wesley himself!
‘Mr. Wesley will preach in the graveyard!’
Wesley continues, ‘After sermon, John Taylor stood in the church-yard, and gave notice, as the people were coming out, ‘Mr. Wesley, not being permitted to preach in the church, designs to preach here at six o’clock.’
‘Accordingly at six I came, and found such a congregation as I believe Epworth never saw before.
‘I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father’s tomb stone and cried, ‘The kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’
We might expect that many left the Church of England because of the combination of the Curate’s and Wesley’s behaviour. And they did. But Wesley remained a loyal Anglican to the very end, urging new converts to attend the very churches that were teaching against the evangelical movement and preaching specifically against him and Whitefield.
In fact, because some who had left what they considered an unbelieving church were urging others to leave, Wesley, the very same day he had defied the Curate, decided to stay in Epworth and plead with several to remain within the Church of England.
It was a religious loyalty and tension that he struggled with all through his life.
While he was in Epworth he preached every evening of that week from his father’s grave to great crowds who continued to hear him. (all quotes from John Wesley’s Journal, Baker edition, Vol 1, p.377)
It was only near the end that he finally faced the inevitable and laid hands on the first apostolic delegate to America, Thomas Coke. Coke, in turn, had authority to appoint other leaders over the Methodist work in America.
So the Methodist movement, finally freed from its traditional English roots, became established in its own right and for many years became a mighty mouthpiece for evangelical Christianity around the world.
Charles Wesley is mainly remembered for his excellent poetic gift. This gift, thoroughly saturated in Scripture, produced some of the church’s best-loved hymns.
If you are in an English speaking church context it is quite likely that you recognize these well known opening lines from Charles Wesley hymns:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!
Actually, it’s difficult not to just go ahead and include whole hymns for the pure pleasure of enjoying them.
A Passionate Evangelistic Preacher
But my point is that Charles Wesley was not only a hymn-writer but also a passionate evangelistic preacher.
Some excerpts from his journal of 1741 will give us a flavour of the kind of passion he employed in his efforts to bring men and women to Christ.
‘April 13th. While I was in great love…the Spirit of power came down, the fountain was set open, my mouth and heart enlarged, and I spoke such words as I cannot repeat. Many sunk under the love of Christ crucified…’
‘April 22nd. I sharply reproved three or four inflexible Pharisees; then prayed the Lord to give me words of consolation, and immediately I was filled with power, which broke out as a mighty torrent.
‘All our hearts caught fire in a moment, and such tears and strong cryings followed, as quite drowned my voice…’
‘Sun May 3rd. At Kingswood [Bristol] as soon as I had named my text, ‘It is finished!’ the love of Christ crucified so constrained me that I burst into tears, and felt strong sympathy with him in his sufferings. In like manner, the whole congregation looked upon him whom they had pierced, and mourned.’
His preaching was effective and many were converted. One particular Kingswood resident wasn’t happy though. Charles wrote:
‘May 5th. A wild collier [coal miner] brought me four of his children…crying, ‘You have got the mother, take the bairns [the kids] too!’
(All quotes from Arnold Dallimore, Charles Wesley, A Heart Set Free, Crossway Books, p.107)
An Inspiring combination of the Poet and the Evangelist
Charles Wesley was an Evangelist, and an effective one at that. We’ll return to his heroic story later, but for now, let’s not forget that many of his hymns were written in the very context of urging his generation to come to Christ.
His hymn ‘Lovers of Pleasure’ provides us with an excellent example of the combination of his poetic and evangelistic gift. Enjoy!
‘Lovers of pleasure more than God,
For you He suffered pain;
Swearers, for you He spilt his blood;
And shall He bleed in vain?
Misers, for you his life He paid,
Your basest crime He bore:
Drunkards, your sins on Him were laid,
That you might sin no more.
The God of love, to earth He came,
That you might come to heaven;
Believe, believe in Jesus’ Name,
And all your sin’s forgiven.
Believe in Him that died for thee,
And, sure as He hath died,
Thy debt is paid, Thy soul is free,
And thou art justified.’
How do you respond when you hear that a Christian missionary is in trouble for distributing Christian literature, or for some other attempt to communicate the Christian faith?
Maybe your first response is to assume that the believer lacked wisdom. You may be right, of course. Christians can get carried away as they try and verbalise how wonderful they think Jesus Christ is. Each incident needs to be assessed separately.
But on the other hand, we’ve got to a slightly strange place when our assumption is that a follower of Christ trying to share their faith is automatically over-zealous or unwise.
Don’t misunderstand me: the Christian needs to communicate his faith with respect, wisdom and grace, with an ability to listen to others’ objections and beliefs. (see Col 4:4-6)
But the idea that a negative response to an honest attempt at presenting the gospel is always a correction, or, worse, a sign of God’s disapproval, merely reveals our evangelistic immaturity. Jesus made it clear that there would be times when the message would be rejected. Even He was rejected (see John 15:20-21).
And it’s difficult to think of how the Christian Faith advanced from its earliest days apart from believers courageously communicating the gospel to those who didn’t respect the Christian ideals of tolerance and debate.
Another thought before we re-join the 18th century battlefield: put yourself in the position of the hapless ‘missionary’ who is in jail for trying to share the Christian faith. It’s quite likely that you would be your own harshest critic as you retrace the decisions or statements that got you into trouble. My guess is that you’d want folk to pray for you.
The First Methodist Martyr
In October 1740,William Seward and Howell Harris were out again preaching the gospel in Wales. This time, they visited Hay-on-Wye.
Suddenly, someone from the crowd took aim and Seward was hit with a large stone and lay unconscious on the ground.
Dallimore writes, ‘he was carried from the scene unconscious. For a few days he hovered between life and death, but sank steadily lower till on October 22, 1740, his spirit passed away.’ (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, Vol 1, Banner of Truth, p.584)
Seward’s death, at age 38, was a blow to the young movement. But it did not stop their passionate preaching. Undeterred, they continued to present the gospel to the masses in Britain.
It was a personal blow to Whitefield, both in terms of friendship and financial support. Seward was helping fund Whitefield’s Orphan House in Georgia and Whitefield now carried that financial burden alone. Tragically, Seward had not made a will (ibid, p.585)
Trusting in God’s Sovereignty
John Wesley wrote in his journal for Mon Oct 27th, ‘The surprising news of poor Mr Seward’s death was confirmed. Surely God will maintain his own cause! Righteous art thou O Lord!’
William Seward was a wealthy supporter of the work that George Whitefield and Howell Harris were doing.
He also helped John Wesley with generous funding for the meeting place in Bristol, even though Wesley was assuming a leadership role there that Seward felt excluded Whitefield (See here for how Whitefield began the work in Bristol).
Seward had accompanied these preachers and witnessed both the joys and dangers of massive crowds.
In 1740 he travelled with Howell Harris in Wales and records several occasions when the crowds became violent.
Seward with Howell Harris
On Sept 9 he wrote, ‘We had been singing and praying and discoursing for half an hour when the mob began to be outrageous, and to pelt us…till at length I was struck with a stone upon my eye, which caused me so much anguish that I was forced to go away to the Inn.
‘Bro. Harris continued to discourse for some time afterward…I got my eye dressed and went to bed as soon as possible.
The next morning they went out again, preaching in the same place to the same crowds.
Stones, dirt, a cat and a dead dog
Seward writes, ‘We had continual showers of stones, walnuts, dirt, a cat and also a dead dog thrown at us…
‘I was struck on my forehead and under my right eye again, and also on my side with a stone.
‘A drum was ordered to be beat, which drowned [our] voices…the Book [the Bible] was all covered with dirt.
‘After Bro. Harris had done, I spoke a few words, but I found my call was more to suffer than to preach.’ (from William Seward, ‘Journal of a Voyage from Savannah to Philadelphia and from Philadelphia to England’ p.27)
Perhaps he should have backed down. Perhaps he should have let others do the preaching. Perhaps…
Seward would accompany Harris again in October, 1740 as Harris preached powerfully to hostile crowds. It would be the last time Seward would share in the struggle to bring Britain to Christ.
Howell Harris did not only preach in Wales, of course, but ventured into England as well.
On one occasion he was preaching with fellow Methodist John Cennick in Swindon in Wiltshire, South West England.
Before long there was a strong reaction and considerable gang of trouble makers were out to stop these Evangelists from preaching.
Threatened with Guns
Cennick wrote, ‘The mob fired guns over our heads, holding the muzzles so near to our faces that Howell Harris and myself were both made as black as tinkers with the powder. We were not affrighted, but opened our breasts, telling them we were ready to lay down our lives.…
Splattered with Sewerage
‘Then they got dust out of the highway and covered us all over; and then they played an engine upon us, which they filled out of the stinking ditches.
‘While they played on brother Harris, I preached; and when they turned the engine upon me, he preached. This they continued till they spoiled the engine; and they threw whole buckets of water and mud over us.
‘After we left the town, they dressed up two images, called one Cennick and the other Harris, and then burnt them.
The home and family of the hospitable attacked
The next day they gathered about the home of Mr. Lawrence, who had received us, and broke all of his windows with stones, cut and wounded four of his family, and knocked down one of his daughters.’ (John Cennick, Memorable Passages relating to the Awakening in Wiltshire (unpublished, but referred to in Dallimore, George Whitefield, Wakeman Press, p.142, and Christian History)
Pressing on until grace wins
Yet these heroes continued to proclaim the gospel message, overcoming the resistance and transforming the culture. If ever we needed an encouragement to persevere then here it is, in the heroism of the 18th Century Evangelists.
The Evangelist preaches, is resisted, rejected and then covered in sewerage and beaten ruthlessly.
Hugh Hughes, in his biography of Harris describes one scene in Bala, Wales, in 1741. Howell Harris, the great pioneer of outdoor preaching during the Great Awakening, received a beating at the hands of violent men and women.
Suffering for Christ
Hughes writes, ‘The women were as fiendish as the men, for they besmeared him with mire, while their companions belaboured him with their fists and clubs, inflicting such wounds that his path could be marked in the street by the crimson stains of his blood.’
‘The enemy continued to persecute him…striking him with sticks and with staves, until overcome with exhaustion, he fell to the ground…They still abused him, though prostrate…’ (Hugh J Hughes Life of Howell Harris, p.142-3, quoted in Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, Wakeman Press)
Empowered by the Spirit
Describing his resilience at another similar time of violent reaction, Harris wrote, ‘Had bullets been shot at me, I felt I should not move. Mob raged. Voice lifted up, and though by the power going with the words my head almost went to pieces, such was my zeal that I cried, ‘I’ll preach Christ till to pieces I fall!’ (ibid p.142)
Peter wrote, ‘But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.’ (1 Peter 4:13-14)
Certainly Harris was conscious of the power of the Holy Spirit resting upon him at such times. John Wesley also reports a similar experience of peace in the midst of sometimes violent storms.
While it may be difficult for us to imagine that the pleasure and power of God might rest upon us at a time of persecution, nevertheless those who have suffered prove the promise of Scripture to be true.
Early Irritations and Scares
As the popularity of the movement grew, the Methodist preachers found that they were involved in a battle that, although spiritual, often found a physical expression.
Not only did they face resistance from the clergy, but actual violence from gangs who were often paid to disrupt the meetings.
Here are two accounts from John Wesley’s experience. By the way, this is about as far as you could possibly get from the ‘private jet, 5 Star only’ attitude of a few modern travelling religious celebrities.
The only frequent traveler reward that Wesley enjoyed was an extremely sore bottom! (He travelled hundreds of miles each year on horseback) But more of his personal sacrifice later.
Disturbances in the meeting rooms
This from Wesley’s Journal: ‘Tues 26th Jan, 1742
‘I explained at Chelsea, the faith which worketh by love. I was very weak when I went into the room;
‘but the more ‘the beasts of the people’ increased in madness and rage, the more was I strengthened, both in body and soul; so that I believe few in the house, which was exceedingly full, lost one sentence of what I spoke.
‘Indeed they could not see me, nor one another at a few yards’ distance, by reason of the exceeding thick smoke, which was occasioned by the wild fire, and things of that kind, continually thrown in to the room.
‘But they who could praise God in the midst of the fires, were not to be affrighted by a little smoke.’ (JW Journal, Vol 1, Baker edition, p.354)
A tortured bull is driven into the people and disturbs Wesley’s preaching
March 19, 1742: ‘I rode once more to Pensford at the earnest request of serious people. The place where they desired me to preach was a little green spot near the town.
‘But I had no sooner begun than a great company of rabble, hired (as we afterwards found) for that purpose, came furiously upon us, bringing a bull, which they had been baiting, and now strove to drive in among the people.
‘But the beast was wiser than his drivers and continually ran either on one side of us or the other, while we quietly sang praise to God and prayed for about an hour.
‘The poor wretches, finding themselves disappointed, at length seized upon the bull, now weak and tired after having been so long torn and beaten both by dogs and men; and, by main strength, partly dragged, and partly thrust, him in among the people.
‘When they had forced their way to the little table on which I stood, they strove several times to throw it down by thrusting the helpless beast against it, who, of himself, stirred no more than a log of wood.
‘I once or twice put aside his head with my hand that the blood might not drop upon my clothes; intending to go on as soon as the hurry should be over. But the table falling down, some of our friends caught me in their arms, and carried me right away on their shoulders; while the rabble wreaked their vengeance on the table, which they tore bit from bit.
‘We went a little way off, where I finished my discourse without any noise or interruption.’ (JW Journals, Baker edition, p.363)
This was actually just the beginning of the opposition to the gospel taking hold in England. Persecution has not been uncommon in the history of the Church.
There is, perhaps, comfort in the stories of yesterday to encourage us as we seek to graciously bring the good news of Jesus Christ into the places where God has sent us.
Although the Methodists enjoyed great successes they also endured terrible persecution which lasted several years.
But God gave them power to press through into victories. Historian John Simon writes:
‘If Methodism had not come into contact with the mob it would never have reached that section of the English people which most needed salvation.’ [He’s not right here. All sections of English society needed (and still need) salvation. What he means is that the Methodists could never have reach the majority of the population, and thus influenced the culture of English life without facing violence – a sobering thought!].
‘The ‘Religious Societies’ shut up in their rooms, would never have reformed the country.
‘A superb courage, rarely equalled on the battlefield’
‘It was necessary that a race of heroic men should arise, who would dare to confront the wildest and most brutal of men, and tell them the meaning of sin, and show them the Christ of the Cross and of the judgement throne.
‘The incessant assaults of the mob on the Methodist preachers showed they had reached the masses.
‘With a superb courage, rarely equalled on the battlefield, the Methodist preachers went again and again to the places from which they had been driven by violence, until their persistence wore down the antagonism of their assailants.
You may not agree with all of John Wesley’s theology. Indeed, some of his statements are baffling.
But one thing you can’t deny is that he was a seriously hard worker. His commitment to preaching and teaching and leading was phenomenal. And sometimes he got sick.
Weakness and Fever Here’s an incident from May 1741 which is encouraging. Wesley claims (and I have no reason to doubt the claim) that he was supernaturally healed mid-sermon!!
Friday 8th May, 1741 ‘I found myself much out of order. However, I made shift to preach in the evening: but on Saturday my bodily strength quite failed, so that for several hours I could scarce lift my head.
‘Sunday 10th. I was obliged to lie down most part of the day, being easy only in that posture.
‘Yet in the evening my weakness was suspended while I was calling sinners to repentance.
‘But at our love-feast which followed, beside the pain in my back and head, and the fever which still continued upon me, just as I began to pray, I was seized with such a cough that I could hardly speak.
Believing and Receiving ‘At the same time came strongly into my mind, ‘These signs shall follow them that believe.’ I called on Jesus aloud, to ‘increase my faith’ and to ‘confirm the word of his grace.’
‘While I was speaking, my pain vanished away; the fever left me; my bodily strength returned; and for many weeks I felt neither weakness nor pain. ‘Unto thee, O Lord, do I give thanks.’ (John Wesley Journal, Baker edition, Vol 1, p.310)
The American colonial town of Northampton (now MA), had experienced numerous seasons of spiritual excitement.
A Cycle of Harvests
Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards grandfather, had led the Northampton church from 1672 and had referred to a cycle of harvests which had brought many of its inhabitants to faith in Christ.
When Jonathan Edwards began his pastoral ministry there (beginning in 1727) he was also able to record amazing outpourings of the Holy Spirit.
George Whitefield’s visit to the town in 1740 seemed to fan into flame the longings and passions of a people hungry for the presence of God.
As Whitefield left Northampton for New York the work was continuing with great power.
‘Great attention in the town’
Edwards wrote, ‘there appeared an awakening and deep concern among some young persons who were in a Christless state…in about a month or six weeks, there was a great attention in the town, both as to the revival of professors [those already converted, or ‘professing’ faith] and the awakening of others.’ (Quoted in Jonathan Edwards, Iain Murray, Banner of Truth, p.164)
But this was no short lived excitement lasting only briefly after the Evangelists’ visit. In May 1741, Edwards preached in someone’s home and wrote that ‘one or two [believers] were so greatly affected with a sense of the greatness and glory of divine things’ that the impact was noticeable, ‘having a very visible effect upon their bodies.’
Indeed, he noted that after the regular church services that some of the folk attending were ‘so overcome that they could not go home, but were obliged to stay all night where they were.’ (ibid, p.165)
Iain Murray in his treatment of this period suggests that Edwards is referring to a morning or afternoon service and not an evening service, which can only mean that they were having these encounters with God for many hours!
‘Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.’ declared Edwards and he seemed surprisingly (refreshingly?) open to God’s Spirit moving in power upon the people as an undeniable feature of the revival.
If we look around the world today, at the great ‘harvests’ of South America, China and Africa it is practically impossible not to notice the similarity of phenomena, and the resultant increase of new followers of Christ.
The Holy Spirit is still powerfully active around the world and many thankful Christian leaders can echo Edwards’ words of 1741,
‘There was an appearance of a glorious progress of the work of God upon the hearts of sinners, in conviction and conversion, this summer and autumn, and great numbers, I think we have reason to hope, were brought savingly home to Christ.’ (ibid, p.165)
For more resources on Jonathan Edwards visit the excellent Jonathan Edwards Centre at Yale University here
In the autumn of 1740, English Evangelist George Whitefield finally met the man he had so respected, Jonathan Edwards. Both these men were Reformed, (or, ‘Calvinistic’) in their theology and practice, preaching the gospel fervently and trusting God to move the people to respond.
Whitefield had already blazed a trail of powerful evangelistic work in England, Scotland and Wales and had seen multiple thousands gathered to hear the message of Jesus Christ.
John Wesley, his brother Charles and a small army of newly converted leaders had taken up the movement in Britain and were not only continuing to proclaim the message to the unconverted but were gathering the new converts into small groups (classes) and mid-week congregations (or ‘societies’ as they called them).
Whitefield’s fame was now legendary, and his visits to colonial America had already been wildly successful. He had been born again only 5 years previously and was just 25 years old. Jonathan Edwards had been eager to meet him and to have him preach in the church he pastored in Northampton, New England.
Jonathan Edwards on George Whitefield’s Visit
In a letter to Thomas Prince, Edwards described the impact of Whitefield’s visit:
‘He preached here four sermons in the meeting-house (besides a private lecture at my house) – one on Friday, another on Saturday, and two upon the Sabbath.
‘The congregation was extraordinarily melted by every sermon; almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of sermon time.
‘Mr. Whitefield’s sermons were suitable to the circumstances of the town, containing just reproofs of our backslidings, and, in a most moving and affecting manner, making use of our great profession and great mercies as arguments with us to return to God, from whom we had departed.
‘Immediately after this, the minds of the people in general appeared more engaged in religion, showing a greater forwardness to make religion the subject of their conversation, and to meet frequently together for religious purposes, and to embrace all opportunities to hear the Word preached.
‘The revival at first appeared chiefly among professors and those that had entertained the hope that they were in a state of grace, to whom Mr. Whitefield chiefly addressed himself.
‘But in a very short time there appeared an awakening and deep concern among some young persons that looked upon themselves as in a Christless state; and there were some hopeful appearances of conversion; and some professors were greatly revived.
It’s great to see how God raised up an itinerating Evangelist to help a Pastor who was seeking to impact his town with the gospel. Their friendship and mutual respect continued for the rest of their lives.
To read George Whitefield’s remarkable comments on Jonathan and Sarah Edwards’ family life go here
Whitefield preaches in Edwards’ home
George Whitefield continues his account of meeting the Edwards family in Northampton in 1740:
‘In the Evening, I gave a Word of Exhortation to several that came to Mr. Edward’s House. My Body was somewhat weak; my Appetite almost gone; But my Lord gave me Meat, which the World knows nothing of.
‘Lord, evermore give me this Bread! Amen and Amen.
Saturday, October 18
‘At Mr Edwards’s Request, I spoke to his little Children, who were much affected.
Preached at Hadfield 5 Miles from Northampton, but found myself not much strengthened.
Conversed profitably on the Way about the Things of God with dear Mr. Edwards and preached about 4 in the Afternoon to his Congregation.’ (George Whitefield Journals, unedited version, Quinta Press – but see here for Banner of Truth edition)
Sarah Edwards – ‘Workers throw down their tools and go to hear him!’
Sarah Edwards, in a letter to her brother, recorded the general feeling that Whitefield’s visit produced on the town:
‘It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible. I have seen upwards of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence, broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob.
When he was just 25 years old, the English Evangelist George Whitefield visited the American town of Northampton, the town made famous bya revival in the 1730’s.
An article in the Princeton Theological Review (Vol 2, No.4, 1904), makes reference to the impact of the Great Awakening in both Great Britain and America, noting that ‘The chief personal bond between the two branches of this evangelistic movement was George Whitefield’.
One of the great joys of this visit, and of real interest to us, is the meeting and subsequent friendship of Whitefield and Edwards, the Evangelist and the Theologian.
Whitefield describes their meeting in his journal:
‘Friday, October 17, 1740
When I had taken a little Refreshment, we crossed the Ferry to Northampton, where no less than 300 Souls…were savingly brought Home to the dear Lord Jesus about 5 or 6 Years ago.
‘Their Pastor’s Name is Edwards, Successor and Grandson to the great Stoddard, whose Memory will be always precious to my Soul, and whose Books…I would recommend to all.
‘Mr. Edwards is a solid, excellent Christian, but at present weak in Body.
‘I think, I may say I have not seen his Fellow in all New-England. When I came into his Pulpit, I found my Heart drawn out to talk of scarce any Thing besides the Consolations and Privileges of Saints, and the plentiful Effusion of the Spirit upon the Hearts of Believers.
‘And, when I came to remind them of their former Experiences, and how zealous and lively they were at that Time, both Minister and People wept much; and the Holy Ghost enabled me to speak with a great deal of Power.’ (George Whitefield Journals, unedited version, Quinta Press – but see here for Banner of Truth edition)
And so, these two giants in their fields met and became firm friends.
We’re often told about how fragmented the Christian Church is. But actually, the true, final and eternal basis on which people will be united is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although we live in a fallen world, the reality of this unity can be experienced even now. And even though we are not unrealistic about our differences, every Christian at one time or another has known the joy of this unity in Christ.
On Tuesday 27 November 1739, George Whitefield visited Germantown, Philadelphia. What is inspiring here is that Whitfield’s visit drew together individuals, denominational leaders and people of varying ethnic backgrounds into a united experience of worship.
This kind of evangelistic moment prefigures the coming reality of Rev 7:9-10 (NIV) which says,
‘After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb…they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God!”’
Unity because of the Power of the Holy Spirit
Whitefield records the following:
‘Tuesday Nov 27 – According to appointment, I preached at German Town, seven miles from Philadelphia, from a balcony, to above six thousand people.
God strengthened me to speak nearly two hours, with such demonstration of the Spirit, that great numbers continued weeping for a considerable time.
I have not seen a more gracious melting for a considerable time. After I had done, people came to shake me by the hand, and invited me to their houses, and fresh places…
I had sweet converse, and felt a blessed union and communion with many souls, though of different nations and professions.
I think there are no less than fifteen denominations of Christians in German Town, and yet all agree in one thing, that is, to hold Jesus Christ as their Head, and to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
The gift of the Evangelist, as described in Ephesians 4, is a means of bringing the church to maturity and to unity. Our efforts to produce unity apart from the gifts listed in Ephesians 4 (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, and Pastor/Teachers) will always fall short of our hopes.
The ascended Christ gives these specific gifts to cause the church to grow and to bring her to maturity and unity. Whitfield continues to serve as an inspiration to all who would seek such gospel unity.
(Part Three – see Part One and Two)
Nathan Cole and his wife had heard that the famous Evangelist George Whitefield would be preaching in Middletown, just 12 miles from their farm.
They immediately stopped what they were doing, saddled the horse and rode as fast as they could to get to the meeting place.
Cole describes how, as they approached Middletown, a great fog or cloud appeared. As they got nearer, it was clear that the fog was created by the hundreds of horses and carriages, and the thousands of people rushing and racing to get to the meeting place.
Finally, the young couple find a place among the four thousand gathered and wait until Whitefield appears.
Whitefield gets up to preach
He writes, ‘When I saw Mr Whitefield come up upon the scaffold he looked almost angelic.
‘A young, slim, slender youth before thousands of people and with a bold, undaunted countenance and my hearing how God was with him everywhere he went solemnized my mind and put me in a trembling fear before he began to preach.
‘For he looked as if he was clothed with authority from the great God.’
Whitefield preached passionately and powerfully. He spoke of how Jesus paid the price in full for our sins, how forgiveness is available through the cross, how a person can truly find peace with God through faith in Christ and receive His free righteousness. He told the people how God has made a way to forgive sins and bring us to heaven.
What the Evangelist Said
A short segment of his often preached sermon, ‘The Lord our Righteousness’ gives us an idea of what he would have said on this occasion. He has already preached the gospel and is now making his appeal for the people to respond to the message:
‘Alas, my heart almost bleeds! What a multitude of precious souls are now before me! How shortly must all be ushered into eternity! And yet, O cutting thought! Was God now to require all your souls, how few, comparatively speaking, could really say, ‘the Lord our righteousness!’
‘…You need not fear the greatness or number of your sins. For are you sinners? So am I. Are you the chief of sinners? So am I. Are you backsliding sinners? So am I. And yet the Lord (for ever adored be his rich, free and sovereign grace) the Lord is my righteousness.
Come then, O young man, who (as I acted once myself) are playing the prodigal, and wandering away afar off from your heavenly Father’s house, come home, come home, and leave your swine’s trough. Feed no longer on the husks of sensual delights: for Christ’s sake arise, and come home!
‘Your heavenly Father now calls you. See yonder the best robe, even the righteousness of his dear Son, awaits you. See it, view it again and again.
‘Consider at how dear a rate it was purchased, even by the blood of God. Consider what great need you have of it. You are lost, undone, damned for ever, without it. Come then, poor, guilty prodigals, come home…’
A Broad Appeal to All
During this evangelistic appeal, he is eager that no-one be left out. He speaks specifically to young women, to young men, to merchants, to the slaves listening, to those ‘of middle age’, to the children, to those in their later years:
‘Alas, you have one foot already in the grave, your glass is just run out, your sun is just going down, and it will set and leave you in an eternal darkness, unless the Lord be your righteousness! Flee then, O flee for your lives!’
Nathan Cole, standing with his wife, in the midst of thousands, listening to Whitefield, said this:
‘My hearing him preach gave me a heart wound and by God’s blessing my old foundation was broken up and I saw that my righteousness would not save me.’
Cole did finally come to Christ and was changed forever. (Sources: Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield Vol.1, Banner of Truth, p541 and John Pollock, George Whitefield, Hodder, p164f)
What about us?
Where do you stand with God today? These truths are not only for yesterday but for today. You can come to Christ today.
Perhaps you are already a follower of Christ. Do you know something of this passion to communicate the gospel to others? Are you eager to see those you work with come to Christ?
Wherever you are, in whatever circumstance, you can appeal to God for mercy because of what Jesus has done for you. He came, He died, He rose again and He will hear your prayer and help you come into a genuine relationship with Him. Sins can be washed away, life can be transformed and you can become a part of God’s great purpose in the earth.
If you don’t know what to do there may be a church near you listed here or try here for more help.
‘The Lord our Righteousness’ is published in ‘The Select Sermons of George Whitefield’ (Banner of Truth). You can order it here.
A young couples’ morning is turned upside down when they hear news that George Whitefield, the famous English Evangelist, will be preaching in a nearby town.
It’s October 23 1740, and farmer Nathan Cole throws down his tools, runs to the house, unties the horse and he and his wife begin the fervent race towards the field where Whitefield is about to preach.
They had to cover 12 miles in a short time. But as they discovered, thousands of others were eagerly running, riding, racing towards the great event.
If you are picking up the story here then you might like to read Part One.
(Part Two) A low rumbling thunder
Nathan continues the story:
‘Then I saw before me a great cloud or fog.
‘I first thought it was from the great river but as I came nearer the road I heard a noise something like a low rumbling thunder and I presently found out it was the rumbling of horses feet coming down the road and this cloud was a cloud of dust made by the running of horses feet.
‘It rose high into the air above the tops of the hills and trees.
‘And when I came closer into the cloud I could see men and horses slipping along – it was like a steady stream of horses and their riders, scarcely a horse more than his length behind another all of a lather and foam with sweat, their breath rolling out of their nostrils.
‘I found a [gap] between two horses to slip in my horse. No one spoke a word but everyone pressing forward with great haste.
‘When we got down to the old meeting house there was a great multitude. It was said to be three or four thousand and when I looked towards the great river I could see ferry boats running swift forwards and backwards bringing over loads of people, and the oars rowed nimble and quick.
‘Everything, men, horses and boats seemed to be struggling for life.’
(Sources: Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield Vol.1, Banner of Truth, p541 and John Pollock, George Whitefield, Hodder, p164f)
(Part One) Four Thousand Gather in an American Field
The same power, which attended George Whitefield’s evangelistic meetings in Britain, was also very evident in America.
Let’s take a closer look at the kind of excitement generated when it was announced that he would be preaching. There is little doubt that the description of the gathering we are about to enjoy is not exceptional but was rather typical of Great Awakening meetings certainly until 1745 in America.
On October 23 1740, during his second American visit, he preached at Middletown, Connecticut. Whitefield states in his Journal with unpretentious familiarity, ‘Preached to about four thousand people at eleven o’clock.’
Obviously, he felt there was nothing particularly unusual about the meeting. History has, however, preserved a spectator’s account of the same meeting, which makes fascinating reading.
Nathan Cole, one of the 4000 present, describes the scene when the news that Whitefield would preach was announced:
‘Now it pleased God to send Mr. Whitefield into this land and I longed to see and hear him.
‘Then one morning, all on a sudden, there came a messenger who said, ‘Mr. Whitefield is to preach at Middletown this morning at 10 O’clock.
‘I was in my field at work. I dropped my tool that I had in my hand and ran home and through the house and bade my wife to get ready quick to go and hear Mr. Whitefield preach.
‘I ran to my pasture for my horse with all my might, fearing that I should be too late to hear him and took up my wife and went forward as fast as I thought the horse could bear,
‘and when my horse began to be out of breath I would get down and put my wife on the saddle and bid her ride as fast as she could and not stop or slack for me except I told her.
‘And so I would run until I was almost out of breath and then mount my horse again.
‘We improved every moment to get along as though we were fleeing for our lives, fearing we should be too late to hear the sermon, for we had twelve miles to ride in little more than an hour.’
(Sources: Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield Vol.1, Banner of Truth, p541 and John Pollock, George Whitefield, Hodder, p164f) To be continued…
Wesley was miraculously healed while reading Paul on predestination
There are several accounts of physical healings during the Great Awakening.
But one is particularly amazing, seeing as it happened to John Wesley, avowed opponent of the Doctrine of Predestination. Now that statement cries out for explanation, so without any further ado let’s cut to Wesley’s journal entry for the period of 15th to 17th May 1739:
‘Wed 15 – I explained at Greyhound Lane, the latter part of the fourth chapter to the Ephesians. I was so weak in body, that I could hardly stand; but my spirit was much strengthened.
Bed-ridden all day
‘I found myself growing sensibly weaker all Thursday; so that on Friday, 17, I could scarce get out of bed, and almost as soon as I was up, was constrained to lie down again.
‘Nevertheless I made shift to drag myself on, in the evening, to Short’s Gardens.
‘Having, not without difficulty, got up the stairs, I read those words, (though scarce intelligibly, for my voice too was almost gone), ‘Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate.’ (Romans 8:29)
Instant healing while reading about God’s predestinating grace
‘In a moment both my voice and strength returned: And from that time, for some weeks, I found such bodily strength as I had never done before, since my landing in America.’ (JW Journals, Baker edition, p. 306-7)
It’s amazing that God would heal Wesley, who had so misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty in salvation, while he was reading that particular verse. But it didn’t soften him up or even cause him to pause.
When Wesley decided to preach so vehemently against predestination (and, therefore against Whitefield and Edwards) he asked that God would confirm his position. When the Spirit began to touch people with power, Wesley wrongly interpreted that as a divine confirmation of his rejection of predestination.
Why wasn’t Wesley consistent and view his instant healing as an endorsement of the verse? Because he’d already drawn a lot, to ‘preach and print’ against the Reformed position.
So the healing didn’t turn Wesley from his Arminianism to either a Reformed or a Charismatic position, nor did it cause him to become a forerunner of the modern Reformed Charismatic movement!
Wesley continued in his prejudice against election and probably interpreted the healing as God strengthening him to contradict the doctrine.
Shame that! Because of Wesley’s somewhat flawed (and inconsistent) means of gaining guidance, his continued determination to publicly blast election effectively divided the new converts’ loyalty, created bickering within the new movement, and caused energy to be directed away from the mission and onto this important, though secondary issue.
And that, folks, is why Wesley nearly (coulda, shoulda), but didn’t become a Reformed Charismatic!!
In a future post we’ll look at the experience of someone in the midst of the crowd of thousands listening to Evangelist George Whitefield.
We’ll get an idea of the excitement on hearing that he was to preach, the growing expectation as Whitefield arrives at the venue and then the power of the preaching as lives are changed.
But before we get there it will be instructive for us to hear Whitefield’s inner thoughts and excitement as he enjoyed regular scenes of crowds in excess of 10,000. A nation was being transformed by gospel preaching and Whitefield had the privilege of spearheading the movement.
Londoners Love Whitefield!
Of various London open-air meetings in mid-1739 he writes:
‘Preached this morning at Moorfields, to about twenty thousand, and God manifested Himself still more and more. My discourse was near two hours long.
‘My heart was full of love, and people were so melted down on every side…’
‘Great numbers were in tears…’
‘Preached at Kennington…with much sweetness and power…’
London is a City of Huge Congregations
It is at this point, when the massive crowds were so regular in their attendance that Whitefield calls the gatherings in Kennington, ‘my usual congregation’!
It was not until the 20th century when Christian ministers could rightly refer to normal church gatherings of ten or twenty thousand as their ‘regular congregations’.
Londoners Love Preaching!
London was in the midst of a full-on move of God. Whitefield describes preaching in Mayfair, ‘near Hyde Park Corner’ to a congregation that was estimated at being nearly 80,000 people!
Where you live in the world right now probably determines your response to that number. If you’re reading this in Nigeria, or in South America where much larger crowds have gathered in the open air to hear a visiting Evangelist you’re probably knowingly celebrating. But if you’re in Europe your tendency might be to question the estimate and want to bring it down by at least 50%. OK! Let’s bring it down by 50% – now let’s imagine 40,000 Londoners gathering to hear about Jesus!
Whatever the precise size, Whitefield wrote, ‘It was by far the largest I ever preached to yet. A high and very commodious scaffold was erected for me to stand upon…’
He preached with mighty power and passion, and finishes his description of that meeting by saying, ‘All love, all glory, be to God through Christ.’
Blackheath, Hampstead Heath, Chatham, Shadwell were on the periphery of London (‘Blessed be God!’, said GW, ‘We begin to surround this great city!’) Kennington Common, Moorfields, Mayfair, Bexley, Hackney and many other boroughs and suburbs – Londoners were suddenly craving the gospel. The foremost city of the 18th Century world was waking up and turning to Christ.
‘I have seen the Kingdom of God come with power!’
‘Oh what marvellous great kindness has God shown me in this great city!’ Whitefield wrote in his journal, ‘Indeed, I have seen the kingdom of God come with power!’
Oh London, London! Why don’t you spend a few moments praying for the gospel to have great success once again in that great city.