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WHITEFIELD – PREACHER OF THE AGES

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached on Lord’s Day Evening, April 23, 2006
at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles

“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).


George Whitefield (pronounced Whitfield) was an astounding preacher from the beginning. At the age of twenty-two, they said, “His voice startled England like a trumpet blast.” For the next thirty-four years his preaching resounded throughout England, Scotland, Wales and America. Although he was attacked by his own denomination, and shut out of every one of their churches in London, he became the greatest Anglican (Episcopalian) of all time. Attacked by the press and by angry mobs, he became – preacher of the ages! At a time when London had a population of less than 700,000, he could hold 20,000 of them at a time spellbound for nearly two hours. Although he was a thoroughgoing Calvinist, yet he was unrivaled as an aggressive evangelist. Although he was an ordained minister of the Church of England [Episcopalian], yet he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean thirteen times to become the leader of the First Great Awakening in America. Although he was the favorite preacher of coal miners and London roughnecks, yet he was an equal favorite of many in the nobility and many scholars. Although he began his ministry as a slim, angelic-looking youth, yet he stormed in his preaching as though he were a giant. Although he was a graduate of Oxford, yet his greatest impact was among the poor. Although he preached for Jonathan Edwards and the Presbyterians of New England, yet it was the Baptists of the American South who seem to have benefited most from his evangelism. Preaching two to five times a day, seven days a week, he never took a vacation for thirty-four years. Rising at 4:00 every morning, he preached each day to large crowds in the early morning, counselled the lost by the hour, answered literal trunkloads of mail, read the many volumes of Matthew Henry’s Commentary through every year on his knees, preached again every evening, and seldom went to sleep until eleven or twelve at night. He once said, “I sleep and eat but little, and am constantly employed from morning until midnight.”

In a time when there was no sound amplification, his great voice could be heard by thousands. Benjamin Franklin published Whitefield’s sermons. One day Franklin went to hear him in Philadelphia. As Whitefield preached, Franklin walked farther and farther away, stopping from time to time to see if he could still hear Whitefield’s voice. Franklin said, “I computed that he [could] be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconciled me to [made me believe] the newspaper accounts of his having preached to twenty-five thousand in the fields.”

Lord Bolingbroke called him, “The most extraordinary man of our times.” Spurgeon said, “Often as I read his life I am conscious of distinct quickening…He lived. Other men seemed to be only half-alive; but Whitefield was all life, fire [and] force. My own model…is George Whitefield; but with unequal footsteps must I follow in his glorious [path].”

The mere announcement, “Whitefield will preach” would rouse a whole community to go hear him. One of his hearers, Nathan Cole – a farmer, wrote,      Now it pleased God to send Mr. Whitefield into this land; and hearing of his preaching at Philadelphia, like one of the old apostles, and thousands flocking to hear him preach, and great numbers converted to Christ; I felt the Spirit of God drawing me by conviction.
      Then one morning there came a messenger and said Mr. Whitefield [was] to preach this morning at 10 o’clock. I was in my field [at work], dropt my tool [that I had in my hand] and ran home and [told] my wife to get ready quick, and ran to my pasture for my horse, and went as fast as I thought my horse could bear, and when my horse began to be out of breath, would get down and put my wife on the saddle and bid her ride as fast as she could and not stop for me except I [told] her, and so would run until I was almost out of breath and then mount my horse again, and we [went] along as if we were fleeing for our lives, all the while fearing we would be too late, for we had twelve miles to ride…in little more than an hour.
      And when we came within about half a mile of the road; I saw before me a cloud or fog. As I came nearer the road I heard a noise, something like a low rumbling thunder, and presently found out it was the rumbling of horses’ feet coming down the road. A cloud of dust arose some [distance] into the air, from the horses, [hanging] over the tops of the hills and trees. I could see men and horses slipping along. I found a vacancy between two horses to slip in my horse, and my wife said, “Our clothes will be all spoiled [and dirty from the dust].” And when we got down to the old [church] there was a great multitude. I looked toward the great river [and I saw] the ferry boats running swiftly [back and forth, bringing more people]. I heard no [one] speak a word, but everyone pressed forward in great haste. Three or four thousand people [were] assembled together. I turned and looked toward the river and saw [more] ferry boats bringing over loads of people; the land and banks along the river looked black with people and horses all along the twelve mile [ride]. I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone.
      When I saw Mr. Whitefield come upon the [platform] he looked almost angelical, a young, slim, slender youth [standing] before thousands of people with a bold, undaunted [face], and he looked as if he was clothed with authority from the Great God. It solemnized my mind and put me in a trembling fear, for he looked as if he was clothed with authority and a sweet solemnity sat upon his [face]. And my hearing him preach gave me a heart wound; by God’s blessing my [false religious] foundation was broken up, and I saw that my [own] righteousness could not save me.

Nathan Cole has given us an insight into how Whitefield’s great crowds were gathered. Another man told about a sermon he preached in Boston. A storm was approaching as he started to preach in an outdoor field. Whitefield began his sermon, “See [that cloud], that emblem of human life,” he said as he pointed to a [cloud]. “It passed for a moment and [hid] the brightness of heaven from our view; but it is gone [now]. And where will you be, my hearers, when your lives have passed away like that dark cloud? Oh, my dear friends…in a few days we shall all meet at the Judgment seat of Christ. We shall [be] part of that vast assemblage which shall gather at His throne.”

Whitefield went on to plead with his hearers, directing his words to “false and hollow Christians,” then to “rich men,” and finally to the “sinner.” Then he said with a loud voice, “Let not the fires of eternity be [lit] for you.” Pointing to a flash of lightning in the sky, he cried, “See there! It is a glance from the angry eye of Jehovah [God]! [Listen]!” He continued, raising his finger in a listening attitude as the thunder broke in a tremendous crash, that shook the earth, “It is the voice of the Almighty [God] as He passes by in His anger.”

As the thunder passed away, Whitefield covered his face with his hands, and fell to his knees in prayer. The storm passed quickly and a large rainbow appeared in the sky. Rising and pointing to it, Whitefield cried, “Look upon the rainbow, and Him who made it. It shows the peace of God that He will give to those who come to Christ for salvation.” Thousands of people, under conviction of sin, dropped to their knees in prayer that God in Christ would spare them.

Whitefield was asked for permission to publish the sermon, but added, “Yes, if you include the lightning and thunder.” The problem with reading his sermons is that the power of the man’s great voice does not come through on the printed page.

When Whitefield came back to England from America, he found that the churches were closed to him. Most of the ministers had never liked his strong preaching on the absolute necessity of the New Birth. There was a great deal of jealousy among the preachers, and they closed the doors of their churches to him. At one church, St. Mary’s church in Islington, he was just about to enter the pulpit when the officials of the church stopped him. They closed the service quietly. Then Whitefield led the people out of the church and preached to them in the graveyard next door. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “All of this aggravated the situation, and the attacks that were made upon him became really unbelievable…However, it did not make any difference. He began to preach in the open fields around London at this time, and thousands always gathered to hear him. When it was heard that he was in the neighborhood and about to preach, shopkeepers shut their shops at once, for they [wanted] to hear him. Business men forgot their business, farmers put down their tools. He could get a congregation of thousands any time of day or night. He could get them [to come] in snow, sleet, frost, rain – it did not matter what the [weather] was like. In America in one very cold winter they…used to stand by the thousands listening to this man preach the gospel, and they would travel endless distances in order to get this great opportunity and privilege.” That’s the description given by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great Welsh preacher of the twentieth century.

Next Sunday night I will try to give you an explanation for all this. Dr. Lloyd-Jones said, “It is very difficult for us to conceive it, is it not? We are living in very poor days,” when few people are as interested in hearing the gospel and being converted, as they were in the time of Whitefield and Wesley in the First Great Awakening. I will not try to give you an explanation of Whitefield’s success tonight. I’ll do that next Sunday night. Tonight I will simply end this biographical sermon with the opening text, which was a favorite of Whitefield’s. Christ said,

“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

Let every person here this evening make that the main goal of his life, as George Whitefield did. Pour yourself into the soul-saving work of evangelism as he did. Do all you can to bring the lost into this church building to hear the gospel, to hear us preach, “Ye must be born again;” to hear us preach Christ crucified, to make restitution to God for your sins; to hear us preach Christ resurrected from the dead, now alive in Heaven, ready to pardon any sinner who comes to Him by simple faith.

Let us throw ourselves into the great work of evangelizing lost souls. Do all you can to help us bring them under the sound of real, soul-converting preaching. As Whitefield did, do all you can to obey the command of Christ:

“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

Perhaps you have been touched by hearing of the hard work and intense zeal of George Whitefield. Perhaps you would like, once again, to dedicate yourself to the greatest human work of all – the work of evangelism. If you wish to renew that dedication, please stand, come forward, and kneel here at the altar in front of the pulpit. You come as Mr. Griffith sings that song again, by Dr. John R. Rice, titled, “So Little Time.” As Mr. Griffith sings, you come.

(END OF SERMON)
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Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Mark 16:9-16.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“So Little Time” (by Dr. John R. Rice, 1895-1980).