J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

The Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago online

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truths to the reformation of England a hundred years ago
What God has blessed it ill becomes man to despise.



Whitefiekrs Birth-place and Parentage — Educated at Gloucester Grammar School — Enters
Pembroke College, Oxford — Season of Spiritual Conflict — Books which were made
useful to him — Ordained by Bishop Benson — First Sermon — Preaches in London —
Curate of Dummer, Hants — Goes to America— Returns in a Year — Preaches in the
open air— Is excluded from most London Pulpits — Extent of his Labours for thirty-one
years — Dies at Newbury Port, America, in 1770 — Interestingcircumstances of his Death.

HO were the men that revived rehgion in England a
hundred years ago 1 What were their names, that we
may do them honour '? Where were they born 1 How
were they educated '? What are the leading facts in their lives 1
What was their special department of labour ? To these questions
I wish to supply some answers in the present and future chapters.

I pity the man who takes no interest in such inquiries. The
instruments that God employs to do his work in the world
deserve a close inspection. The man who did not care to look
at the rams' horns that blew down Jericho, the hammer and
nail that slew Sisera, the lamps and trumpets of Gideon, the
sling and stone of David, might fairly be set down as a cold
and heartless person. I trust that all who read this volume
will like to know something about the English evangelists of the
eighteenth century.

The first and foremost whom I will name is the well-known
George Whitefield. Though not the first in order, if we look


at the date of his birth, I place him first in the order of merit,
without any hesitation. Of all the spiritual heroes of a hundred
years ago none saw so soon as Whitefield what the times
demanded, and none were so forward in the great work of
spiritual aggression. I should think I committed an act of
injustice if I placed any name before his.

Whitefield was born at Gloucester in the year 1 7 1 4. That
venerable county-town, which was his birth-place, is connected
with more than one name which ought to be dear to every
lover of Protestant truth. Tyndal, one of the first and ablest
translators of the English Bible, was a Gloucestershire man.
Hooper, one of the greatest and best of our English reformers,
was Bishop of Gloucester, and was burned at the stake for
Christ's truth, within view of his own cathedral, in Queen
Mary's reign. In the next century Miles Smith, Bishop of
Gloucester, was one of the first to protest against the Romaniz-
ing proceedings of Laud, who was then Dean of Gloucester.
In fact, he carried his Protestant feeling so far that, when Laud
moved the communion-table in the cathedral to the east end,
and placed it for the first time "altar-wise," in 1616, Bishop
Smith was so nmch offended that he refused to enter the walls
of the cathedral from that day till his death. Places like
Gloucester, we need not doubt, have a rich entailed inheritance
of many prayers. The city where Hooper preached and
prayed, and where the zealous Miles Smith protested, was the
place where the greatest preacher of the gospel England has
ever seen was born.

Like many other famous men, Whitefield was of humble
origin, and had no rich or noble connections to help him for-
ward in the world. His mother kept the Bell Inn at Glouces-
ter, and appears not to have prospered in business ; at any
rate, she never seems to have been able to do anything for
W^hitefield's advancement in life. The inn itself is still stand-
ing, and is reputed to be the birth-place, not only of our greatest


English preacher, but also of a well-knowi^ EngHsh prelate — ■
Henry Philpot, Bishop of Exeter. a

Whitefield's early life, according to his own account, was
anything but religious ; though, like many boys, he had occa-
sional prickings of conscience and spasmodic fits of devout
feeling. But habits and general tastes are the only true test of
young people's characters. He confesses that he was " addicted
to lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting," and that he was
a " Sabbath-breaker, a theatre-goer, a card-player, and a
romance-reader." All this, he says, went, on till he was fifteen
years old.

Poor as he was, his residence at Gloucester procured him the
advantage of a good education at the Free Grammar School of
that city. Here he was a day-scholar until he was fifteen.
Nothing is known of his progress there. He can hardly, how-
ever, have been quite idle, or else he would not have been
ready to enter an University afterwards at the age of eighteen.
His letters, moreover, show an acquaintance with Latin, in the
shape of frequent quotations, which is seldom acquired, if not
picked up at school. The only known fact about his school-
days is this curious one, that even then he was remarkable for
his good elocution and memory, and was selected to recite
speeches before the Corporation of Gloucester at their annual
visitation of the Grammar School.

At the age of fifteen Whitefield appears to have left school,
and to have given up Latin and Greek for a season. In all
probability, his mother's straitened circumstances made it abso-
lutely necessary for him to do something to assist her in busi-
ness and to get his own living. He began, therefore, to help
her in the daily work of the Bell Inn. " At length," he
says, " I put on my blue apron, washed cups, cleaned rooms,
and, in one word, became a professed common drawer for nigh
a year and a half"

This state of things, however, did not last long. His mother's


business at the Bell did not flourish, and she finally retired from
it altogether. ' An old school-fellow revived in his mind the
idea of going to Oxford, and he went back to the Grammar
School and renewed his studies. Friends were raised up who
made interest for him at Pembroke College, Oxford, where the
Grammar School of Gloucester held two exhibitions. And at
length, after several providential circumstances had smoothed
the way, he entered Oxford as a servitor at Pembroke at the age
of eighteen,*

Whitefield's residence at Oxford was the great turning-point
in his life. For two or three years before he went to the Uni-
versity his journal tells us that he had not been without religious
convictions. But from the time of his entering Pembroke College
these convictions fast ripened into decided Christianity. He
diligently attended all means of grace within his reach. He
spent his leisure time in visiting the city prison, reading to the
prisoners, and trying to do good. He became acquainted with
the famous John Wesley and his brother Charles, and a little
band of hke-minded young men, including the well-known author
of " Theron and Aspasio," James Hervey. These were tlie de-
voted party to whom the name " JNIethodists " was first applied,
on account of their strict " method " of living. At one time he
seems to have greedily devoured such books as " Thomas a
Kempis," and " Castanuza's Spiritual Combat," and to have been
in danger of becoming a semi-papist, an ascetic, or a mystic,
and of placing the whole of religion in self-denial. He says in
his Journal, " I always chose the worst sort of food. I fasted
twice a week. My apparel was mean. I thought it unbecom-
ing a penitent to have his hair powdered. I wore woollen gloves,
a patched gown, and dirty shoes ; and though I was convinced

* Happening to be at Oxford in June 1865, I went to Pembroke College, and asked
whether any one knew the rooms which Whitefield occupied when he was at Oxford.
The porter informed me that nothing whatever was known about them. The rooms which
the famous Dr. Johnson occupied at Pembroke are still pointed out. Johnson left Oxford
just before Whitefield went up.

(id:.) 3


that the knigdom of God did not consist in meat and drink, yet
I resolutely persisted in these voluntary acts of self-denial,
because I found in them great promotion of the spiritual life."
Out of all this darkness he was gradually delivered, partly by
the advice of one or two experienced Christians, and partly by
reading such books as Scougal's " Life of God in the Heart of
Man," Law's " Serious Call," Baxter's " Call to the Unconverted,"
Alleine's " Alarm to Unconverted Sinners," and Matthew
Henry's " Commentary." " Above all," he says, " my mind
being now more opened and enlarged, I began to read the Holy
Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and
praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved
meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received
fresh life, light, and power from above. I got more true know-
ledge from reading the book of God in one month than I could
ever have acquired from all the writings of men." Once taught
to understand the glorious liberty of Christ's gospel, Whitefield
never turned again to asceticism, legalism, mysticism, or strange
views of Christian perfection. The experience received by bitter
conflict was most valuable to him. The doctrines of free grace,
once thoroughly grasped, took deep root in his heart, and
became, as it were, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Of
all the little band of Oxford methodists, none seem to have got
hold so soon of clear views of Christ's gospel as he did, and
none kept it so unwaveringly to the end.

At the early age of twenty-two Whitefield was admitted to
holy orders by Bishop Benson of Gloucester, on Trinity Sunday,
1736. His ordination was not of his own seeking. The bishop
heard of his character from Lady Selwyn and others, sent for
him, gave him five guineas to buy books, and offered to ordain
him, though only twenty-two years old, whenever he wished.
This unexpected offer came to him when he was full of scruples
about his own fitness for the ministry. It cut the knot and
brought him to the point of decision. " I began to think."


he says, " that if I held out longer I should fight against

Whitefield's first sermon was preached in the very town where
he was born, at the church of St. Mary-le-Crypt, Gloucester.
His own description of it is the best account that can be given :
— " Ldst Sunday, in the afternoon, I preached my first sermon
in the church of St. Mary-le-Crypt, where I was baptized, and
also first received the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Curiosity,
as you may easily guess, drew a large congregation together
upon this occasion. The sight at first a little awed me. But
I was comforted with a heartfelt sense of the divine presence,
and soon found the unspeakable advantage of having been
accustomed to public speaking when a boy at school, and of
exhorting the prisoners and poor people at their private houses
while at the university. By these means I was kept from being
daunted overmuch. As I proceeded I perceived the fire kindled,
till at last, though so young and am.idst a crowd of those who
knew me in my childish days, I trust I was enabled to speak
with some degree of gospel authority. Some few mocked, but
most seemed for the present struck ; and I have since heard
that a complaint was made to the bishop that I drove fifteen
mad the first sermon ! The worthy prelate wished that the
madness might not be forgotten before next Sunday."

Almost immediately after his ordination, Whitefield went to
Oxford and took his degree as Bachelor of Arts. He then
commenced his regular ministerial life by undertaking tempo-
rary duty at the Tower Chapel, London, for two months. While
engaged there he preached continually in many London churches;
and among others, in the parish churches of Islington, Bishops-
gate, St. Dunstan's, St. Margaret's, Westminster, and Bow,
Cheapside. From the very first he obtained a degree of popu-
larity such as no preacher, before or since, has probably ever
reached. Whether on week-days or Sundays, wherever he
preached, the churches were crowded, and an immense sensa-


tion was produced. The plain truth is, that a really eloquent,
extempore preacher, preaching the pure gospel with most un-
common gifts of voice and manner, was at that time an entire
novelty in London. The congregations were taken by surprise
and carried by storm.

From London he removed for two months to Dummer, a
little rural parish in Hampshire, near Basingstoke. This was a
totally new sphere of action, and he seemed like a man buried
alive among poor illiterate people. But he was soon reconciled
to it, and thought afterwards that he reaped much profit by
conversing with the poor. From Dummer he accepted an
invitation, which had been much pressed on him by the Wesleys,
to visit the colony of Georgia in North America, and assist in
the care of an Orphan House which had been set up near
Savannah for the children of colonists. After preaching for a
few months in Gloucestershire, and especially at Bristol and
Stonehouse, he sailed for America in the latter part of 1737,
and continued there about a year. The affairs of this Orphan
House, it may be remarked, occupied much of his attention
from this period of his life till he died. Though well-meant, it
seems to have been a design of very questionable wisdom, and
certainly entailed on Whitefield a world of anxiety and responsi-
bility to the end of his days.

Whitefield returned from Georgia at the latter part of the
year 1738, partly to obtain priest's orders, which were conferred
on him by his old friend Bishop Benson, and partly on business
connected with the Orphan House. He soon, however, dis-
covered that his position was no longer what it was before he
sailed for Georgia. The bulk of the clergy were no longer
favourable to him, and regarded him with suspicion as an
enthusiast and a fanatic. They were especially scandalized by
his preaching the doctrine of regeneration or the new birth, as
a thing which many baptized persons greatly needed ! The
number of pulpits to which he had access rapidly diminished.


Churchwardens, who had no eyes for drunkenness and impurity,
were filled with intense indignation about what they called
" breaches of order." Bishops who could tolerate Arianism,
Socinianism, and Deism, were filled with indignation at a man
who declared fully the atonement of Christ and the work of the
Holy Ghost, and began to denounce him openly. In short,
from this period of his life, Whitefield's field of usefulness within
the Church of England narrowed rapidly on every side.

The step which at this juncture gave a turn to the whole
current of Whitefield's ministry was his adoption of the system
of open-air preaching. Seeing that thousands everywhere would
attend no place of worship, spent their Sundays in idleness or
sin, and were not to be reached by sermons within walls, he
resolved, in the spirit of holy aggression, to go out after them
" into the highways and hedges," on his Master's principle, and
" compel them to come in." His first attempt to do this was
among tli*e colliers at Kingswood near Bristol, in February 1739.
After much prayer he one day went to Hannam Mount, and
standing upon a hill began to preach to about a hundred colliers
upon j\Iatt. V. 1-3. The thing soon became known. The
number of hearers rapidly increased, till the congregation
amounted to many thousands. His own account of the be-
haviour of these neglected colliers, who had never been in a
church in their lives, is deeply aftecting : — " Having," he writes
to a friend, " no righteousness of their own to renounce, they
were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend to publicans, and
came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. The
first discovery of their being affected was the sight of the white
gutters made by their tears, which plentifully fell down their
black cheeks as they came out of their coal-pits. Hundreds of
them were soon brought under deep conviction, which, as the
event proved, happily ended in a sound and thorough conver-
sion. The change was visible to all, though numbers chose tc
impute it to anything rather than the finger of God. As the


scene was quite new, it often occasioned many inward conflicts.
Sometimes, when twenty thousand people were before me, I had
not in my own apprehension a word to say either to God or
them. But I was never totally deserted, and frequently (for to
deny it would be lying against God) was so assisted that I knew
by happy experience what our Lord meant by saying, ' Out of
his belly shall flow rivers of living water.' The open firmament
above me, the prospect of the adjacent fields, with the siglit of
thousands, some in coaches, some on horseback, and some in
the trees, and at times all aft'ected and in tears, was almost too
much for, and quite overcame me."

Two months after this Whitefield began the practice of open-
air preaching in London, on April 27, 1739. The circumstances
under which this happened were curious. He had gone to
Islington to preach for the vicar, his friend Mr. Stonehouse.
In the midst of the prayer the churchwardens came to him and
demanded his license for preaching in the diocese of London.
Whitefield, of course, had not got this license any more than
any clergyman not regularly officiating in the diocese has at
this day. The upshot of the matter was, that being forbidden
by the churchwardens to preach in the pulpit, he went outside
after the communion-service, and preached in the churchyard.
" And," says he, " God was pleased so to assist me in preaching,
and so wonderfully to aftect the hearers, that I believe we could
have gone singing hymns to prison. Let not the adversaries
say, I have thrust myself out of their synagogues. No ; they
have thrust me out."

From that day forward he became a constant field-preacher,
whenever weather and the season of the year made it possible.
Two days afterwards, on Sunday, April 29, he records: — "I
])reached in Moorfields to an exceeding great multitude. Being
weakened by my morning's preaching, I refreshed myself in
the afternoon by a little sleep, and at five went and preached
at Kennington Common, about two miles from London, when


no less than thirty thousand people were supposed to be pre-
sent." Henceforth, wherever there were large open spaces
round London, wherever there were large bands of idle, god-
less, Sabbath-breaking people gathered together, in Hackney
Fields, ]\Iary-le-bonne Fields, May Fair, Smithfield, Blackheath,
Moorfields, and Kennington Common, there went Whitefield
and lifted up his voice for Christ* The gospel so proclaimed
was listened to and greedily received by hundreds who never
dreamed of going to a place of worship. The cause of pure
religion was advanced, and souls were plucked from the hand
of Satan, like brands from the burning. But it was going much
too fast for the Church of those days. The clerg}-, with a few
honourable exceptions, refused entirely to countenance this
strange preacher. In the true spirit of the dog in the manger,
they neither liked to go after the semi-heathen masses of popu-
lation themselves, nor liked any one else to do the work for
them. The consequence was, that the ministrations of White-
field in the pulpits of the Church of England from this time
almost entirely ceased. He loved the Church in which he had
been ordained ; he gloried in her Articles ; he used her Prayer-
book with pleasure. But the Church did not love him, and so
lost the use of his services. The plain truth is, that the Church
of England of that day was not ready for a man like Whitefield.
The Church was too much asleep to understand him, and was
vexed at a man who would not keep still and let the devil alone.
The facts of Whitefield's history from this period to the day
of his death are almost entirely of one complexion. One year
was just like another ; and to attempt to follow him would be
only going repeatedly over the same ground. From 1739 to the
year of his death, 1770, a period of thirty-one years, his life was
one uniform employment. He was eminently a man of one thing,

* The reader will remember that all this happened a hundred years ago, when London was
comparatively a small place. Most of the open places where Whitefield preached are now
covered with buildings. Kennington Oval and Blackheath alone remain open at this day.


and always about his Master's business. From Sunday morn-
ings to Saturday nights, from the ist of January to the 31st of
December, excepting when laid aside by illness, he was almost
incessantly preaching Christ, and going about the world en-
treating men to repent and come to Christ and be saved.
There was hardly a considerable town in England, Scotland, or
Wales, that he did not visit as an evangelist. When churches
were opened to him he gladly preached in churches : when
only chapels could be obtained, he cheerfully preached in
chapels. When churches and chapels alike were closed, or
were too small to contain his hearers, he was ready and willing
to preach in the open air. For thirty-one years he laboured in
this way, always proclaiming the same glorious gospel, and
always, as far as man's eye can judge, with immense effect. In
one single Whitsuntide w^ek, after preaching in Moorfields, he
received one thousand letters from people under spiritual con-
cern, and admitted to the Lord's table three hundred and fifty
persons. In the thirty -four years of his ministry it is reckoned
that he preached publicly eighteen thousand times.

His journeyings were prodigious, when the roads and con-
veyances of his time are considered. He was familiar with
" perils in the wilderness and perils in the seas," if ever man
was in modern times. He visited Scotland fourteen times, and
was nowhere more acceptable or useful than he was in that
Bible-loving country. He crossed the Atlantic seven times,
backward and forward, in miserable slow sailing ships, and
arrested the attention of thousands in Boston, New York, and
Philadelphia. He went over to Ireland twice, and on one
occasion was almost murdered by an ignorant Popish mob in
Dublin. As to England and Wales, he traversed every county
in them, from the Isle of Wight to Berwick-on-Tweed, and from
the Land's End to the North Foreland.

His regular ministerial work in London for the winter season,
when field-preaching was necessarily suspended, was something


prodigious. His weekly engagements at the Tabernacle in
Tottenham Court Road, which was built for him when the
pulpits of the Established Church were closed, comprised the
following work : — Every Sunday morning he administered the
Lord's Supper to several hundred communicants at half-past
six. After this he read prayers, and preached both morning
and afternoon. Then he preached again in the evening at
half-past five, and concluded by addressing a large society of
widows, married people, young men and spinsters, all sitting
separately in the area of the Tabernacle, with exhortations suit-
able to their respective stations. On Monday, Tuesday, Wed-
nesday, and Thursday mornings, he preached regularly at six.
On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday
evenings, he dehvered lectures. This, it will be observed,
made thirteen sermons a week ! And all this time he was car-
rying on a large correspondence with people in almost every
part of the world.

That any human frame could so long endure the labours that
Whitefield went through does indeed seem wonderful. That
his life was not cut short by violence, to which he was frequently
exposed, is no less wonderful. But he was immortal till his
work was done. He died at last very suddenly at Newbury
Port, in North America, on Sunday, September the 29th, 1770,
at the comparatively early age of fifty-six. He was once
married to a widow named James, of Abergavenny, who died
before him. If we may judge from the little mention made
of his wife in his letters, the marriage does not seem to have
contributed much to his happiness. He left no children, but
he left a name far better than that of sons and daughters. Never
perhaps was there a man of whom it could be so truly said that
he spent and was spent for Christ than George Whitefield.

The circumstances and particulars of this great evangelist's
end are so deeply interesting, that I shall make no excuse for
dwelling on them. It was an end in striking harmony with the


tenor of his life. As he had lived for more than thirty years,

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 3 of 36)