J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

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

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so he died, preaching to the very last. He literally almost died
in harness. "Sudden death," he had often said, "is sudden
glory. Whether right or not, I cannot help wishing that I may
go off in the same manner. To me it would be worse than
death to live to be nursed, and to see friends weeping about
me." He had the desire of his heart granted. He was cut
down in a single night by a spasmodic fit of asthma, almost
before his friends knew that he was ill.

On the morning of Saturday the 29th of September, the day
before he died, Whitefield set out on horseback from Ports-
mouth in New Hampshire, in order to fulfil an engagement to
preach at Newbury Port on Sunday. On the way, unfortunately,
he was earnestly importuned to preach at a place called Exeter,
and though feeling very ill, he had not the heart to refuse. A
friend remarked before he preached that he looked more uneasy
than usual, and said to him, " Sir, you are more fit to go to bed
than to preach." To this Whitefield replied: "True, sir;"
and then turning aside, he clasped his hands together, and
looking up, said : " Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work, but
not of thy work. If I have not yet finished my course, let me
go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth,
and come home and die." He then went and preached to a
very great multitude in the fields from the text 2 Cor. xiii. 5,
for the space of nearly two hours. It was liis last sermon, and
a fitting conclusion to his whole career.

An eye-witness has given the following striking account of
this closing scene of Whitefield's life : — " He rose from his seat,
and stood erect. His appearance alone was a powerful sermon.
The thinness of his visage, the paleness of his countenance, the
evident struggling of the heavenly spark in a decayed body for
utterance, were all deeply interesting ; the spirit was willing,
but the flesh was dying. In this situation he remained several
minutes, unable to speak. He then said : ' I will wait for the


gracious assistance of God, for he will, I am certain, assist me
once more to speak in his name.' He then dehvered perhaps
one of his best sermons. The latter part contained the follow-
ing passage : ' I go ; I go to a rest prepared : my sun has given
light to many, but now it is about to set — no, to rise to the
zenith of immortal glory. I have outlived many on earth, but
they cannot outlive me in heaven. Many shall outlive me on
earth and live when this body is no more, but there — oh, thought
divine ! — I shall be in a world where time, age, sickness, and
sorrow are unknown. jNIy body fails, but my spirit expands.
How willingly would I live for ever to preach Christ. But I
die to be with him. How brief — comparatively brief — has been
my life compared to the vast labours which I see before me
yet to be accomplished. But if I leave now, while so few care
about heavenly things, the God of peace will surely visit you."

After the sermon was over, Whitefield dined with a friend,
and then rode on to Newbury Port, though greatly fatigued.
On arriving there he supped early, and retired to bed. Tradi-
tion says, that as he went up-stairs, with a lighted candle in his
hand, he could not resist the inclination to turn round at the
head of the stair, and speak to the friends who were assembled
to meet him. As he spoke the fire kindled within him, and
before he could conclude, the candle which he held in his hand
had actually burned down to the socket. He retired to his
bedroom, to come out no more alive. A violent fit of spasmodic
asthma seized him soon after he got into bed, and before six
o'clock the next morning the great preacher was dead. If ever
man was ready for his change, Whitefield was that man. When
his time came, he had nothing to do but to die. Where he
died there he was buried, in a vault beneath the pulpit of the
church where he had engaged to preach. His sepulchre is
shown to this very day ; and nothing makes the little town
where he died so famous as the fact that it contains the bones
of George Wliitefield.


Such are tlie leading facts in the life of the prince of English
evangelists of a hundred years ago. His personal character,
the real extent of his usefulness, and some account of his style of
preaching, are subjects which I must reserve for another chapter.


Estimate of good that Whitefield did — Testimonies to his direct Usefuhiess — Indirect good
that he did — Peculiar character of his Preaching — Witnesses to his real power as a
Preacher — Analysis of his seventy-five pubHshed Sermons — Simphcity, Directness,
Power of Description, Earnestness, Pathos, Action, Voice, and Fkiency, his leading
Excellences — Inner Life, Hiunility, Love to Christ, Laboriousness, Self-denial, Disin-
terestedness, Cheerfulness, Catholicity — Specimen of his Preaching.

George Whitefield, in my judgment, was so entirely chief
and first among the English Reformers of the last century, that
I make no apology for offering some further information about
him. The real amount of good he did, the peculiar character
of his preaching, the private character of the man, are all j^oints
that deserve consideration. They are points, I may add, about
which there is a vast amount of misconception.

This misconception perhaps is unavoidable, and ought not
to surprise us. The materials for forming a correct opinion
about such a man as Whitefield are necessarily very scanty.
He wrote no book for the million, of world-wide fame, like
Bunyan's " Pilgrim's Progress." He headed no crusade against
an apostate Church, with a nation at his back, and princes on
his side, like Martin Luther. He founded no religious deno-
mination, which pinned its faith on his writings and carefully
embalmed his best acts and words, like John Wesley. There
are Lutherans and W^esleyans in the present day, but there are
no Whitefieldites. No ! The great evangelist of last century
was a simple, guileless man, who lived for one thing only, and
that was to preach Christ. If he did that, he cared for nothing
else. The records of such a man are large and full in heaven,
I have no doubt. But they are few and scanty upon earth.


We must not forget, beside tliis, that the many in every age
see nothing in a man Hke Whitefield but fanaticism and enthu-
siasm. They abhor everything Hke " zeal " in rehgion. They
dishke every one who turns the world upside down, and de-
parts from old traditional ways, and will not let the devil alone.
Such persons, no doubt, would tell us that the ministry of
Whitefield only produced temporary excitement, that his preach-
ing was common-place rant, and that his character had nothing
about it to be specially admired. It may be feared that
eighteen hundred years ago they would have said much the
same of St. Paul.

The question, " What good did Whitefield do % " is one which
I answer without the least hesitation. I believe that the direct
good which he did to immortal souls was enormous. I will
go further, — I beHeve it is incalculable. Credible witnesses
in England, Scotland, and America, have placed on record their
conviction that he was the means of converting thousands of
people. Many, wherever he preached, were not merely pleased,
excited, and arrested, but positively turned from sin, and made
thorough servants of God. " Numbering the people," I do not
forget, is at all times an objectionable practice. God alone
can read hearts and discern the wheat from the tares. Many,
no doubt, in days of religious excitement, are set down as con-
verted who are not converted at all. But I wish my readers to
understand that my high estimate of Whitefield's usefulness is
based on a solid foundation. I ask them to mark well what
Whitefield's cotemporaries thought of the value of his labours.

Franklin, the well-known American philosopher, was a cold-
blooded, calculating man, a Quaker by profession, and not
likely to form too high an estimate of any ministers work.
Yet even he confessed that " it was wonderful to see the change
soon made by his preaching in the manners of the inhabitants
of Philadelphia. From being thoughtless or indifferent about
religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious."


Franklin himself, it may be remarked, was the leading printer
of religious works at Philadelphia; and his readiness to print
Whitefield's sermons and journals shows his judgment of the
hold that he had on the American mind.

Maclaurin, Willison, and MaccuUoch, were Scotch ministers
whose names are well known north of the Tweed, and the two
former of whom deservedly rank high as theological writers.
All these have repeatedly testified that Whitefield was made an
instrument of doing immense good in Scotland. Willison in
particular says, '• that God honoured him with surprising success
among sinners of all ranks and persuasions."

Old Henry Venn, of Huddersfield and Yelling, was a man
of strong good sense, as well as of great grace. His opinion
was, tliat " if the greatness, extent, success, and disinterested-
ness of a man's labours can give him distinction among the
children of Christ, then we are warranted to affirm that scarce
any one has equalled Mr. Whitefield." Again he says : " He
was abundantly successful in his vast labours. The seals of his
ministry, from first to last, I am persuaded, were more than
could be credited could the number be fixed. This is certain,
his amazing popularity was only from his usefulness ; for he no
sooner opened his mouth as a preacher, than God commanded
an extraordinary blessing upon his word."

John Newton was a shrewd man, as well as an eminent
minister of the gospel. His testimony is : " That which finished
Mr. Whitefield's character as a shining light, and is now his
crown of rejoicing, was the singular success which the Lord was
pleased to give him in winning souls. It seeme-d as if he never
preached in vain. Perhaps there is hardly a place in all the
extensive compass of his labours where some may not yet
be found who thankfully acknowledge him as their spiritual

John W^esley did not agree with Whitefield on several theo-
logical points of no small importance. But when he preaclied


his funeral sermon, he said : " Have we read or heard of any
person who called so many thousands, so many myriads of
sinners to repentance? Above all, have we read or heard of
any one who has been the blessed instrument of bringing so
many sinners from darkness to light, and from the power of
Satan unto God % "

Valuable as these testimonies undoubtedly are, there is one
point which they leave totally untouched. That point is the
quantity of indirect good that Whitefield did. Great as the
direct effects of his labours were, I believe firmly that the in-
direct effects were even greater. His ministry was made
a blessing to thousands who never perhaps either saw or
heard him.

He was among the first in the eighteenth century who re-
vived attention to the old truths which produced the Protestant'
Reformation. His constant assertion of the doctrines taught
by the Reformers, his repeated reference to the Articles and
HomiHes, and the divinity of the best English theologians,
obliged many to think, and roused them to examine their own
jjrinciples. If the whole truth was known, I believe it would
prove that the rise and progress of the Evangelical body in the^
Church of England received a mighty impulse from George

But this is not the only indirect good that Whitefield did in
his day. He was among the first to show the right way to
meet the attacks of infidels and sceptics on Christianity. He
saw clearly that the most powerful weapon against such men
is not cold, metaphysical reasoning and dry critical disquisition,
but preaching the whole gospel — living the whole gospel — and'
spreading the whole gospel. It was not the writings of Leland,
and the younger Sherlock, and Waterland, and Leslie, that
rolled back the flood of infidelity one half so much as the
preaching of Whitefield and his companions. They were the
men who were the true champions of Christianity. Infidels are


seldom shaken by mere abstract reasoning. The surest argu-
ments against them are gospel truth and gospel life.

Above all, he was the very first Englishman who seems to
have thoroughly understood what Dr. Chalmers aptly called
the aggressive system. He was the first to see that Christ's
ministers must do the work of fishermen. They must not wait
for souls to come to them, but must go after souls, and " compel
them to come in." He did not sit tamely by his fireside, like
a cat in a rainy day, mourning over the wickedness of the land.
He went forth to beard the devil in his high places. He
attacked sin and wickedness face to face, and gave them no
peace. He dived into holes and corners after sinners. He
hunted out ignorance and vice wherever they could be found.
In short, he set on foot a system of action which, up to his
time, had been comparatively unknown in this country, but a
system which, once commenced, has never ceased to be em-
ployed down to the present day. City missions, town missions,
district visiting societies, open-air preachings, home missions,
special services, theatre preachings, are all evidences that the
value of the " aggressive system " is now thoroughly recognized
by all the Churches. We understand better how to go to work
now than we did a hundred years ago. But let us never forget
that the first man to commence operations of this kind was
George Whitefield, and let us give him the credit he deserves.

The peculiar character of WJiitefiehrs preaching is the subject
which next demands some consideration. Men naturally wish
to know what was the secret of his unparalleled success. The
subject is one surrounded with considerable difficulty, and it is
no easy matter to form a correct judgment about it. The
common idea of many people, that he was a mere common-
place ranting Methodist, remarkable for nothing but great
fluency, strong doctrine, and a loud voice, will not bear a
moment's investigation. Dr. Johnson was foolish enough to
say, tliat "he vociferated and made an impression, but never


drew as much attention as a mountebank does ; and tliat he
did not draw attention by doing better than others, but by-
doing what was strange." But Johnson was anything but in-
falhble when he began to talk about ministers and rehgion.
Such a theory will not hold water. It is contradictory to un-
deniable facts.

It is a fact that no preacher in England has ever succeeded
in arresting the attention of such crowds as Whitefield con-
stantly addressed around London. . No preacher has ever been
so universally popular in every country that he visited, in Eng-
land, Scotland, and America. No preacher has ever retained his
hold on his hearers so entirely as he did for thirty-four years.
His popularity never waned. It was as great at the end of his
day as it was at the beginning. Wherever he preached, men
would leave their workshops and employments to gather round
him, and hear like those who heard for eternity. This of itself
is a great fact. To command the ear of " the masses " for a
quarter of a century, and to be preaching incessantly the whole
time, is an evidence of no common power.

It is another fact that Whitefield's preaching produced a
powerful effect on people in every rank of life. He won the
admiration of high as well as low, of rich as well as poor, of
learned as well as unlearned. If his preaching had been
popular with none but the uneducated and the poor, we might
have thought it possible that there was little in it but declama-
tion and noise. But, so far from this being the case, he seems
to have been acceptable to numbers of the nobility and gentry.
The Marquis of Lothian, the Earl of Leven, the Earl of Buchan,
Lord Rae, Lord Dartmouth, Lord James A. Gordon, might be
named among his warmest admirers, beside Lady Huntingdon
and a host of ladies.

It is a fact that eminent critics and literary men, like Lord
Bolingbroke and Lord Chesterfield, were frequently his de-
lighted hearers. Even the cold artificial Chesterfield was

(195) 4


known to warm under Whitefield's eloquence. Bolingbroke
said, " He is the most extraordinary man in our times. He has
the most commanding eloquence I ever heard in any person."
Franklin the philosopher spoke in no measured terms of his
preaching powers. Hume the historian declared that it was
worth going twenty miles to hear him.

Now, facts like these can never be explained away. They
completely upset the theory that Whitefield's preaching was
nothing but noise and rant.. BoHngbroke, Chesterfield, Hume,
and Franklin, were not men to be easily deceived. They were
no mean judges of eloquence. They were probably among the
best qualified critics of their day. Their unbought and un-
biassed opinions appear to me to supply unanswerable proof
that there must have been something very extraordinary about
Whitefield's preaching. But still, after all, the question remains
to be answered. What was the secret of Whitefield'^ unrivalled
popularity and effectiveness % And I frankly admit that, with
the scanty materials we possess for forming our judgment, the
question is a very hard one to answer.

The man who turns to the seventy-five sermons published
under Whitefield's name will probably be much disappointed.
He will see in them no commanding intellect or grasp of mind.
He will find in them no deep philosophy, and no very striking
thoughts. It is only fair, however, to say, that by far the greater
part of these sermons were taken down in shorthand by
reporters, and published without correction. These worthy
men appear to have done their work very indifferently, and
were evidently ignorant alike of stopping and paragraphing, of
grammar and of gospel. The consequence is, that many pas-
sages in these seventy-five sermons are what Bishop Latimer
would have called a " mingle-mangle," and what we should call
in this day " a complete mess." No wonder that poor White-
field says, in one of his last letters, dated September 26, 1769,
" I wish you had advertised against the publication of my last


sermon. It is not verbatim as I delivered it. It some places
it makes me speak false concord, and even nonsense. In
others the sense and connection are destroyed by injudicious,
tlisjointed paragraphs, and the whole is entirely unfit for the
l)ublic review."

I venture, however, to say boldly that, with all their faults,
Whitefield's printed sermons will well repay a candid perusal.
The reader must recollect that they were not carefully prepared
for the press, like the sermons of Melville or Bradley, but
wretchedly reported, paragraphed, and stopped, and he must
read with this continually before his mind. Moreover, he must
remember that English composition for speaking to hearers,
and English composition for private reading, are almost like
two different languages, so that sermons which " preach " well
" read " badly. Let him, I say, remember these two things,
and judge accordingly, and I am much mistaken if he does not
find much to admire in many of Whitefield's sermons. For my
own part, I must plainly say that I think they are greatly under-

Let me now point out what appear to have been the distinc-
tive characteristics of Whitefield's preaching.

For one thing, Whitefield preached a singularly pure gospel.
Few men, perhaps, ever gave their hearers so much wheat and
so little chaff. He did not get up to talk about his party, his
cause, his interest or his office. He was perpetually telling you
about your sins, your heart, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the
absolute need of repentance, faith, and hoHness, in the way that
the Bible presents these mighty subjects. " Oh, the righteous-
ness of Jesus Christ!" he would often say; " I must be excused
if I mention it in almost all my sermons." Preaching of this
kind is the preaching that God delights to honour. It must be
pre-eminently a mamfestatioji of truth.

For another thing, Whitefield's preaching was singularly lucid
and simple. His hearers, whatever they might think of his


doctrine, could never fail to understand what he meant. His
style of speaking was easy, plain, and conversational. He seemed
to abhor long and involved sentences. He always saw his mark,
and went directly at it. He seldom troubled his hearers with
abstruse argument and intricate reasoning. Simple Bible state-
ments, apt illustrations, and pertinent anecdotes, were the more
common weapons that he used. The consequence was that his
hearers always understood him. He never shot above their
heads. Here again is one grand element of a preacher's suc-
cess. He must labour by all means to be understood. It was
a wise saying of Archbishop Usher, " To make easy things seem
hard is every man's work ; but to make hard things easy is the
work of a great preacher."

For another thing, Whitelield was a singularly bold and direct
preacher. He never used that indefinite expression " we,"
which seems so peculiar to English pulpit oratory, and which
only leaves a hearer's mind in a state of misty confusion. He
met men face to face, like one who had a message from God
to them, " I have come here to speak to you about your soul."
The result was that many of his hearers used often to think that
his sermons were specially meant for themselves. He was not
content, as many, with sticking on a meagre tail-piece of appli-
cation at the end of a long discourse. On the contrary, a con-
stant vein of application ran through all his sermons. " This is
for you, and this is for you." His hearers were never let alone.

Another striking feature in Whitefield's preaching was Jiis
singular power of description. The Arabians have a proverb
which says, " He is the best orator who can turn men's ears
into eyes." Whitefield seems to have had a peculiar faculty of
doing this. He dramatized his subject so thoroughly that it
seemed to move and walk before your eyes. He used to draw
such vivid pictures of the things he was handling, that his
hearers could believe they actually saw and heard them. " On
one occasion," says one of his biographers, " Lord Chesterfield


was among his hearers. The great preacher, in describing tlie
miserable condition of an unconverted sinner, illustrated the
subject by describing a blind beggar. The night was dark, and
the road dangerous. The poor mendicant was deserted by his
dog near the edge of a precipice, and had nothing to aid him in
groping his way but his staff. Whitefield so Avarmed with his
subject, and enforced it with such graphic power, that the whole
auditory was kept in breathless silence, as if it saw the move-
ments of the poor old man ; and at length, when the beggar
was about to take the fatal step which would have hurled him
down the precipice to certain destruction, Lord Chesterfield
actually made a rush forward to save him, exclaiming aloud,
'He is gone! he is gone!' The noble lord had been so
entirely carried away by the preacher, that he forgot the whole
was a picture."

Another leading characteristic of Whitefield's preaching was
his tremendous earnestness. One poor uneducated man said of
him, that " he preached like a lion," He succeeded in showing
people that he at least believed all he was saying, and that his
heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, were bent on making
them believe it too. His sermons were not like the morning
and evening gun at Portsmouth, a kind of formal discharge,
fired off as a matter of course, that disturbs nobody. They were
all life and fire. There was no getting away from them. Sleep
was next to impossible. You must listen whether you liked it
or not. There was a holy violence about him which firmly
took your attention by storm. You were fairly carried off your
legs by his energy before you had time to consider what you
would do. This, we may be sure, was one secret of his success.
We must convince men that we are in earnest ourselves, if we
want to be beUeved. The difference between one preacher
and another, is often not so much in the things said, as in the
manner in which they are said.

It is recorded by one of his biographers that an American


gentleman once went to hear him, for the first time, in conse-

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 4 of 36)