George Whitfield is perhaps the greatest itinerant preacher in history. He traveled all over England and American during the First Great Awakening, mastering open-air preaching and speaking to thousands at a time, bringing many to repentance. He was arguably the most important personality during the Great Awakening, not in lasting impact (Jonathan Edwards has that claim indisputably), but based on the enormous number of people he preached to. Estimates are that by his death in 1770, 80% of America had witnessed George Whitefield preach in person. What an incredible statistic.
This book focuses on the man in a snapshot view covering three main sections. The first is a general account of his life by J.C. Ryle, written on the 100 year anniversary of his death in 1870. It is a great look at the lasting impact of Whitefield over the next century and chronicles his life’s work quite admirably, from his time with the Wesley brothers at Oxford to his trips back and forth over the Atlantic through countless illnesses and many more miles.
The second part of the book is a chapter on Whitefield’s doctrine. This is the part that surprised me the most. Given that the man preached more than he slept at the zenith of his career and rarely preached in the same place for any length of time, I thought his preaching would be somewhat lacking in theology since he wouldn’t have the time to properly study for his sermons. The account of his doctrine, however, given at his funeral in 1770, was surprisingly accurate and profound and proved that theory wrong.
This carried over into his sermons–the second half of the book. The book offers 6 of his greatest sermons and, as I read them, I wanted very badly to hear Whitefield preach it himself. His eloquence of speech is part of what drew so many people to his gatherings; the combination of passion, grace, and force with which he would exegete the scriptures lead countless listeners to their knees in awe, surrender, and submission before their God. Ryle paints an incredible picture of Whitefield’s preaching, describing it as “a holy violence that took your attention by storm.” These sermons were quite good… and certainly anything but seeker sensitive. His mastery of the scriptures and delivery of those thoughts is something to be admired.
If you are looking for a relatively quick read on Whitefield without getting into too many details, this might be a good book for you. It’s short, but wastes no space in telling the most pertinent and intriguing details of Whitefield’s life.