George Whitefield: A Gallery of Leaders of the Awakening Army
At age 14, Jonathan Edwards, already a student at Yale University, read philosopher John Locke with more delight “than the most greedy miser finds when gathering up handfuls of silver and gold, from some newly discovered treasure.”
He also treasured spiritual qualities. At age 17, after a period of distress, he said holiness was revealed to him as a ravishing, divine beauty. His heart panted “to lie low before God, as in the dust; that I might be nothing, and that God might be all, that I might become as a little child.”
This rare blend of spiritual passion and searching intellect, in fact, characterized Edwards throughout his Connecticut childhood, his marriage (to Sarah Pierpont in 1727), and his ministry.
By 1729, he had become sole preacher of a Northampton, Massachusetts, parish. Five years later his preaching on justification by faith sparked an awakening.
It was not due to theatrics. One observer wrote, “He scarcely gestured or even moved; and he made no attempt by the elegance of his style, or the beauty of his pictures, to gratify the taste, and fascinate the imagination.” Instead, he convinced “with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling.”
In December 1734, there were six sudden conversions. By spring, there were about thirty a week. The revival spread throughout Connecticut. Wrote Edwards in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God (1737), “It was no longer the tavern, but the minister’s house that was thronged.”
Edwards was sought out by Whitefield during Whitefield’s 1740 pass through New England. Edwards invited Whitefield to preach and reported, “The congregation was extraordinarily melted . . . almost the whole assembly being in tears for a great part of the time.” “The whole assembly” included Edwards himself.
During the 1740s, Edwards preached his most well-known sermon (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) and defended the emotional nature of the Great Awakening, especially in A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (1746), a masterpiece of psychological and spiritual discernment.
Later, Edwards reversed the tradition in his parish and insisted only converted persons could receive Communion, so his church ousted him. He became missionary pastor to native Americans in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1751, and wrote, among other theological treatises, Freedom of the Will (1754), a brilliant defense of divine sovereignty. Such were the fruits of his lifelong habit of rising at 4:00 and studying 13 hours a day.
The College of New Jersey (later Princeton) called him as president in 1758. To its great loss and that of the American church, Edwards died of the new smallpox vaccination soon after his arrival. He was 55. Some consider him to be the finest theologian America has produced.
Selina, Countess of Huntingdon
When her husband died, Lady Huntingdon, age 39, sought advice from leading preacher Howell Harris: “She consulted me about which was it best, to live retired and give up all, or fill her place, and I said the latter I thought was right.” Thus began four decades of strongwilled and generous leadership in the evangelical movement.
Born into English aristocracy, Selina married Theophilus Hastings, ninth earl of Huntingdon, in 1728. Though a devout Anglican, after a period of intense spiritual struggle she converted to the methodist cause in 1739. Her aristocratic friends were dismayed and asked Lord Huntingdon to interfere. He arranged for a bishop to talk with her, but to no avail.
Lady Huntingdon soon became friends with the brothers Wesley (she was a member of their first methodist society) and then with Whitefield. She became, in fact, Whitefield’s closest female friend, closer even than his wife.
After her husband’s death, Lady Huntingdon and some of her titled friends met daily to pray and study the Bible. She invited Howell Harris and George Whitefield to preach at these meetings.
Lady Huntingdon founded a religious society, called a “connexion,” which grew. She built her first regular chapel, in Brighton, by selling her jewels. She also built chapels in Bath, Bristol, and London to attract the upper classes.
She purchased vacant benefices (endowed church offices) and appointed evangelical clergy to them. She also exercised her right to appoint personal chaplains, which afforded legal protection for many “methodist” clergy, including Whitefield, who were harassed by British authorities.
In 1768, she established a seminary in Trevecca, Wales. Over her lifetime, when many parishes paid clergy 40 pounds a year, she donated over 100,000 pounds to the methodist cause. Never afraid of controversy, she engaged in heated discussions with John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf (the founder of the Moravians), and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Lady Huntingdon’s impact on the evangelical movement was undeniable. When Whitefield saw her with many of her chaplains, he wrote, “She looks like a good archbishop with his chaplains around him.” Because of official persecution, she and many of her chaplains were eventually forced to leave the Anglican communion and become dissenting ministers. She died in June 1791, but her connexion is still active today.
Sensational lay preacher
Though trained as a land surveyor and writing instructor, John Cennick once was asked to fill in for an absent preacher. He wrote, “I was naturally fearful of speaking before such a company, having never done such a thing as this.”
But when he preached, “tears fell from many eyes.” When he stood to preach again the next Sunday, 4,000 people gathered. Though never ordained, he soon became one of the top preachers of his day.
Cennick was born in Wales and converted at age 19. After he read a copy of Whitefield’s journal, he wrote, “My heart cleaved to him.” The next time Whitefield was in London, Cennick walked all night to get there: “I met my dear brother and fell on his neck and kissed him. Our communion was sweet, and I stayed with him several days.”
Whitefield soon asked Cennick to be headmaster of a school for coal—mining families. In 1744, Whitefield gave him charge of his Moorfields congregation and the Calvinist branch of methodism. The responsibilities proved too much, though, and coincided with a shift in theology. By late 1745, Cennick joined the Moravians and became a missionary to Ireland.
Before long, as one historian put it, “All walls and windows [of his meeting house] were covered with people, and Cennick had to go in at the window, creeping over the heads of the people to reach his pulpit.”
His days were consumed with traveling, and he endured beatings and arrests. Though ill much of the time, he preached up to 20 times a week. All told, he established in northern Ireland 40 societies and 10 Moravian churches. Finally, at age 36, his body could take no more.
Lost and found friend
One September morning in 1733, Charles Wesley violated Oxford conventions: He invited a poor servitor, George Whitefield, to breakfast. Servitors worked their way through college by running errands for students of higher social standing. Servitors were excluded from many college functions, even Communion.
Still, Charles was impressed with the “modest, pensive youth” who had keen spiritual interest. He invited Whitefield to the Holy Club, and thus began a lifelong, though interrupted, friendship.
On Pentecost 1738, Wesley finally found “peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ.” Thereafter, he preached in homes and prisons. Whitefield urged Charles to join him in preaching outdoors. Wesley refused because of “the fear of man”—how it would look to his cultured friends. Then Whitefield simply informed him that the following Sunday, Charles would be taking his place at Moorfields.
Wrote Charles, “My inward conflict continued.” But “I prayed and went forth in the name of Jesus Christ. I found near ten thousand helpless sinners waiting for the Word. . . . The Lord was with me, even me, his meanest messenger.”
Charles’s passion, which caused him often to pray with strong cryings and tears, sometimes went to extremes. He consulted “the oracle,” opening the Bible at random for guidance.
Once, Charles was dining with John Cennick, Whitefield’s close associate, and began “to dispute about election.” Cennick wrote, “He fell into a violent passion and affrighted all at the table. . . . He called Calvin the firstborn son of the Devil, and set all his people into a bitter hatred of me.”
As a result, Charles remained aloof from Whitefield for six or seven years. After 1749, he and Whitefield reconciled, addressing each other as “My old dear Friend.”
Charles is best known for his 5,500 hymns (some scholars say over 8,000), including “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
Upon hearing Gilbert Tennent preach, Whitefield wrote, “I never before heard such a searching sermon. . . . He has learned . . . to dissect the heart of a natural man. Hypocrites must either soon be converted or enraged at his preaching.” They were both.
Born in Ireland, Tennent graduated from Yale in 1725 and assumed a Presbyterian pastorate in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Impressed with the piety and fervor of Dutch Reformed minister Theodorus Frelinghuysen, Tennent became passionate leader of a minority in the Presbyterian church. When George Whitefield arrived in the Middle Colonies in 1739, he sought out Tennent. After Whitefield started an awakening in Boston, he insisted Tennent continue his work there.
The effect of Tennent’s preaching was perhaps as great as Whitefield’s—and just as controversial. One minister wrote, “[Then] came one Tennent, a minister impudent and saucy; and told them all they were damned, damned, damned! This charmed them; and in the dreadfullest winter I ever saw, people wallowed in the snow night and day for the benefit of his beastly braying.”
Soon Tennent preached The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry, vividly portraying most ministers as plastered hypocrites. Its wide circulation contributed to a 1741 schism in the Presbyterian church, which lasted seventeen years.
In 1743 Tennent became pastor of Philadelphia’s Second Presbyterian Church. While continuing to support the Awakening, he eventually led in the reconciliation of his denomination, admitting he had contributed to the schism.
Married three times (his first two wives died), he fathered three children. He was originally buried beneath the middle aisle of his Philadelphia church.
One frequent listener said of him, “He used to speak of hell as though he had been there himself.” And he himself said God filled his mouth “with terrors and threatenings. I was given a commission to rend and break sinners in the most dreadful manner.”
Such was the preaching of Howell Harris, the founder of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism.
As a young man in a Welsh working-class family, Harris was indifferent to religion. But at 21, he heard a vicar say, “If you are not fit to come to the Lord’s table, you are not fit to live, and you are not fit to die!” Harris wrote, “All my natural faculties were confounded in the shock.” After a period of inner turmoil, “I lost my burden; I went home leaping for joy!”
Immediately he began sharing his experience, and in a few weeks his house overflowed with hearers. In the next few years, he founded 30 methodist societies—groups meeting to pray, study the Bible, and plan evangelism. Harris established his earliest societies, in fact, two years before John and Charles Wesley were converted.
Whitefield called Harris “a burning and shining light.” When they finally met, they agreed to preach in each other’s societies.
Harris’s furious preaching sometimes lasted four hours. His denunciations of clergy (“Many who wear the cloth . . . what good they do, I know not”) undermined his efforts to become ordained. Often his life was in peril: once a mob rushed him, swearing and throwing rocks, and once he was shot at.
Perhaps due to such pressures, Harris became paranoid. He also began associating with Mrs. Sidney Griffith, who left her drunken husband to move into Harris’s home (with Harris’s wife’s consent).
After Griffith died, Harris regained his mental poise. He preached two or three times a day and in 1752 began a kind of Protestant monastery that soon attracted about 150 people.
Toward the end of his life, he apologized to evangelical leaders for his aberrant behavior, and he helped establish Lady Huntingdon’s seminary in lower Trevecca. The death of his wife greatly affected him, and he died soon after. CH
By Mark Galli
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #38 in 1993]Mark Galli is Associate Editor of Christian History.
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