Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why do we praise George Whitefield?

I have to admit I am constantly amazed at how high we hold George Whitefield in Reformed circles.  Thomas Kidd has published a series extoling Whitefield as a goodCalvinist and a defender of the faith.  Kidd even goes so far as to say Whitefield's message was "traditional and Calvinist".  This of course is taken for truth without a moments thought by most as Whitefield did attack John Wesley over predestination.  Thus, the article is reprinted at the Aquila Report and linked on  But, why is it that we ignore and overlook all the Reformed reaction against Whitefield?  Yes, he had Presbtyerian allies, especially among those who favored the revival, but he had his fair share of critics who never seem to get a voice.

The Erskines for one broke with Whitefield.  Ebeneezer and Ralph both corresponded with Whitefield in the early 1740’s, but both would later be against Whitefield.  The Erskines and their allies in the Associate Presbytery worried about Whitefield’s poor ecclesiology for starters.  The group would later rescind all invitations to Whitefield to preach in their pulpits.  This led Whitefield into his usual denunciation of all who disagree with him as unbelievers.  Whitefield in a letter declared Rev. James Fisher and the rest of the Associate Presbytery a modern day Babel, doomed to be destroyed.  Not exactly friendly comments.  Ebeneezer Erskine would refuse to stay and hear Whitefield preach, and the Cambuslang Revival in 1742 was condemned by the men of the Associate Presbytery including Ralph Erskine.  They criticized the excesses at the revival and used those to oppose the entire event and Whitefield.  The Associate Presbytery declared a day of fasting to pray against the delusion that was on going.  Rev. Gib declared the whole thing a Satanic delusion and declared Whitefield a false Christ, though years later he seems to have felt he may have been too harsh.  Even with that later sorrow, it seems clear that the Erskines and the other Marrow Men of the Associate Presbytery of the Church of Scotland believed Whitefield to be anything other than Reformed. (a fuller discussion of this can be found in The Marrow Controversy and the Seceder Tradition by William Vandoodewaard chapter 8).  

If that is not enough, let us not forget that in America he had opponents as well.  We do often dismiss them as Pharisees following Gilbert Tennent’s lead, but we usually don’t look at their actual objections at all.  The New Castle Presbytery helped publish a pamphlet entitled “The Querists” that asked questions of Rev. Whitefield’s public teaching in published letters and sermons.  They claim up front that Whitefield’s teachings “savor of Popery and Arminianism” (Querists intro pg. iii).  They challenge statements in Whitefield’s sermons that join repentance with faith in the blood of Christ as to what washes away our sins.  They attack statements where Whitefield denies in his letters that Genesis 3:15 is the beginning of the Covenant of Grace, and in fact denies that God made a covenant of Grace with Adam at all.  They fear this goes into Antinomianism, which they also question in Whitfield especially as he often applauded Wesley’s works.  They question his statements that said man was created with all the perfections of deity and that they are baptized into the nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Of course they too take issue with Whitefield’s weak ecclesiology.  And they also question Whitefield’s statements in his journal that make it sound as if God himself speaks to Whitefield’s soul as if he were a modern day prophet. 

It may be that Whitefield can be cheerfully cleared of such charges; however, we seem to only get pieces that hold Whitefield up as a man who is a brave champion of Calvinism or even the Reformed faith.  Yet, so many Presbyterians of the day on both sides of the Atlantic found his theology wanting, confusing, and weak in many areas.  Seldom does anyone actually interact with his theology.  Seldom do we see people discusses his harsh condemnation of people usually on the basis of opposition to himself or mere rumor.  I know that many hold Whitefield up as a great example of a preacher.  I think he probably ought to be held up as a cautionary tale of what not to do. 


Jeremy B said...

...but did you hear how he said 'Mesopatamia'?

Unknown said...

Very good points!

- Gil G