George Whitefield, Divine Matchmaker

The revivalist preached, ‘Come and be married to Christ’—and sparked the Great Awakening. /

Editor’s note: What do you get when a charismatic thespian bumps into the Wesley brothers in college? “The marvel of the age,” according to the papers. And the Great Awakening, according to history. George Whitefield was among the most influential Christians of the 18th century, who sparked an evangelical revival as he traveled to preach to perhaps 10 million hearers. In George Whitefield: America’s Founding Father, Thomas S. Kidd tells the story of a Whitefield’s visit to a Scottish town between trips to America.

Whitefield returned to Cambuslang to help with an outdoor sacramental occasion. Over a long weekend, throngs gathered in a natural amphitheater setting on a hillside the Scots called a brae, near pastor William McCulloch’s church. (McCulloch had laid the groundwork for the revival meetings and played a long-term pastoral role there, but was what Scots called an “ale-minister,” meaning that when he got up to preach, some in the audience headed for the pub.) Congregants built two wood-framed preaching tents and set up communion tables in the fields. Whitefield attempted to help serve the communicants (an estimated 1,700 out of 20,000 attendees), but as he moved down the line, people got out of their seats and pressed around him, thanking him for coming and sharing prayer requests. Rather than become a distraction, he left the tables and allowed the other ministers to finish.

Once everyone had been served, the whole assembly gathered before a tent, where Whitefield preached on Isaiah 54:5, “Thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name.” Ralph Erskine published a frequently reprinted 1708 poem on this verse, which was also a favorite of the Moravian leader Nikolaus Zinzendorf. Although Whitefield preached numerous sermons at Cambuslang, this is the one that converts remembered best. There was considerable variation between the preached versions and the published one, since Whitefield seems to have used a memorized skeleton outline, but in the estimation of an early Scottish church historian, he delivered it each time “as his own feelings and a sense of duty prompted.”

He spoke directly to the correct practice of the communion many had just taken, urging ministers to serve the Lord’s Supper only to those who had united with Christ in spiritual marriage. Those who received communion in a worthy manner, he exclaimed, were “one with Christ, and Christ with them,” and “they dwell in Christ, and Christ in them.” Going to the matrimonial metaphor of his text, Whitefield insisted that the “poorest and most illiterate person here present [may] easily know, whether or not he is really married to Jesus Christ.”

Christ was the spiritual husband of every believer. Therefore, if earthly wives were to be “subject to their own husbands in everything, how much more ought believers, whether men or women, be subject to Jesus Christ.” They were Christ’s possession, body and soul. Whitefield’s comparison of the believer’s union with Christ to earthly marriage was common among early evangelicals; many preachers went further than Whitefield and used language of “ravishment”—a word with sexual overtones—to describe one’s experience with Christ. As seen in Isaiah 54:5, the Song of Solomon, and a number of other scriptural passages, the theme of marital union between God and his people frequently appeared in scripture as well.

Still, one is struck by how evangelical men readily accepted the metaphor of a bride’s relationship with her husband to describe their relationship with Christ. Whitefield and other revivalists consistently promoted it, and men and women seem to have employed it with similar frequency in their conversion testimonies. William Baillie, one of the converts, found himself cheered by Whitefield’s description of the believer’s marital responsibilities to Christ, “agreeing to every one of them, as every bride did to the articles of a contract with one to be her husband.” Similarly, a 20-year-old unmarried man said that he “greatly rejoiced” at the thought that he stood “in such a relation to Christ.”

In the absence of identifying biographical information, it is often difficult to tell whether a given evangelical testimony in this era was written by a man or a woman. Some scholars suggest, however, that women emphasized the physicality and intimacy of the marital metaphor more than men did.

For example, borrowing from the Song of Solomon, Rhode Island schoolteacher and diarist Sarah Osborn spoke of Christ as a lover who “stood knocking till his head was filled with the dew and his locks with the drops of the night,” waiting for admission into her stubborn heart. (Her pastor and editor, Samuel Hopkins, deleted this passage from the published version.) After losing her first husband, who died at sea, the young widow seized upon the promise of Isaiah 54. In a critical moment of her conversion process, Osborn (apparently at random) turned to this passage and received it as words directly from God to her: “Thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name.” This was in 1737, before the text had become a staple of Whitefield’s preaching.

Dramatically concluding the sermon, Whitefield asked whether anyone wished “to take Christ for their husband.” If they did, he extended an invitation: “Come and I’ll marry you to him just now.” This resonated biblically with the apostle Paul’s statement to the Christians at Corinth that he had “espoused” the church to “one husband” so that he might present it “as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). A 21-year-old male convert said that when Whitefield “laid out the terms” of the union with Christ, he found his “heart made sweetly to agree to those terms.” Another convert ran to embrace a friend, exclaiming that the minister had “married my soul to Christ.” Then he lay down on the brae, wishing that he could die on the spot and go to be with Christ. Whitefield wrote that many “were married to the Lord Jesus that night.”

Margaret Lap, an unmarried 29-year-old who heard Whitefield preach first on his initial visit to Scotland in September 1741, found that his evocation of the dangers of hell summoned “great confusion” in her. She also attended his preaching of “Thy Maker Is Thy Husband.” The message lodged in her mind, staying with her for months or even years afterward. She frequently had Scripture passages impressed on her as she gained assurance, but early one Friday morning, while she still lay in bed, “these words, ‘Thy Maker is thy Husband,’” came rushing into her thoughts, along “with several notes of a sermon of a certain minister.” She became physically overwhelmed—“sick,” she said—with love for Jesus, and the Spirit made her believe that Christ was indeed her spiritual husband.

For some converts, hearing Whitefield brought their spiritual struggles to a conclusion. For others, hearing the preacher initiated their travails. Twenty-one-year-old John Wier testified that he had contemplated his eternal fate before, but kept putting such thoughts aside until he began listening to Whitefield. Night after night at Cambuslang, and elsewhere around the Glasgow area, Wier sought to hear as much of the itinerant’s preaching as possible. The sermons did not bring joy, but fear, because he thought that he would go to hell. Indeed, Wier began to have visions of hell, once seeing it, “as it were,” as a fiery pit where the “wicked were frying.” During one evening sermon, he felt a crushing dread of damnation. Wier envisioned that when he was “at the top of the brae, that hell was just at the foot of it, and that [he] was ready to drop into it.” Casting his eyes about the packed hillside, he imagined that “all the brae was on fire.”

Adding to his turmoil, Wier endured threats from anti-evangelical mockers. Wier was a tenant farmer, and the overseer of his rented plot thought the revival was enthusiastic nonsense. The overseer threatened to confiscate his crops and kick him off the land if he went back to the assemblies. He justified this penalty by suggesting that the revival was keeping Wier and another farmer from work, and that if they would go less frequently to Cambuslang, “we might pay our rent better, and work better.” The overseer “particularly abused a certain minister,” presumably Whitefield, “calling him a mountebank and damned rascal, who was putting all the people mad.” Even Whitefield’s clerical garb had a malevolent purpose: “he put on a black gown, to fright people out of their wits,” the overseer proclaimed, and “when he put on his black gown and black cap at night he frighted them terribly.”

Whitefield’s ministry continued to generate hostility in personal encounters like this one as well as in print. Whitefield’s work at Cambuslang only deepened his rift with the Associate Presbytery, some of whom published the floridly titled “Declaration, Protestation and Testimony of the Suffering Remnant of the Anti-Popish, Anti-Lutheran, Anti-Prelatick, Anti-Whitefieldian, Anti-Erastian, AntiSectarian, true Presbyterian Church of Christ in Scotland” against the itinerant and his Scottish supporters.

Undeterred by opposition, McCulloch and other area ministers scheduled another sacramental observance for mid-August, which Whitefield also attended. By McCulloch’s reckoning, the second event surpassed the first, not only in numbers of attendees, but also in “the power and special presence of God.” Whitefield estimated that 30,000 people attended, with 2,500 communicants at the sacrament. McCulloch noted that Whitefield, while serving at the communion tables on Sunday evening, “appeared to be so filled with the love of God, as to be in a kind of ecstasy or transport.” At ten o’clock that night, Whitefield preached through a heavy rain. “There was a great awakening,” he concluded.

Excerpted from George Whitefield: America’s Founding ­­­Father by Thomas S. Kidd. Copyright 2014 by Thomas S. Kidd. Reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.

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Issue 16 / February 19, 2015
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