Pushing to the Point of Exhaustion
Arnold Dallimore, well-known biographer of George Whitefield, had agreed to contribute to this issue of Christian History, but regrettably, a recent turn in his health prevented that. In place of that article we offer a chapter, condensed, from his monumental biography, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th-Century Revival. In this abridged excerpt, Dallimore shows us a single year in Whitefield’s life—1750.
Seventeen-fifty opened with Whitefield in London. There his chief duty was the pastoral care of the Tabernacle [his congregation]. This called for preaching at 6 o’clock each morning and again at 6:00 each evening (every day except Saturday), three or four times each Sunday, and several other times throughout the week. During these months Whitefield also preached twice a week at Lady Huntingdon’s—a work he found very taxing. He also sometimes conducted funerals and performed weddings, often counseled inquirers, and took the oversight of the several Tabernacle enterprises.
Together with these tasks Whitefield maintained a large correspondence. There were letters relating to Orphan House affairs and letters in relation to his itinerant ministry—arrangements as to place and time of his preaching. And above all there were letters to spiritual inquirers and to persons whom he knew to be in need of exhortation even if they did not write and ask for it, and this correspondence was conducted with people in various parts of Britain and in virtually all the colonies of America.
Whitefield’s letter writing was squeezed in at all possible moments between his other labors. Yet it was never finished, and there were always letters he wanted to write but for which there was no time.
Whitefield said of his life in London, “While there I am continually hurried and scarce have time to eat bread.” He also spoke of his longing for more time “to read, meditate, and write,” yet recognized that it would not be available till he should again take an ocean voyage.
Thus passed January, but by the first of February, weary of what he called “winter quarters,” he set out on a two-month campaign of open-air itinerant evangelism.
His journey took him first to Gloucester, then on to Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth, and at each place he paused for two or three days of preaching. He also reported that his health improved as soon as he left London. March was spent in Devon and Cornwall, in travels that took him nearly to Land’s End and that saw great numbers assembled everywhere.
Thereupon he returned to London, resumed his labors there for two weeks, and then set out again—this time for Portsmouth and other places along the Channel coast.
Something of the spirit which motivated him is manifest in a letter he wrote at this time to James Hervey, who had mentioned to him the physical weakness he frequently suffered. Whitefield replied: “Fear not your weak body; we are immortal till our work is done. Christ’s laborers must live by miracle; if not, I must not live at all; for God only knows what I daily endure. My continual vomitings almost kill me, and yet the pulpit is my cure, so that my friends begin to pity me less, and to leave off that ungrateful caution, ‘Spare thyself!’ ”
Then again he returned to London. After a week in the capital he was on his way once more, on a journey that was to take him, preaching as he went, to Scotland. He preached at Olney, and then came to Northampton where, the next morning, he preached at the home of Dr. Philip Doddridge and “in the afternoon and evening at Kettering to many thousands.”
The following day he reached Ashby, the country estate of Lady Huntingdon. He preached several times in towns and villages round about and also at her home, and during one of the latter services “some of the baser sort rioted before her Ladyship’s door.”
From Ashby he traveled northward again. He preached at Radcliffe, Nottingham, Sutton, and Mansfield, and while at the latter place he said in a letter to Lady Huntingdon: “I must lie down to refresh this weary body: my soul, through grace, smiles at bodily weakness.”
Continuing his northward journey [in May and June] he preached first at Leeds and then at Manchester and at several places in Lancashire and Yorkshire. We notice the following statements:
"[At Rotherham] … the crier was employed to give notice of a bearbaiting. [You] may guess who was the bear."
“At Bolton a drunkard stood up behind me to preach, and a woman attempted twice to stab the person who was putting up a stand for me to preach on.”
“This last night … some persons got into the barn and stable, and have cut my chaise [two-wheeled carriage] and one of the horse’s tails.”
“The more we do, the more we may do; every act strengthens the habit; the best preparation for preaching on Sundays is to preach every day in the week.”
Reading on the Run
Despite this constant activity Whitefield found a certain amount of time for reading. He provided himself with periods for study directly following his rising at four each morning. He also read while journeying, for at this period of his life he travelled in a two-wheeled chaise. Of course, in an itinerant manner of life such as his he could not be so widely read as a man in a settled pastorate.
Nevertheless, he maintained his familiarity with the writings of the Reformers and the Puritans and also kept abreast of the more important evangelical publications of the time. Moreover, he seems to have been able, after but a short time with a book, to pass a knowledgeable opinion on its contents.
We notice one instance in this regard. William Law had recently produced a new book and, while in Yorkshire, Whitefield wrote [in late June]: “In my way I have read Mr. Law’s second part of The Spirit of Prayer. His scheme about the Fall I think is quite chimerical; but he says many things that are truly noble … Several things at the end of his treatise on regeneration, in my opinion, are entirely unjustifiable: but the sun hath its spots, and so have the best of men.”
Whitefield’s stay in Scotland—his fifth visit—lasted a month. There were the usual tremendous congregations at Edinburgh and Glasgow and other places. By this time September had arrived, but after merely a week in London he set out again, this time for Portsmouth and for Chatham.
Before the middle of the month, however, he was back in London, but soon left on another tour, and this took him to Gloucester, Birmingham, Coventry, Wednesbury, Evesham, and Nottingham. While in the Midlands he spent a day or two at a conference of ministers at the home of Lady Huntingdon at Ashby. The Countess was there, and later she wrote: “It was a time of refreshing from the presence of our God.… Mr. Whitefield’s sermons and exhortations were close, searching, experimental, awful, and awakening.”
There followed another brief period in London, after which Whitefield was on his way once more [in November], journeying this time to the southeast corner of England—to Canterbury and nearby towns.
Thus Whitefield spent the autumn months, and as the year drew toward its close he was again in London. But during December he became very ill and for two weeks was confined to bed. Yet as soon as he was able, he forced himself into activity and wrote: “My disorder was a violent fever: Jesus hath rebuked it. I am raised up once more. O may it be that I may minister unto him! For me to live is Christ. But alas! how little do I live to his glory! Yesterday [December 16] I entered upon my seven-and-thirtieth year. I am ashamed to think I have lived so long and done so little.”
Losing a Child
Amid these physical trials and spiritual labors Whitefield had also his mental burdens. The Tabernacle was ever upon his mind, and the final decision in all its matters invariably rested with him. There was also the constant weight of the Orphan House, the difficulty of obtaining persons to carry on its ministry, and the frustration of trying to conduct its affairs by trans-Atlantic correspondence.
Likewise there was the responsibility he felt in leaving Mrs. Whitefield alone so much of the time. He provided her with a very faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Elizabeth Wood, but his absences could not but have caused her a severe sense of loneliness, especially when he departed on such long missions as the two-months’ trip to Land’s End and the four-months’ journey to Scotland.
Moreover, [his wife] Elizabeth’s sense of wanting him near would have been all the greater at this time, for on October 9 he wrote: “I am now waiting for my wife’s being delivered of her present burden, and hope ere long to rejoice that a child is born into the world.”
As to the outcome of this hope we have no information. But [historian Luke] Tyerman says: “He makes no mention, in any of his letters, of the accouchement of his wife. It is probable that, like her last, the present child was dead.”
We sympathize, of course, with Mrs. Whitefield in this experience, but must also consider what the necessity of leaving her so frequently must have meant to Whitefield himself. It is evident that he felt a constant concern for her, particularly during her pregnancy, and his frequent returns to London throughout the latter part of the year were undoubtedly occasioned by her special need of him.
We must notice that to all his other activities there was added the pressure of being constantly sought by those who wanted to talk with him personally. All manner of Christian people sought him to ask his advice and to have the encouragement of so great a man in the affairs of their lives. We notice in this regard the statement made by John Newton [author of the hymn Amazing Grace].
Newton’s conversion may have been assisted, to some extent, by the reading of Whitefield’s sermons. It is certain that when, some time later, he experienced the call of God to the ministry, he felt a deep longing to hear Whitefield preach and to talk with him.
In 1755 Newton went to London for this express purpose and his Diary of the event reads: "Reached London on Thursday, June 5. On Friday morning … waited on Mr. Whitefield; but he being much engaged, I could not see him. The afternoon at Mr. Hayward’s. He gave me a letter to Mr. Whitefield.… Heard Mr. Whitefield preach in the evening.… After sermon delivered the letter [to Mr. Whitefield]; but he was so engaged in company, he could neither read that nor several others given him, but desired I should call in the morning.
“Saturday … I had five minutes converse with Mr. Whitefield, then he excused himself in a very friendly obliging manner from anything further, upon account of his throng of business.”
These multiple activities show us something of the background against which the events of Whitefield’s life took place. We look at them again in brief:
He began his day at four in the morning. He endeavored to retire at ten each night, but of course there were times when at that hour he was out on the road, riding perhaps through torrential rain or a blizzard of snow. As to his preaching, Henry Venn said that the actual time he spent at this labor was usually from forty to sixty hours a week. To this there were added his travelling, his correspondence and his reading, and finally this “throng of business” mentioned by Newton, as people begged to see him, even for a few moments.
Arnold Dallimore is author of George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th-Century Revival (Banner of Truth, 1970, 1980).
Copyright © 1993 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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