|  July 8, 2024

The following article is part of a series of articles that will traverse church history to examine the preaching of great preachers.

George Whitefield was one of the seminal figures of The Great Awakening. He was called a “Lion in the pulpit” and likened to the great Greek orator Demosthenes.[i] His powerful sermons and emotional delivery conveyed the gospel to thousands and were used by the Holy Spirit to bring countless individuals to repentance. His ministry’s reach was vast, spanning both his native England and the American Colonies. Some estimate that 80% of the residents of the American continent experienced his preaching.

His early life was quite unremarkable. He was born in Gloucester, England, in 1714 to parents Thomas and Elizabeth. Tragedy struck the family two years later with the death of his father. Although Elizabeth remarried, the subsequent union ended in a divorce, forcing young George to concentrate more on helping run the family inn than his studies. Despite the circumstances, he showed an aptitude for learning and later enrolled in college at Oxford University. There, the trajectory of his life and religious life in England and the American Colonies took a fortuitous turn. While pursuing his education, he became friends with Charles and John Wesley and converted to Jesus Christ. Just a few short years later, his preaching ministry began with an emotional bang, as it was reported that when he finished his first-ever sermon, complaints were made to the bishop that fifteen people were “driven mad.”[ii] His preaching grew in popularity in England and the New World, where he would make seven mission excursions before he died.

While Whitefield preached prolifically in both the old and new worlds, there is only a small corpus of his sermons that are still extant for study. There are sixty-three sermons, most of which were published in the years preceding his 25th birthday. By most accounts, Whitefield’s sermons were of a topical nature. Nevertheless, he was committed to the Scripture and his study of the Greek New Testament and was informed heavily by Matthew Henry’s exhaustive Commentary on the Whole Bible.[iii]

Despite the lack of sermons, several key takeaways from his ministry are helpful and instructive for contemporary preachers. In the following paragraphs, we will briefly discuss three: his pathos, his evangelistic zeal, and his commitment to making the gospel known to lost sinners.

The Lion’s Pathos

One element of George Whitefield’s preaching that is often described in reports of his life and ministry is the passion with which he preached. Aristotle referred to this element of rhetoric as “pathos.” [iv] One’s pathos conveys to the audience the urgency and importance of what one is communicating. He was so moved by the gospel that he fervently proclaimed, that it was not uncommon to see him weeping as he exhorted sinners to repentance. In the same way, A preacher who rightly wrestles with the text of Scripture he is expounding should make an effort to proclaim it with a passion that underscores how desperately his hearers need the message and the savior to whom that sermon must point.

The Lion’s Evangelistic Zeal

In addition to the pathos of his preaching, George Whitefield’s evangelistic fervor was a second hallmark of his preaching. Wherever he preached, repentance and salvation followed. [v] According to Curtis and McKnight, one of the significant characteristics that many church historians highlight about Whitefield was his “zeal for evangelism.”[vi] His driving motivation seemed to be to glorify God and see men saved.[vii] In fact, he was willing to give his very life to make his savior’s name known, saying on one occasion, “I’ll preach Christ ’til I do to pieces fall.”[viii] This passion for lost souls should be a defining mark of a preacher today. While I would not advocate for the abandonment of exposition, certainly, each sermon needs to clearly articulate the gospel and call sinners to repent and turn to Jesus.

The Lion’s Commitment to Imagination and Creativity in Delivery.

A final element worth studying about Whitefield was his use of imagination and creativity in preaching. Before his conversion to Christianity, Whitefield was a voracious reader. His appetite for plays was insatiable. He would act out the parts and practice delivering the lines. Even though he was not yet a follower of Christ, young George would attend local church services to listen to the sermons, later imitate the mannerisms, and perform those for his siblings at home. Once he started delivering his sermons, he frequently used imagination and dramatic techniques in his preaching. His delivery was so engaging that anecdotes have been shared of listeners crying out in anguish at intense moments. One story tells of a non-believing military officer who despised preaching and preachers who attended one of Whitefield’s messages. As Whitefield described a blind man stumbling near a cliff, the officer, lost in the moment, cried aloud, “Good God, he’s over.”[ix] In another instance, while preaching on the return of Christ, he had a trumpeter blow his horn. This tactic might have been a bit ill-advised since it resulted in “panic and hysteria.”[x] Used in moderation and judiciously, such tools can be utilized to enhance and heighten dramatic performance in a sermon creating a significant impact.

As a result of George Whitefield’s ministry, a myriad of souls were added to the Lamb’s Book of Life. While we recognize that God gave that increase, we can certainly learn from the “Lion in the Pulpit.” Students of his life can learn from his pathos, his zeal for evangelism, and his use of imagination and creativity in preaching to become better preachers.

[i] David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers, vol. 1, 370.

[ii] Bill Curtis and Timothy McKnight, “George Whitefield: Calvinist Evangelist.” In A Legacy of Preaching, 501.

[iii] Ibid., 510

[iv] Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit, 277.

[v] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, vol. 2, 228.

[vi] Curtis and McKnight, 507.

[vii] Ibid., 508.

[viii] Larsen, 372.

[ix] Larsen, 371.

[x] Ibid.

Clint Ellis serves as Pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Florida.

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