One of my heroes of the faith is the 18th century evangelist George
Whitefield. God used him to help launch the Methodist revival in England, and
Whitefield still found time to make seven trips to America and fuel the fires
of the Great Awakening. Single-handedly he preached to and evangelized 80
percent of the American colonists, literally preaching himself to death at age
He also committed himself never to travel with a person more than 15 minutes
before he shared the gospel with him or her. He broke the ice with
evangelism in the streets and later introduced John Wesley to this
strategy. In fact, Wesley had just come along to a common area to hear
Whitefield, when to his surprise his friend introduced him and said, "Now we
will hear Mr. Wesley expound the gospel of Jesus Christ." Thus began Wesley's
itinerant preaching career.
While a current icon for evangelicals, Whitefield was not appreciated by
many of his contemporaries.
The formal and traditional church members of his day considered him a
rabble-rousing eccentric. After all, he used humor, contemporary illustrations
and dramatic vocabulary in his sermons--definite no-no's for his day--and he
preached outside of consecrated church buildings, heaven forbid!
He was accused of being more showman than minister and of producing
superficial, short-lived converts. In fact, one critic said his converts were
"hireling hypocrites at two shillings and sixpence per week," and yet another
commented, "He would be followed by crowds were he to wear a night-cap in the
pulpit, or to preach from a tree."
Even many good Baptists thought he was "off the wall" because he believed
people could be saved the first time they heard the gospel. He knew it could
happen because that's what had happened in the lives of many of his listeners.
And a number of them went on to become pastors and evangelists themselves.
Whitefield, however, didn't let criticism phase him. Instead he wrote,
"Satan is angry. All hail such contempt." Whitefield knew that getting the
Great Commission done was more important than gaining public or even church
approval. While not changing the message that Jesus saves, he dared to
challenge the method. He believed that if Christianity were to prosper, it must
get outside the walls of the church.
As a result, revival and unprecedented evangelistic success came to the
church. The 18th century, in fact, so revived the church that it gave birth to
the greatest century of missionary advance in more than a millennium--the
Much of the revival emphasis was then accredited to him. Joseph Ivimey, a
Baptist historian of the 19th century, said of him--"It is probable … but for
Whitefield … that infidelity would, in this country (England) have triumphed
What lesson do we learn from this great preacher of the good news? Simply
this--be faithful to the biblical message, but be willing to innovate in taking
it to the masses. That is a lesson to remember and use in our strategies for
While some might think them today's goats, ultimately it makes for
heroes--the courageous ones, who are willing to pay the price to go beyond the
ordinary and attempt the extraordinary for God and the gospel.
Phil Roberts is a theologian and expert on spirituality in our
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC