Christian History Home > Issue 69 > The Wesleys: A Gallery - The Leadership Team
The Wesleys: A Gallery - The Leadership Team
These early converts supported, strengthened, and spread the Methodist movement—whether John Wesley agreed with them or not.
Mouthpiece of Methodism
"What does the boy mean? Prithee hold thy tongue!" This is how George Whitefield's mother, an innkeeper in Gloucester, greeted his announcement that while running an errand for her, a "very strong impression" was made upon his heart that he should preach. Whitefield pursued his calling anyway, eventually gaining even his mother's full support.
Whitefield began developing his preaching skills early. In school he developed a strong interest in plays and acted in several. Although he decried the theater in his later years, his journals demonstrated that his theater experience helped develop his vast oratorical gifts, which would later allow him to preach with ease to crowds of up to 10,000 during the Great Awakening.
Through an influential friend, Whitefield's mother was able to secure her son a work-study arrangement at Oxford. But before he left Gloucester, a friend named Gabriel Harris, the keeper of the city's best bookshop, showed him a new book, the second edition of William Law's A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
He looked at the book only briefly that day, but he read these words before returning it to his friend: "He therefore is the devout man who lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, but to the sole will of God." These words sparked a new fire and zeal in Whitefield.
At Oxford, Charles Wesley introduced Whitefield to the Holy Club and to his brother John. Upon meeting Whitefield, Charles noted that he was a "modest, pensive youth who mused alone." However, Charles quickly established a fondness for the young man and later remarked of that first encounter, "I saw, I loved, and clasped him to my heart."
After the Wesleys sailed to America, Whitefield assumed leadership of the Holy Club. Of this group, Whitefield later wrote: "Never did persons, I believe, strive more earnestly to enter in at the strait gate. … They were dead to the world, and willing to be accounted as the dung and off-scouring of all things, so that they might win Christ."
In 1735, the same year he became a full member of the Holy Club, Whitefield experienced spiritual "New Birth"—three years before the Wesleys' similar experience at Aldersgate. He was ordained a deacon at Gloucester in June 1736 and preached his first sermon a week later.
With his booming voice and boundless passion, Whitefield soon looked for ways to expand his ministry beyond the walls of the Church of England. He began preaching outdoors. Though he was not the first to attempt this, Whitefield's stirring and skilled delivery made it famous.
John Newton remarked, "The Lord gave him a manner of preaching which was peculiarly his own. He copied from none, and I never met with anyone who could imitate him with success."
At first, John Wesley, who had returned from America, deemed Whitefield's approach "a mad notion." But Whitefield convinced him that the way of the gospel is to go "out in the highways and hedges." Soon Wesley was imitating the orator who "copied from none."
Wesley's experience in America had been so discouraging that Whitefield indicated a desire to preach there, Wesley advised him not to make the trip. Whitefield politely ignored this advice and sailed to Georgia in 1739.
Whitefield's preaching spread the message of Christ life wildfire on dry ground in the Colonies, and even Benjamin Franklin (who once studied Whitefield's strong voice as he preached) was counted among Whitefield's frequent hearers.
Whitefield briefly split from the Wesleys over doctrine. Whitefield was a staunch, if not terribly scholarly, Calvinist, and he perceived the Wesleys' emphasis on free will as an echo of heretical Pelagianism. The Wesleys accused Whitefield of a adopting a theology that excluded too many potential converts.
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