“I believe it is God’s will that I should marry,” George Whitefield wrote to a friend in 1740. But he was concerned: “I pray God that I may not have a wife till I can live as though I had none.”

That ambivalence—believing God willed a wife, yet wanting to live as if without one—brought Whitefield a disappointing love life and largely unhappy marriage.

First Love

When 25-year-old Whitefield met young Elizabeth Delamotte, he struggled to reconcile his love for Christ with the strange new sensation he felt toward her. Sailing to America in 1739, he resolved to put her out of his mind. But when he arrived in Georgia, a letter from her awaited him.

“What room can there be for God,” he wrote her, “when a rival hath taken possession of the heart?” Still, “I could almost drop a tear, and wish myself, for a moment or two, in England. But hush, nature.” Whitefield’s Journals soon report “unspeakable troubles and anguish of soul.” Finally, he decided to marry.

His proposal letter to Elizabeth began by cataloguing the sufferings she would endure as his wife, concluding with, “Can you, when you have a husband, be as though you had none, and willingly part with him, even for a long season, when his Lord and Master shall call him forth to preach the Gospel?” He smothers romantic notions: “I write not from any other principles but the love of God.… The passionate expressions which carnal courtiers use … ought to be avoided by those that would marry in the Lord.”

As one historian put it, “Had he tried to design his proposal in such a way as to ensure its failure, he could hardly have done better.”

Love Triangle

Though his proposal was rejected, Whitefield still felt called to marriage. When he mentioned this to fellow evangelist Howell Harris, Harris ...

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