George Whitefield, Confessional Protestant Whipping Boy

George Whitefield, Confessional Protestant Whipping Boy February 5, 2013

Over at the Old Life website, our friend D.G. Hart has a piece, “Between Whitefield and the Vatican,” which argues that George Whitefield (the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century, and the subject of my current book project) focused too much on the Spirit and personal experience, while Roman Catholics focus too much on the institutional church. Confessional Protestants (like Hart) represent the best balance of Word and Spirit, ordinances and godliness, Hart contends.

It is nothing new for Hart to assign ills to the modern evangelical movement, which Whitefield substantially pioneered. But as I have written before, I don’t think Hart is representing the actual Whitefield, who was as much a theological conservative as a pragmatic innovator, and who actually attained much of the kind of Reformed balance that Hart says he admires.

To be fair, Hart does not engage in an extended treatment of Whitefield, but examines just one of Whitefield’s sermons, “The Kingdom of God” (originally delivered in Glasgow, 1741). 

Hart quotes Whitefield on what he regards as particularly problematic points:

“The kingdom of God, or true and undefiled religion, does not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion.

. . . neither does [the kingdom of God] consist in being baptized when you were young. . .

. . . neither does it consist in being orthodox in our notions, or being able to talk fluently of the doctrines of the Gospel.”

Hart concludes that “Whitefield is arguably one of the biggest problems facing confessional Protestants because his effort to do justice to the Spirit winds up doing an injustice to the Word and the ordinances the Bible prescribes.”

But Whitefield’s sermon went on to affirm the great value in being part of a truly Reformed church (such as that of the Scottish Presbyterians to whom he was speaking), to insist that baptism was obligatory, and to caution that Reformed doctrine, as explicated by the Westminster Confession, was essential to proper understanding of the gospel. And yet, having all these still did not mean that a person had true faith. Quoting Romans 14: 17, Whitefield preached that true religion consisted of “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” These gave evidence of a saving work of God’s grace in the hearts of regenerate sinners. How, I wonder, does this teaching do “injustice to the Word”? Or, as Hart says later, how does this entail “appealing to the Spirit (without the Word)”?

Whitefield was not perfect, and as he admitted, he indulged some youthful theological excesses (giving undue weight to spiritual impressions, for example). These fostered antinomian tendencies among certain followers, especially in America. But all in all, Whitefield advocated a balanced, vital piety within the safeguarding frameworks of church, doctrine, and sacraments.


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  • dghart

    Prof. Kidd, you’re wrong. Edwards is the confessional Protestant whipping boy. Think Phebe Bartlett.

  • Whitefield and the Wesley’s tend to receive a thorough rejection by the Anglicans since they didn’t “get” baptismal regeneration. They’d hold revivals (uninvited), and then make reports of “new” Christians that had found regeneration in the Spirit. The parish ministers that were actually in the area (as well as much of the established leadership) would cry, “Nonsense” since they were already baptized. What these revived folks were experiencing was conversion (something that we may experience in varying degrees throughout the Christian life if we’re seeking a repentant holy life). Of course, that’s my sacramental side coming out.

    The anti-establishment types of Edwards and Whitefield, though lionized in evangelical circles, really do lean rather easily towards the suddenly unfortunate Second Great Awakening. Thus, I approve of anyone who rightly excoriates Whitefield’s emotive individualism and is willing to excise “great” from the awakening titles. I’d prefer John Henry Hobart any day of the week (but especially Sunday).

  • Yes, I was just going over Whitefield’s argument about conversion being separate from baptism. The theological differences between Whitefield and many Anglicans on this issue were deep. I still don’t think, however, that “emotive individualism” is a sufficient (or even damning) summary of Whitefield’s theology or piety. Is there no individual aspect of Christianity? Is there no emotional aspect? When we are told to love God with our heart, are we only to do that in a communal, non-emotional way?

  • JM

    He obviously did not read Arnold Dalimore’s amazing and most comprehensive two volume bio on Whitefield. It’s only my favorite bio of all time. He should have read his journals and more of his sermons (now conveniently republished by crossway in two volumes). Great, balanced defense of Whitefield. He would not mind being the whipping boy. He was even in his own day!

  • Bah, humbug.

    “They are chiefly, indeed, young persons, sometimes lads, or rather
    boys; nay, women and girls, yea, Negroes, have taken upon them to do
    the business of preachers.”—Charles Chauncey on the Great Awakening ~1740 CE

  • John C.Gardner

    Whitefield played a significant role in the Great awakening. Was he a perfect Christian? No, but neither am I. The descriptions of Whitfield in your Great Awakening book(which I am still reading) are balanced. I am looking forward to reading the Whitefield biography.

  • thanks, John, I appreciate that.