George Whitefield, The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th-Century Revival

Arnold Dallimore’s two-volume biography is massive and detailed. It encompasses over 1,200 pages of small print and is filled with historical information, events, and accomplishments of George Whitefield who many consider the greatest preacher of the gospel who ever lived. Although he died before his 56th birthday, Whitefield preached thousands of sermons, often two or three a day, and was instrumental in both the American Great Awakening and Great Britain’s Evangelical Revival in the 18th century. Dallimore’s work is highly sympathetic toward the life and ministry of Whitefield, even though at times he details specific flaws (e.g. pp. 519-521).

While not nearly as well known today as John and Charles Wesley, Whitefield was their contemporary, friend, enemy, co-laborer, and pioneer in open-air preaching. He is considered the father of Methodism, having founded and led the Calvinistic branch for many years. The Wesleys led the Arminian side and when Whitefield stepped aside for the sake of unity (pp. 246-250), the Wesleys assumed the name “Methodists.” Whitefield and the Wesleys feuded for many years over the doctrine of election as well as the Wesleyan teaching on perfectionism (pp 19-78). John’s sermon “Free Grace” became the line in the sand which separated the two sides for years, and Whitefield’s official response to the sermon is supplied in an appendix (pp. 549-569). Eventually much harmony was restored, primarily because Whitefield relinguished the leadership of his own movement to devote himself to preaching. For a time, there were three branches within the revival: Wesleyan, Whitefieldian, and Moravian (pp. 375-381). The Moravian branch influenced the Wesleys in particular but eventually drifted into a number of theological errors (chapter 22); this and unfortunately siphoned off some of the leaders of the revival (p. 232).

Whitefield preached throughout Great Britain and, unlike the Wesleys, made numerous trips to America. He founded an orphanage in Georgia, which was both a joy and a financial burden. It still exists today but not as an orphanage. He was instrumental in establishing three colleges: Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth (p. 532), and was in the process of starting a college in Georgia when he died. Whitefield was a friend of Benjamin Franklin whom he tirelessly, but unsuccessfully, tried to evangelize; and he was supported by Lady Huntington (pp. 261-282) who was invaluable to the Evangelical Revival. The Revival and the Awakening were not without their critics, even among solid Christian leaders of the day. This was due largely to the fanaticism and uncontrolled behavior of many (pp. 183-191) and the theological controversies among the three branches. Whitefield was guilty of leaning on “impressions” he assumed were from God (p. 167-169), especially early in his ministry, and The Wesleys often depended on casting lots for many of their decisions (p. 554).

Whitefield ascribed to John Wesley’s philosophy that a Methodist preacher should not “preach one sermon or travel one day less, in a married than in a single state. In this respect surely ‘it remaineth that they who have wives be as though they had none’” (p. 100). Therefore, it is not surprising that neither men had good marriages (pp. 472-483). And no doubt the blackest mark on the life of Whitefield was his support of slavery, going so far as introducing it in Georgia and owning several slaves of his own (pp. 482-498).

For people desiring a comprehensive study on the life of George Whitefield, they need look no further than these two volumes.

by Arnold Dallimore (East Peoria: Versa Press, 1980), 602 pp + xiv, hard $14.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel