volume 18, number 38, September 19, 2019

“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” -Romans 10:17

Our nation was founded on three necessary principles, with each strengthening the other. They are freedom (doing what we ought to do, not what we want to do), virtue (goodness, kindness, the habits of the heart), and faith. Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires to faith, and faith requires freedom. Without question America has always been a religious nation. The genius of the American system is that we have always eschewed any state religion. In fact the first amendment to our constitution forbids the establishment of any state sponsored religious faith, but also allows for the free exercise of one’s faith. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” We do not mandate anyone’s religious faith. The government does not distribute tax money to any church or denomination. People can believe anything or nothing, but in the early days of our nation we were a decidedly God-fearing people, who loved freedom, and who generally were virtuous. How did this happen? What was the catalyst?

It happened through a most unlikely person, an Englishman, George Whitefield (1714 to 1770). George was the youngest of seven children whose father died when he was two years old. His mother ran an inn in Gloucester and he worked in the inn, having no thoughts at all of further education, for he had no money. When told that he could earn his tuition by becoming a “servitor”, like a butler and maid, to wealthy students at Oxford, he jumped at the chance. This was humiliating work but at least he was at Oxford. While there he met John and Charles Wesley and several other young men, who were all zealous for the things of God. They became known, pejoratively speaking, as the “Holy Club.” They fasted twice per week, kept strict accounting of their use of time, in thirty minute increments, visited prisoners, and they fed the poor. Surprisingly, as they all later discovered, none of them were true Christians at the time. George, however, was very zealous. He was dissatisfied with his lack of zeal and peace with God. He began to fast more often and cut his daily diet to a few pieces of bread and a cup of tea without sugar. When he read in the Scriptures that Jesus prayed all night, he decided that he must do the same. So one night he went out in the damp air of Oxford and knelt to pray, but then he realized his posture of prayer still lacked humility and zeal, so he lay down on the damp turf. He also felt that he should cut himself off from the fellowship of the Holy Club and begin to pray privately. Not surprisingly, after several months of this regimen, Whitefield became very sick. He was incapacitated for six months or so. During this time he read Henry Scrougal’s book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, and was surprised to find that religious ritual did not make one right with God, that true faith is the union of the soul with God, a participation in the divine nature, the very image of God marked upon the soul of man. 

One day he met a woman who had tried to drown herself in the river because she had lost hope. Her husband, whom Whitefield had visited, was in prison. She hoped that Whitefield could provide her some measure of peace. Later that day Whitefield met the woman and her husband and simply read John 3:1-16 to them and explained its meaning. The woman instantly jumped up and said, “I am saved. I am born again. My sins are forgiven.” Whitefield was stunned. He knew that she had never done any of the religious exercises he had been diligently pursuing, yet she had peace and he had none. A short time later Whitefield was reading Contemplations on the New Testament by Joseph Hall who told of the thief on the cross. It was at that very moment that Whitefield’s eyes were opened. He saw that the thief had not done nothing but believe and that Jesus immediately told him that that day he would be with Him in paradise. Whitefield’s burden was lifted. He was saved. He was born again. He immediately began to preach.[1]  

Whitefield was a born orator, with a magnificent voice. The famous British actor, David Garrick, said that he would give much money if could simply say, “Oh” or “Mesopotamia” like Whitefield. Benjamin Franklin, who became a close friend of Whitefield and who published his sermons in the Pennsylvania Gazette, had heard that Whitefield had preached to crowds of thirty thousand in the open air in England, and Franklin was quite skeptical of that possibility. So one day while Whitefield was preaching on the court house steps at Market Street in downtown Philadelphia, Franklin went back several blocks and found that he could hear him clearly. Franklin then imagined a semi-circle from that point back to Whitefield and allowed two square feet for each person and determined that he could in fact speak to thirty thousand people at one time. 

Whitefield’s coming to Philadelphia for the first time drew a crowd of 4000 people, and as Metaxas notes, it would be another two hundred years before other Englishmen had that impact on our country.[2] From the beginning of his ministry in 1735 to his death in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1770, Whitefield preached at least 18,000 sermons (almost two every day, and he preached at least sixty to ninety minutes each time), not to mention shorter “exhortations” to smaller groups of people. He made thirteen trips across the Atlantic Ocean, which of course, was a fearful excursion in those days. On his first trip to America, he road horseback from Philadelphia to Savannah and back, some two thousand miles. Witnesses said that he wept almost every time he preached. In fact some wondered at times if he would be able to complete his sermon. He wept because he saw the greatness of Christ and the need of the people. He preached anywhere, to anyone. Very early in his ministry, in both England and America, Whitefield ran afoul of the established church. He preached with great emotion. There was nothing reserved about his preaching. He called people to faith and repentance, even the sophisticated and well to do people of high society. So Whitefield was shortly cutoff or banned from church pulpits. Therefore, needing places to preach, he had the idea to preach in the open air. So one afternoon in Bristol, England as the coal miners where on their way home for the night, he stood on a mound and began to preach. These people were rough, hard living and hard drinking, illiterate, and looked down upon by the gentry. Most had never entered a church in their entire lives. At least two hundred coal miners stopped to listen. The next afternoon a few thousand heard him. Finally, on the third day at least 20,000 heard Whitefield preach the unfathomable riches of Christ. Whitefield knew he was reaching them when he noted that their black faces, stained by the coal dust from the mines, had white trenches where their tears had flowed. 

Whitefield’s preaching had a tremendous impact in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, but the greatest societal impact was upon Colonial America. Some historians have estimated that at least ten percent of the American population at the time (3 million people) were converted through Whitefield’s preaching. His message, “You must be born again,” leveled the playing field for everyone—rich or poor, white or black, slave or free. Churchgoers were born again, as were prostitutes, drunkards, con-artists, wife beaters, and all manner of people. And perhaps most importantly for the establishment of the American experiment of a republic and the concept of self-government, was that his ministry united the people in the thirteen colonies. Instead of seeing themselves primarily as from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, or Georgia, the people began to see themselves as Americans. They were one, and they were more moral and more virtuous because they had been born again and received the very life of God in their souls. 

Perhaps there is a young man out there somewhere, perhaps there is a little boy just learning to walk, or perhaps there is a boy who is yet to be born, whom God may raise up again to startle our nation with true, heavenly sent revival preaching which will transform our nation. I pray, we must all pray, that God will do so, for without this, I honestly see no hope at all for our nation. We are squandering the great freedoms which were purchased with the blood of those who died at Lexington and Concord, of those who died at Gettysburg, of those who died at Cantigny, of those who died at Omaha Beach, and of those who shed their blood in subsequent wars, and in many cases, forfeited their own souls (because they died without Christ and went to hell) to secure our freedom. 

I must confess I feel like pulling my hair out at what I am seeing take place in this nation. Our young people seem generally to have no clue at what is happening. We must pray, my friends. Freedom, virtue, and faith are not perpetual. We dare not presume they are.  

1 For more detail, I recommend you read If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxas, pages 84-90, and for even greater detail, you must read the classic by Arnold Dallimore George Whitfield: The Life and Times of the Great 18th Century Evangelist. 
2  Metaxas, of course, is referring to the Beatles landing at Idlewild Airport in New York City in February, 1964. 

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