George Whitefield’s Sin and the Gospel

Bryan Loritts
header for George Whitefield’s Sin and the Gospel

One of the greatest proclaimers of the gospel in church history was the English evangelist George Whitefield. Before Billy Graham, it can be argued that no one preached the gospel in America and the United Kingdom to more people than Whitefield in the eighteenth century and D. L. Moody in the nineteenth century. Whitefield’s influence on how we view the gospel today is both positive and negative.

“Whitefield—and many believers to this day—compartmentalized the gospel, emphasizing salvation while neglecting God’s call to care for those in need.”

Possessed with spirit-given abilities, Whitefield’s spellbinding dominance over his audience was such that masses of people flocked to hear him. In fact, so many people came that he could no longer preach in church buildings; he had to take to the fields. Over the span of his ministry, it is estimated that he preached over eighteen thousand times[1] to millions of people. A person of his stature would go down as one of the greatest men God has ever used, but at the same time there was a severe blemish on his earthly record.

George Whitefield owned slaves. To be sure, he was not the only preacher of his time to do so. Jonathan Edwards, a man called America’s greatest theologian, did as well. What makes Whitefield stand out, though, is that it was because of this preacher of the gospel’s influence that Georgia legalized slavery. Using his friendship with General James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, Whitefield lobbied to have slavery legalized. In a letter written to Oglethorpe and the trustees of the Colony of Georgia, Whitefield pleaded his case:

My chief end in writing this, is to inform you . . . that I am as willing as ever to do all I can for Georgia and the Orphan House, if either a limited use of negroes is approved of, or some more indented servants [are] sent over. If not, I cannot promise to keep any large family, or cultivate the plantation in any considerable manner.[2]

Whitefield’s biographer, Arnold Dallimore, remarks at the close of this letter, “such was Whitefield’s urging of the Trustees to allow slavery in Georgia, and as stated earlier, we can but deplore both his attitude and his action. . . . In 1750 the British Government submitted to the wishes of the majority of the people of Georgia; Oglethorpe’s slaveless society was done away with and slavery was made a legal practice in the colony.”[3]

Tim Keller reminds us that we must always look for the sin beneath the sin, and when we examine George Whitefield’s desire to have slavery legalized in Georgia, we are forced to conclude that racism is not the ultimate issue. No, there’s a far greater problem. What kind of gospel did Whitefield preach that would allow the proclamation of Jesus Christ to millions of people—a man who died because God so loved the world— to coexist with lobbying for the legalization of slavery? Whitefield’s problem was not a race problem; it was a gospel problem. Whatever he may have purported to believe about the gospel, or to have preached, what is obvious for Whitefield is that in practice he understood the gospel to be almost solely in terms of my relationship with Christ to the exclusion of my relationship with others.

In fairness, Whitefield did preach to the slaves, which in that day was not very common, for it was thought among many white Christians that they did not have souls and were therefore not worthy of preaching to. Whitefield disagreed. And certainly God used many other deeply flawed Christian leaders. yet Whitefield—and many believers to this day—compartmentalized the gospel, emphasizing salvation while neglecting God’s call to care for those in need.

[1] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, vol. 2 (Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth: 1980), 591, and vol.1 (Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth: 1970), 391.

[2] Ibid, vol. 2, 368.

[3] Ibid.

For Further Reading:

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by Bryan Loritts

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