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George Whitefield: the First Blogger

Whitefield’s journals have long occupied pride of place on the eighteenth century section of my Church History bookcase, snuggled up nicely against Jonathan Edwards (co-laborers), and jostling happily against the rather different Benjamin Franklin. Whitefield is the model par excellence for all mass movement evangelists, from DL Moody to Billy Sunday, to Billy Graham. Whitefield has sometimes been described as ‘the divine dramatist,’ and however controversial that appellation was to generations of evangelicals who have lauded Whitefield’s spirituality and not just his rhetoric, there is little doubt that he was golden tongued.  Mind you, it helps when your message is basically ‘be born again’ in one form or another over and over again as you itinerate around the British Isles, and across the eastern coast of America.

Whitefield was a social activist, if such an anachronism be allowed, as well as an evangelist. He founded a well-known orphanage which became the vehicle for many of his evangelistic events, and pioneered consistent and determined fund raising for the orphanage.  Actors at the time longed to be able to pronounce words like Whitefield did. One, the most famous of his day, said in effect that he would give anything to be able to say “Mesopotamia” like Whitefield. You suspect it was a little tongue-in-cheek, if not nicely damning with faint praise, but still it does witness to a certain form of admiration. More startling still, the before-mentioned Benjamin Franklin witnessed to Whitefield’s extraordinary preaching power by pacing out the sheer number of people through mathematical deduction that could still hear clearly in the open air without any amplification every word of Whitefield’s preaching and found it to be a number in the tens of thousands.  This man had a pretty serious pair of lungs.  Franklin also came determined not to give Whitefield a penny, but bit by bit found himself emptying his whole purse into the offering.  Whitefield and the very different Franklin formed something of an unlikely partnership, with Whitefield trying to convert Franklin and (unless my historical memory fails me) Whitefield staying at Franklin’s home and, more to the point, Whitefield’s journals being published by Franklin.

It is the journals which are the model of blogging.  You know what I mean.  I understand that the internet had not been invented, and that technology forms its own impact upon content, and that blogs are extremely various in their spiritual (let alone ethical) quality.  You know what I mean.  I’m just saying that there is something interesting in the way that Whitefield used his own experiences of God at work to publish as near concurrent, edited carefully no doubt, but journals of the events in which Whitefield himself was involved.  They became fuel for the revival, and in this I sense something of a model for modern day bloggers.

The task is not simply to talk a lot, nor is it simply to record a lot or accurately.  The task is to record in such a way that points out salutary lessons  and, even more, helps encourage and inspire further positive developments.  This is a little different from pure journalism, or historical writing, of course, but lest anyone think that making use of data for God’s purpose is twisting the data, reflect on the sovereignty of God and the truthfulness to which we as Christians are called.  Sometimes data feels unsalutary but can nonetheless be an example of how God uses bad things for our good and His glory – and all the rest.

So here it is: Whitefield The First Blogger.

Go buy George Whitefield’s “Journals.”  Be edified.  And go and do thou likewise.

Of course, Whitefield’s success was deeply divinely sent and dependent on God’s unique anointing and power, or rather (which is the same) on the power of the gospel itself, not Whitefield’s rhetoric.  There’s a nice story of one of Whitefield’s sermons being simply read in his absence in Scotland and revival breaking out.  No orator present.  Just the gospel.  That’s something to blog about too.

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