In all things charity: The servant leadership of George Whitefield

“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”

Often attributed to Augustine, I was shocked to learn this quote was written by someone else.  But regardless of who said it first, I haven’t read of anyone who embodies this principle more than George Whitefield.  In his biography of Whitefield, Arnold Dallimore tells a compelling story of sacrificial love.

Whitefield partnered with John and Charles Wesley in the founding of Methodism.  However, a disagreement arose between them about predestination—Whitefield being a Calvinist and the Wesleys being Arminian.  Those of you with knowledge of church history know that Methodism would follow the Arminian tradition.  It is lesser known, however, that Whitefieldian Calvinist Methodism was widespread and was organizing conferences 18 months before the Wesleys.  So what happened to Calvinist Methodism that was thriving under Whitefield’s leadership in England?  The answer is found in the loving heart and kingdom purpose of George Whitefield.

In the early years of their ministry, Whitefield and the Wesley brothers were all Calvinist.  It was Whitefield who was encouraging and training the Wesleys to do open-air preaching and under his mentorship, they grew thriving ministries.  But as Whitfield turned his attention to America and what we today call the First Great Awakening, the Wesley brothers began to move toward Arminianism and the theology of Christian perfection—that we can become sinless in this life.  At first Whitefield made attempts to bring the Wesley brothers back to his view, writing to them and about them with vastly more grace and gentleness than at least John Wesley showed to Whitefield.  But the Wesley brothers continued to organize Methodist religious societies in accordance with their views, while Whitefield pastored his own, essentially competing societies following Calvinist Methodism.  As John Wesley and Whitefield both grew in prominence, they became rivals and their rivalry grew bitter among their followers.  This revival of God was at risk of devolving into factions and strife.

But by the early 1740s, Whitefield ramped up his efforts to heal the breach.  Following a meeting with the Wesleys, he concluded that the division among the people and John Wesley’s insistence upon primary leadership of the movement would prevent any organizational reconciliation.  But instead of just agreeing to disagree and leave the breach in place, Whitefield did something shocking:  He surrendered for the sake of unity.

He gave up leadership of the Calvinist Methodist Societies to become, as he said, “simply the servant of all.”  He would allow John Wesley, in the words of Dallimore, to “be the one head of Methodism.” As his people objected and some suggested that his fame would be lost, Whitefield replied:

Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified.

Let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus may be promoted.

But what is Calvin, or what is Luther?  Let us look above names and parties; let Jesus be our all in all—So that He is preached…I care not who is uppermost.  I know my place…even to be the servant of all.

I am content to wait until the judgment day for the clearing up of my reputation; and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph that this, “Here lies G.W.  What sort of man he was the great day will discover.”

Dallimore continues, “Where in church history do we find such magnanimous selflessness? So noble an action is all but unknown.  By his act Whitefield saved the revival from further discord and strife.  And because of it, John Wesley, not George Whitefield, is known today as ‘the leader and founder of Methodism.'”

Whitefield’s magnanimity continued.  In the late 1740s, Charles Wesley intervened to arrange the marriage of the woman John Wesley loved to someone else, believing he had done John a great favor.  The rift between them threatened to split Wesleyan Methodism.  Who rushed to try to heal the wound?  In John Wesley’s words, “Mr. Whitefield wept and prayed over me…he said all that was in his power to comfort me.”  While others contributed as well, Whitefield continued to work to heal their relationship.  Then Whitefield went on to preach to many of the Wesleys’ societies, bringing significant growth and new converts.  One must assume that Whitefield simply chose not to preach about predestination, and worked for the blessing of the movement that Wesley was now shepherding.

Finally, by 1752 Charles Wesley had changed his mind on the issue that divided them, and was now much closer to Whitefield’s views than his brother’s.  He wrote to Whitefield to suggest an alliance between them.  Whitefield’s response?

The connection between you and your brother hath been so close and your attachment to him so necessary to keep up his interest that I would not, for the world, do or say anything that may separate such friends.

Charles Wesley, also known as the great hymn writer, would write on Whitefield’s death:

Though long by following multitudes admired,

No party for himself he e’er desired;

His one desire to make the Savior known,

To magnify the name of Christ alone:

If others strove who should the greatest be,

No lover of preeminence was he,

Nor envied those his Lord vouchsafed to bless,

But joyed in theirs as in his own success.

I am in awe of a leader so committed to Christ’s cause and so unconcerned with his own reputation and position.  May Christ increase and I decrease!

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. wow. i like this. even though i subscribe to a more reformed thinking, i currently serve at a nazarene church (so they’re arminian…) but we are all children of God. 🙂 thank you for the reminder. i echo your declaration: may Christ increase, and i decrease.

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