This book is one of the “Long Line of Godly Men Profile” series, and its author — a prominent American minister — is also the series editor. It’s a short book (132 pages of text, plus a foreword, preface, notes, bibliography, and index), providing a brief and necessarily selective account of the life of the English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770) in the first chapter and then describing his preaching in more detail in the other five. The idea of the book (and the series) is to hold up various Christians (all Protestants, I think) as exemplars; the book here repeatedly wishes that we had more preachers now like Whitefield.
The book proves beyond all doubt that George Whitefield indeed had “evangelistic zeal.” Theologically, he was staunchly Calvinist and the book celebrates this; though a founder of Methodism, he was often at odds with John Wesley. Whitefield was no Bible-thumping dummy; among his American friends and admirers were Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards. His energy and commitment were amazing; he made seven trans-Atlantic crossings, for example, at a time when each one was a risky business.
But to me the most interesting and thought-provoking lesson in the book is the importance at that time of in-person preaching. Whitefield early on decided that preaching to large audiences, in particular outdoors, was his calling. He reached an astonishing number of people, both through huge audiences at his individual sermons (he had a remarkably powerful voice) and by preaching so many sermons (according to Wikipedia, “he preached at least 18,000 times to perhaps 10 million listeners” in Great Britain and the American colonies). The book compares him to St. Paul in the range of his evangelism. While by the 1700s there was plenty of printing and literacy, it was still pre-television and pre-radio, and it’s worth bearing in mind that — then as now — perhaps the Gospel can reach many people only by the spoken Word.
This book, by the way, was a birthday present to me from my son, and as it turns out I’m posting this on his birthday.