OUR FOREFATHERS’ COVENANTS
April 3, 2020
In last week’s Coffee Break, I deviated somewhat from the discussions on our nation's founding fathers -- those who were actively involved in the politics and policies that brought those American colonists together to form a cohesive nation under God -- to talk about a couple of preachers (Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield) whose lives, whose teaching and preaching became integrated into the thoughts and decision-making processes that formulated our Articles of Association in 1774; the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and the United States Constitution in 1788.
We first talked about Jonathan Edwards, and how his active labors in the Gospel during the Great Awakening brought about a sense of cohesiveness among Christians throughout the colonies. But it was George Whitefield whose travels throughout every single one of the colonies made him one of the most-recognized figures of the 18th Century. His preaching drew unprecedented crowds of listeners and participants.
I noted on Friday that history says George Whitefield preached an average of 500 sermons per year, and more than 18,000 in his lifetime. In England, he preached to several crowds numbering between 80,000 and 100,000. When he began his travels across the Atlantic to preach in the American Colonies (he made a total of 13 trips across the Atlantic), he first landed in Philadelphia and began preaching from a balcony on the old courthouse on October 30, 1739. It gave him an elevated place from which to preach. An estimated crowd of 6,000 people turned out to him him preach that morning, and another crowd of 8,000 gathered to hear him that same evening.
A week later, the news of his dynamic preaching had spread. He preached to 10,000 people in the morning, and 25,000 in the evening. Newspaper reporters wrote that "as many as 500 people fell prostrate under the power," and that "many people made demonstrations" (meaning that there were visible signs and manifestations of deliverance from evil spirits). One reporter wrote, "Audible cries of the audience often interrupted the messages. People were usually saved right during the progress of a service. The altar call as such was not utilized."
When preaching his farewell address in Philadelphia a week or so later, more than 35,000 people assembled in the streets to hear Whitefield. From Philadelphia he headed to New York where throngs of people met him. Even before he could reach a promontory or an elevated place in the city where he could see and be seen by the crowds, some 8,000 people assembled before him in an open field to hear him. After preaching to that crowd, he made his way into the city where he preached to 15,000 people his first Sunday morning, and another gathering of more than 20,000 that same afternoon.
Following a short stay in New York, he traveled with an entourage of more than a thousand people to Chester, Georgia. So powerful was his preaching that the business of city and state government ground to a halt. The courts closed their doors as judges sat and listened to him and would not resume their court activities or hear any cases until George Whitefield had finished his preaching. He traveled back and forth between Savannah, Georgia, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina where he established "Bethesda House" on March 25, 1740 as a place for orphans and the homeless.
Let me pause for a second. Of the estimated 18,000 messages that George Whitefield preached, no more than perhaps ninety remain in written form. When one reads those written messages, it becomes clear that they really were nothing more than outlines. The outlines themselves contain nothing that would indicate the profound impact of Whitfield's preaching, nor are they particularly revelatory in content.
What differentiated George Whitefield from his peers was that he rarely, if ever, preached from a prepared sermon. His preaching was extemporaneous. He was a dramatist. The Holy Spirit had given him revelation on some fundamental truths, and his preaching was quite theatrical as he became the message he was preaching. When he preached on individuals from Scripture, and their lives, he became those individuals in front of his audiences. The Word of God became a living, breathing demonstration to the hearers. There had never before in history been a preacher quite like him.
Where Jonathan Edwards was an articulate writer on the truths of the Gospel, George Whitefield was the spokesman who breathed those truths in such a way that tens upon tens of thousands -- and even hundreds of thousands -- of people turned to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. More than that, the principles of the Gospel were instilled in the hearers in such a way that it permanently affected and altered their lives, their thoughts, and the way in which they lived.
When George Whitefield returned to New England, he headed for Boston where Massachusetts' Governor Belcher awaited him. Once again, the largest crowds ever assembled in Boston's history turned out to hear this Holy Spirit-anointed preacher and evangelist. His first morning in Boston, more than 8,000 people assembled to hear him, and more than 15,000 returned to the famous "Commons" to hear him that evening.
When he was asked to preach at the "Old North Church" (synonymous with Paul Revere's ride), thousands were being turned away, so he took his message outside to them. Governor Belcher then drove him back to the Commons where another crowd of 20,000+ awaited him. The faculty and staff at Harvard University invited him to come and speak. The university facilities were hardly equipped to deal with the crowds of people that turned out to hear Whitefield, so the faculty invited him back four or five more times so that everyone would have the opportunity to hear and respond to his message.
Jonathan Edwards was very much aware of George Whitefield and his preaching, and the two had become good friends. Edwards was, at the time, pastoring in Northampton, Massachusetts. Whitefield preached for Edwards four times during the short month he was in New England between October 17 - 20. His preaching there culminated in the beginning of a revival and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that lasted for more than a year and a half. He departed for England in March of 1741 where he spent the next three years traveling throughout England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Not since the days of John Knox had Scotland seen such a move of God. Crowds ranging in respective sizes of 30,000, 20,000, 10,000 -- and even 100,000 in Glasgow -- turned out to hear George Whitefield. For the first time in his years of ministry, he came very close to being a martyr for the Gospel as a man manifesting demonic spirits leaped out of the crowd and beat him senseless with a gold cane. When he recovered, he made a statement that folks would hear several times from him in the coming years, "We are immortal until our work is done." Again he said, "Let the name of Whitefield die so that the cause of Christ may live."
Despite the fact that he was attacked on numerous occasions, stoned several times -- almost to the point of death -- in Ireland, England and Scotland and left bloodied and almost unrecognizable, his request to the Lord, "May I die preaching," was fulfilled Sunday morning, September 30, 1770.
He had been back in America for just over a year, and was in Newburyport, Massachusetts with his friend, Jonathan Parsons at the First Presbyterian Church -- a church which George Whitefield had helped to found. He had preached for hours the night before, and people had gathered at the parsonage begging him to continue. There he preached on Faith and Works until the candles were used up at 2:00 AM. As his candle extinguished, he told a traveling companion, Richard Smith, "My asthma is returning. I must have some rest." Four hours later, George Whitefield went to be with the Lord.
Jonathan Edwards had sown seed throughout the area. One historian wrote, "Whitefield's presence was the straw that was to break the devil's back."
At a memorial service held later, John Wesley said, "Oh, what has the church suffered in the setting of that bright star which shone so gloriously in our hemisphere. We have none left to succeed him; none of his gifts; none anything like him in usefulness."
Indeed, America suffered a great loss in his passing. Like Edwards who was 55 years of age when he passed on, George Whitefield was 55 years and nine months of age when he went to be with the Lord. Yet despite the fact that neither of them were involved in government in any way, there were few involved in the American Revolution and the forming of this nation whose lives had not been unalterably changed and impacted by the writing and preaching of Jonathan Edwards, and the preaching with signs following of George Whitefield.
Historians later wrote that the intercessory prayer movement begun by Jonathan Edwards, followed by his articulate writings, and capitalized on by George Whitefield's preaching, created such a wave of revival throughout America and caused such a cohesiveness, a sense of unity and "corporate family" among the inhabitants that it bred all of the necessary conditions essential for America's founding as a nation.
Where colonists had before times held pretty much to themselves -- and particularly among the various denominational groups -- and reserved their interaction between colonies to business and political affairs, they now had a sense of "belonging" to and with each other with shared experiences, motivations and goals. Jonathan Edwards' writings and articles became defacto references by many of the founders as they sought to pull the colonies together in a common bond. George Whitefield's preaching resulted in such change in the lives of so many thousands of people that it lit the fires of independence, creating a purpose for a nation that could come together in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and found "one nation under God" in which the Gospel would have free course.
No two men better deserve to be included among those we revere as our nation's "founding fathers" than Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Without their obedience to the Lord, and their daring to break the traditional molds of religion, it is doubtful that the American Revolution would ever have taken place.
I failed to add one piece of information to the past two discussions concerning Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, so let me add this tidbit.
Everyone pretty much knows that Benjamin Franklin had a fairly notorious private life, and that he was known for his rather "Bohemian lifestyle" -- to put it carefully. As I commented last Friday, George Whitefield greatly impacted Franklin's life. The two of them became friends, and Franklin often accompanied George Whitefield to his meetings to listen to him.
We have no direct evidence of any conversion on Benjamin Franklin's part despite being exposed to what was obviously some of the most powerful and anointed preaching ever heard. Yet Franklin could hardly sit under George Whitefield's preaching without being changed and affected and/or having his very liberal views permanently altered. The evidence of Whitefield's preaching and its impact in Benjamin Franklin's life came some years after Whitefield's death when Franklin was addressing the Federal Convention in 1787.
Listen to what Benjamin Franklin had to say:
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other—our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes and ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, some we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.—Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that "except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service."
David Barton, the founder and president of WallBuilders, Inc. writes the following commentary (excerpted) as his follow-up to some of James Madison's notes on the Federal Convention of 1787.
"Although authorized by the Congress of the Confederation, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was nevertheless cloaked with secrecy and confidentiality. The official papers of the Convention sat in the Department of State, untouched, until 1818. Yet in retrospect, the gathering reveals both the men and the issues they faced during the founding era. Through analysis of both the Philadelphia debates and the various ratification conventions, we realize the concerns and needs of a developing nation.
Men of means and education pursued a limited, federal government capable of providing political and economic stability in a land of diverse sectional interests. The fight for freedom had been experiential; much of the struggle for structure and unity would be theoretical. The doctrines of scholars would meet with the practical necessities of an emerging nation, resulting in a balanced blend of pragmatism and principle—the Constitution of the United States of America.
We will pick it up here next week.
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Regner A. Capener
RIVER WORSHIP CENTER
Temple, Texas 76502
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