Holy Hooligans of History: George Whitefield

Before we go any further, you’re probably wondering, “What in world is a ‘Holy Hooligan?’”  The title is simply supposed to convey the concept that as saintly as Christians of history have been, they’re still just sanctified sinners—holy hooligans.  We’re all just a bunch a trouble-makers saved by the mercy and grace of our ruffian-saving Father.  Some may label it as a misnomer, but I would assert that it adequately holds the tension between the work Jesus Christ has done in our lives (sanctification) and the work that Jesus Christ will do in our lives (glorification).  While we Wesleyans believe that God can set us free from willful sin in this life, we don’t believe we become somehow invincible to sin, free from mistakes, or perfect in knowledge.  In addition to this title communicating our “sanctified imperfections,” I think it also communicates the humanness of the individuals.  History has a way of casting a limelight on people that makes them seem divine or superhuman.  Though, surely we know that all the holy hooligans of history are just human beings like we are (James 5:17).

Today, we’re peering into the life of George Whitefield—the holy hooligan that helped ignite the First Great Awakening in America.  Whitefield, born in 1714 in England, was a trained actor who, by the grace and mercy of God became one of the most famous preachers in Christian history.[1] 

Today, preaching without notes is a commonplace practice for many preachers; this style of extemporaneous preaching was popularized in part from Whitefield’s ministry.[2]  Whitefield gained an exceptional reputation for preaching when he was only in his twenties.  Too, his preaching was noted for its deep emotional appeal.  We see an example of such when Christopher Evans says, “…[Whitefield] succeeded in garnering the patronage of many prominent colonists, including most notably, Benjamin Franklin…a religious skeptic…who, upon hearing Whitefield preach, felt compelled to give all of his money to the revivalist, in support of an orphanage that Whitefield sponsored.”[3]

Whitefield left an indelible mark on the fabric of American Christianity—emphasizing the need for emotional connection with listeners.  As successful as Whitefield was, it is hard to believe that he had any notable imperfections.  Though, portraits and history reveal to us that he was noticeably cross-eyed.  Evans makes a wise observation when he says, “one can only speculate about how his appearance would be received in a modern media age.”[4]  Today, the preachers who are praised for their profound preaching are more often exposed for their gluttony in aesthetic appeal (check out https://www.instagram.com/preachersnsneakers/?hl=en if you want to know more) than their lack of imperfections.  While today’s populace might downplay Whitefield’s imperfections, the public in Whitefield’s time saw it as “…a sign of power and supernatural presence.”[5]  I suspect that perhaps these people of the past said, “Surely this must be God if He is speaking through such an imperfect man in such a powerful way!”

As a pastor, I’m humbled by Whitefield’s story when I am tempted to sulk over my lazy-eye.  Whitefield was far from being perfect—much like us.  And, beyond his physical imperfection, I wonder if he struggled with the temptation to pride amid his overwhelming success as a preacher.  I wonder if his training in acting tempted him to make God’s Word a spectacle at times rather than and a God-glorifying experience for hearers.

1 Corinthians 1:27 says, “…God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”[6]  Scripture declares that God chooses people who are imperfect by worldly standards to do his work.  What are your “imperfections?”  Stuttering?  Incompetence? Plainness? A physical flaw or limitation?  Scripture and the life of George Whitefield teach us that God takes joy in utilizing holy hooligans like us to be instruments of His glory.  We should always evaluate what view of ourselves influences our Kingdom work more—God’s optimistic view of our potential or our deprecating view of our self-named “defects?”   

Jared M. Webb, Assistant Pastor

[1] Christopher H. Evans, Histories of American Christianity: An Introduction, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2013), 68.

[2] Randall Balmer, Evangelicalism in America, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016), 78, 84.

[3] Evans, Histories of American Christianity, 70-71.

[4] Evans, Histories of American Christianity, 70.

[5] Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 41.

[6] NIV

Note: Image has no known copyright restrictions