Chapter 1 of Thundering the Word: The Awakening Ministry of George Whitefield
He Must Increase
John the Baptist was a popular preacher—not by his own ambition but by the fact that he was the first prophetic voice heard in Israel after four hundred years of silence. Think about this—four hundred years passed over Israel’s history with no “Thus says the Lord.” Heaven had been closed off to God’s old covenant people after Malachi.
But then, a voice was heard. Indeed, it was a voice crying out of the wilderness (literally). A strange man who ate wild honey and locusts and dressed in camel’s hair was heralding with divine authority that Israel needed to be ready for the soon-coming King. He called the nation to repent and be baptized. He told them he was merely a forerunner to the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire—namely, their long-expected Messiah. Indeed, John the Baptist became an immensely popular preacher.
Luke tells us that “crowds” went out to be baptized by him (Luke 3:7). Matthew tells us that people came to him from “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan” (Matt. 3:5). Moreover, it appears that the multitudes coming to hear John the Baptist included all segments of the population. In fact, we’re even told of an official delegation from Jerusalem showing up to inquire as to who John the Baptist really was (John 1:19). The fame of this wilderness prophet had become so pervasive that the religious elite of Israel could not ignore him. Why, a report was even circulating that John the Baptist was the prophet Elijah returning from glory (John 1:21). Naturally, then, John the Baptist was the subject of everyone’s conversation, and his ministry was the most sought-after event, if you will, in all Israel.
But John’s ministry was only for a season. When the Lord Jesus Christ finally came on the scene, the fame of His forerunner began to fade. As Jesus was moving further in His itinerary throughout Jerusalem and beyond, the crowds expanded quickly around Him. Indeed, many who had been following John the Baptist were now leaving him to follow Christ. And not surprisingly, those disciples of John who remained loyal to him were infuriated over the prominence Christ was gaining, as it eclipsed John’s renown. In fact, they reported to John, in the spirit of a scandal, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him” (John 3:26).
The gist of their complaint to John the Baptist was “John, your star is sinking. What shall we do?” These devoted, diehard followers of John the Baptist simply could not tolerate the idea that Jesus would dare detract from John’s ministry. Their protest, then, was nothing but an invitation for their mentor and leader to feel injured and neglected. Therefore, they called on John to rebuke Jesus—to silence the witness and ministry of the Messiah. Is this not incredible? Their jealously for John the Baptist had blinded them to what this prophet of God was all about.
So, how did John the Baptist respond? Did he give in to the envy of his disciples and thereby feed his own pride, ego, and self-pity? Remarkably, the last recorded words of John’s public ministry would be in response to his disciples’ quibble. These words would be part of the apostle John’s Gospel account in 3:22–36. And at the heart of everything John the Baptist said to his disciples, his summary answer to their complaint was simply this: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (v. 30).
Let My Name Be Forgotten
Like John the Baptist, George Whitefield faced virtually the same circumstances, which put him in a place to either protect his self-importance or deny it altogether for the sake of Christ. It was 1748. By this time, George Whitefield had become a household name among the masses in both the American colonies and Great Britain. Everywhere he went to herald the gospel of Christ, throngs of people crowded to hear the man many were calling the “Grand Itinerant.” Needless to say, only twelve years after preaching his first sermon, George Whitefield had no equal in his ability and fruit proclaiming Christ.
But despite such accolades and the popularity that swarmed around him, 1748 became a watershed moment that would change the course of Whitefield’s ministry for the remainder of his days. Continually grieved over the division suffered between brothers John (1703–1791) and Charles (1707–1788) Wesley and himself nine years prior, as well as the increasing effects of that division among all who had attached themselves to either of these men, Whitefield made a bold decision. Realizing that those gathered under his and John Wesley’s leadership would never be united, he determined to relinquish his place and position as the leader of his Methodist societies. By this one act, Whitefield would spare the Methodist movement from bitter strife and, in turn, permit John Wesley to emerge as the single head of Methodism.
As expected, many of Whitefield’s followers were not happy with his decision. They warned him that his fame would be lost and that he would be all but forgotten to future generations. Like those loyal disciples of John the Baptist, Whitefield’s devotees pleaded with their leader not to fade from the scene. They wanted Whitefield to retain his position, increase his party, and continue the prominence of his name. What temptation it would have been for any man of God to protect his ego and concede to his faithful followers. But George Whitefield took the same position as did John the Baptist. In a letter to a friend on July 12, 1748, Whitefield wrote, “Never mind me, let my name die everywhere, let even my friends forget me, if by that means the cause of the blessed Jesus be promoted.” To another friend, in 1749, he declared, “You judge right when you say, ‘It is your opinion that I do not want to make a sect, or set myself at the head of a party.’ No, let the name of Whitefield die, so that the cause of Jesus Christ may live.” And still to others, he would express incessantly, “Let my name be forgotten, let me be trodden under the feet of all men, if Jesus may thereby be glorified.”
This is how George Whitefield said, like John the Baptist, “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease.” This is all that ultimately mattered to the greatest preacher England ever produced. After all was said and done, Whitefield only wanted Jesus Christ and His glory to be remembered. “Let my name be forgotten,” he said. Yet, in truth, we can’t forget Whitefield. The Lord commands us to remember such men of God, imitating their faith, as we consider “the outcome of their way of life” (Heb. 13:7). It is to this end that this work proceeds, but not without first putting Whitefield in the proper context of his life and ministry. What were the times like wherein God called and sent out George Whitefield?