Wednesday, February 19, 2014

George Whitefield: Apostle to the British Empire by Chris White

George Whitefield

George Whitefield (1714-1770) was known as the “Apostle of the British Empire”.  Although very popular in England, his main claim to fame was his revival work and preaching tours he brought to colonial America.  He was considered the greatest preacher of the 18th century and is believed to have preached to over 10 million people.
George grew up in Gloucester England where his parents ran a lodging house or inn.  As a young boy Whitefield was an avid reader and would frequently give dramatic readings of plays to the guests of his parents lodging after dinner.  When George’s father died, his mother struggled to stay afloat financially and George convinced her that he should drop out of school to help with the family business.  She allowed this but George continued to study on his own.  In this period he became interested in the Bible which he read quite voraciously.

Soon a paying guest at their inn met George and told him that going to Oxford would be possible as he had worked his way through school without large financial resources.  George was convinced he should do this and went back and completed school so he could qualify to attend college.

It was while he was attending Oxford that he fell in with John and Charles Wesley the founders of the Methodists.  During this period Whitefield experiences a Christian conversion and following college sets forth to the new world to be a missionary in the colony of Georgia with John Wesley.

 As he was preparing to go he spends three months preaching in London churches and finds that whenever he preaches he attracts a crowd and they enthusiastically respond to his preaching. His method of preaching was hardly conventional.  He wouldn’t read from notes which was the common way of preaching in the day, but rather acted out his sermons often playing the part of biblical characters with great animation.  His voice would rise and fall with expression of great emotion and like a professional actor he would completely memorize all of his remarks. 

 Although he went to Georgia and did start a missionary orphanage there, Whitefield found the living situation too difficult in this primitive colony and returned to London to resume his preaching career.
Although well-received by the people, Whitefield was held suspect by the clergy and soon found churches no longer open to him.  From that point forward he began the open air preaching which became his stock and trade.

1739 saw the first of his preaching tours of America.  Whitefield went to Philadelphia and preached in the open air as no church in that time could hold a crowd of 8000 people.  Crowds of that size were noted for being so boisterous, but when he began to preach people literally listened in silence.  His effect upon them was mesmerizing and electric.  Ben Franklin said even the way he said “Mesopotamia” made him tear up.

He was slender, handsome in appearance, but also cross-eyed.  In the day, this was not considered a handicap but actually a sign of genius.   Part of what caused the ire of more established ministers is that Whitefield did things like advertise his meetings.  He was directly going above the heads of the churches to get an audience with their people.  Such procedures and use of media are common today but were completely unheard of in the day.

Doctrinally speaking he was a Calvinist and believed conversion began with a sovereign act of God.  He urged conversion, but unlike evangelists like John Wesley and ones who would follow, Whitefield did not deliver an altar call. “Repent and come to Jesus” and “ I know the Lord is bringing some to salvation here today” were about as close as you would hear him come to a call to conversion.
He ended this tour in Boston Massachusetts.  By this time a national revival had ignited known as the Great Awakening.  A sign of its impact is that 23,000 people showed up for his open air rally.  This was to date the largest gathering ever held in America of any kind.
He came back for 6 more tours of America throughout his lifetime.

During his first preaching tour he founded an orphanage in Bethesda Georgia.  He used finances raised finances through offerings to fund the orphanage his entire life.  Though a lot of money came in, it was poorly run and he had a hard time keeping it going.  Although Whitefield in his day never questioned slavery, he did include and reach out to slaves in his preaching and is considered an important figure in founding the black church in America.  Sadly in an effort to make his orphanage more cost-effective, Whitefield actually purchased slaves to work on the orphanage plantation.  Though questioned on this by evangelicals at the time, Whitefield eventually became a defender of slavery. 

Whitefield is credited with essentially changing the way people experienced God in this culture.  Before, one’s relationship with God was mediated by the church and your pastor.  They were your superiors and like everything else in British society, you had to know your place.  Whitefield saw this was a dying idea in America and latched on to this aspiration.  You don’t need an intermediary was his message, you just come directly to God.  This and the Puritan experiment, truly led to the democratization of the Church in America.

Aside from the king of England, no other person was so widely known and celebrated than George Whitefield.  He was truly America’s first celebrity.  During the course of his career he preached to equivalent of every man, woman, and child in America.

Whitefield was married, but like John Wesley, the ministers of the day feared their wives were a distraction to their devotion to Jesus and therefore he sought to avoid much contact with her and had about as cold of relationship with her as you could imagine.  By some miracle, Mr. and Mrs. Whitefield conceived and had a son but he died in childhood.  Whitefield managed to preach in the morning, come home for an hour and then preach at his son’s funeral, then left his wife to continue his preaching tour.  Obviously a man with many gifts but certainly no example worth emulating when it comes to marriage.

Not widely remembered was that Ben Franklin was not only a personal friend of Whitefield but was also his publisher.  He put into print many of his sermons for distribution to the public.  Franklin was a lapsed puritan and never did convert but was pleased to see the social effects of Whitefield’s preaching which seemed to bring about better morality.

Virtually unknown is that George Whitefield fell into ill-health and died on his last crusade in America.  He was buried in the basement of the Baptist church in Newburyport Massachusetts.  When the Revolutionary war broke out 6 years after his death, a group of American soldiers, with the permission of the pastor, broke open Whitefield’s tomb, and took the buttons and remains of his clothing they found there with them into battle.  There was a strong sense in the day, that George Whitefield saw America as a nation long before America did.  When the war for independence began, they had George Washington, but they wanted what they could have of George Whitefield to go with them as well that God might grant favor to mission.

Today about 1000 people a year, mostly conservative evangelicals, visit his grave in Newburyport Mass.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Charlemagne : Founder of Christendom (742-814 AD) by Chris White

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.”  --Charlemagne

 “By me (wisdom) kings reign, and rulers decree justice.”   Proverbs 8:15

Papal Coronation of Charlemagne in 800 AD

Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was not a clergyman and in one sense was more the shaped rather than a shaper of the Christian faith.  Nevertheless, his enlightened rule was to have a tremendous impact in solidifying the idea of Christendom in the Medieval world.  Charlemagne was the grandson of Charles Martel who was famous for fighting and turning back the Muslim invasion of Europe at the Battle of Tours in 732.  Had that not been successful, those of us with ancestral roots in Europe would likely be speaking Arabic today.

 Aside from having come from good stock, Charlemagne was successful in consolidating the people of what we know today as Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland into a single empire.  Though they were a patchwork of peoples and languages, through masterful organization, written laws, and respect for local custom, Charles was able rule them well.

 One of the key things Charlemagne did was elevate learning in his empire.  In his court were many of the most brilliant minds of the day to educate he and his family, but also he sponsored monastic schools all over.  Their job in addition to serving the church and community, was to also preserve and copy all the books they could find from ancient times.  Had this not been done, most of what we know from the ancient Greeks and Romans about history, law, medicine, and philosophy would be gone forever.

 In December of 800 the Pope of Rome had been attacked militarily and Charles and his army came to the rescue.  Bad weather had prevented him from returning home and so he decided to stay and celebrate Christmas in Rome.  When he came for Christmas mass the pope (supposedly without warning) came from behind and crowned him as the new Roman emperor.  Of course by this time the old Roman empire had long died out in western Europe and so this was the expression of a desire than a reality in the moment.  But the idea gathered some strength in Charlemagne’s mind and soon the people of his empire identified themselves as members of the Holy Roman Empire, a concept that remained until the 1800’s.

 This empire was under the leadership of a king, but the kings were under the leadership of the Church.  In time, all the kings of Europe looked to the church as an institution to confirm their legitimacy as rulers.  From this time forward, though Church and State were separate, they both ruled Western Europe with the idea that it was the Kingdom of Christ or Christendom.  As the first official ruler of Christendom, Charlemagne was in many ways a shaper of the Christian faith.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Benedict of Nursia (480-547 AD) by Chris White

St. Benedict

Benedict was born into a world that was slipping into disorganization and chaos.  His life was lived in the aftermath of the fall of Rome and the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire.  Despite the social upheaval of the era, the Church continued to survive and thrive as it always does and as Benedict reached his adulthood and saw his life going down the tubes into immorality, he was touched and converted by the gospel.  As he sought out what this might mean for his life he felt the calling to join a monastery near Rome.  Benedict approached this unique calling with great zeal and as a young believer was chosen to be the leader of his monastery.  Unfortunately his youthful zeal and lack of experience made him an unbending and demanding leader.  Strange but true, his brother monks actually became so desperate to get rid of him that they attempted to poison his dinner one night.  The plot to kill him failed but Benedict did leave (which in that sense it was a success) and eventually started another monastery having learned a few lessons about leadership and having a more tempered zeal.

His new approach (which we call The Rule of St. Benedict) was to actually contribute to the building up of Europe as a largely Christian civilization over the next 1400 years.  Under the Rule monks were called to a life of prayer and work as a means of serving God now and preparing their souls to be with Him in the future.  This was actually quite a radical change because work was seen as something to be avoided at all costs.  At the Benedictine monasteries, everyone worked 4 hours a day doing things to either help the community or further the faith.  In addition to this they spent another 8 hours a day (with breaks for other things) in prayer and worship of the Lord.

It was in this laboratory of work and prayer and community life 24/7 that the Bible was copied, classical learning and philosophy were preserved, farmland was cleared, roads were built, people were educated, medicine and medical care was provided, and advances in agriculture were made which raised food production.  When a monastery became established it was never long before a town would grow up around it. Benedict’s Rule influenced many other groups and has inspired even government leaders in how to lead communities. Even though the Roman civilization and its order had crumbled, the movement of Benedictine monasticism eventually helped rebuild a new Christianized one for all of Western Europe.  Benedictines remain today and continue their rhythm of “ work and pray” and for that contribution we consider St. Benedict of Nursia to be one of the shapers of the Christian faith.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Pope Leo I (The Great) by Chris White

Leo I

      Leo reigned as the pope of Rome in the middle of the 5th century.  For better and for worse, his impact on the faith and shape of the church is still felt today.  During his lifetime the church at large was wrestling with a very important question: How are we to understand the human nature and divine nature of Christ and what does this mean about His person?  Many parts of the church were thinking about this question and some teachings that were emerging were either contradictory to the record of the Bible or emphasized his humanity or divinity to the exclusion of the other. Since Jesus is at the heart of Christianity, thinking rightly about Him is of great importance to every believer.  Because of this, hundreds of church leaders gathered together for a council near modern day Istanbul to discuss the matter and to seek a unity in thinking and a uniformity in teaching this doctrine. 

    To this event, Leo sent a short essay known today as the Tome which spelled out that Christ Jesus was fully God and fully man in one person and that he had a divine/human nature in which he bore the characteristics of God the Father and that of Mary with the exception of not having a sin-nature.  The Tome was so well received that it pretty much ended all discussion on the matter and there was a sense by all who participated that God had spoken to the council through Leo.  This resulted in what is known as the Chalcedonian Definition of Christ which has been the teaching of the Church ever since (you can read this in full at

    Leo was also the person who fully developed the idea that the pope of Rome (pope meaning ‘father of the faith’) was the actual successor of St. Peter.  This belief, known as the Petrine Idea, takes the words of Jesus to Peter in Matthew 16:18 to mean that the future church will be built upon Peter the apostle.  Protestants have always taken this verse to mean the church will be built upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ for good reason, but for Leo and many others the Petrine Idea was an indisputable fact.  One part of this could literally be true as St. Peter’s Basilica is built over a first century graveyard and at the center is the place believed to be where Peter was buried after he was martyred by the Romans.  But Leo took this to mean that the Apostleship of Peter would be passed down to each Pope of the church of Rome and that when they wrote, taught, or spoke it was actually Peter who was speaking through them.  This also meant that since Peter was the appointed foundation, that his successors would be kept from errors in doctrine.
While Leo was a bit overly enthusiastic about the apostle Peter and his own relationship to him as bishop of Rome, Leo was completely right in his thinking about Christ and has helped the church through most of its history to have a sound theology of Jesus of Nazareth.  With both ideas alive and well after 1600 years, Pope Leo I was truly one of the shapers of the Christian faith.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

St. Augustine : The Miserable Bishop (354-430 AD) by Chris White

“Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.

“ And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled.”   Luke 14:23

     St. Augustine was a bishop in Roman North Africa and is best known for his devotional classic The Confessions of St. Augustine.  During his tenure he also presided over two great controversies in the early church and brought them to a resolution that is definitive for Christian behavior and belief even today.
     Of all the people who were ever elected bishop, Aurelius Augustine was probably the most miserable. Augustine was a man of scripture, prayer, and deep reflection but in his day the work of a bishop was short on preaching and long on settling legal squabbles between people in his diocese.  This was not the best career match for a person was more a thinker than a man of action, but God’s placement of Augustine in a position of authority meant his thinking would have a greater influence in a wide circle of people.

     Augustine was to write many books but perhaps his most influential was his Confessions.  Augustine was not confessing his secrets but rather was confessing his faith in God after God chased him down in his unbelief and drew his heart to himself while he was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Prior to this, no one ever wrote books from the perspective of the interior self and about how God orchestrated their conversion.  In a way, Augustine invented a new kind of literature that might be called autobiographical testimony.  In  any event, many others have imitated this style ever since.

     Long before Augustine’s birth the Christians in North Africa went through a terrible persecution where many ministers and parishioners compromised the faith out of fear of torture and execution.  It was a terrible failure and when the persecution was over feelings about it ran so high that the church was torn in two.  Some Christians took the viewpoint that this could never be forgiven especially if you were clergy, where others took the view that restoration was possible.  Eventually what started as a divided and torn church was turned into two churches. The one group (called the Donatists) claimed they were the true church because none of their leaders had compromised.  They also held the belief that if you were baptized or had received communion from a pastor who had lapsed, it was null and void.

     When Augustine had become a bishop this problem had been raging for decades.  Augustine was of the view of reconciliation and forgiveness but also felt that there was only one church and to break away and start another was a terrific sin as well.  Eventually the Roman government, which had become predominantly Christian by this stage in history, was to bring about reunion by force.  Augustine had counseled differently but when patience didn’t work, he came to the parable of great master throwing a banquet and telling his servant to “compel them to come in” and took that to mean that under certain conditions unity must be maintained in the church by force if necessary.  While we may not approve of such heavy-handedness in present world, the ancient Christians held strongly to Paul’s words that there was “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” and therefore there was no room for factions or even denominations in the church.  

     As Augustine thought through the implications of this division in the church, his reasoning led him to a view the church still holds.  Any sacrament, when received by faith, is valid and operative in the life of the believer regardless of the spiritual state of the minister who offered it.  Put another way, if you were baptized by a minister who had fallen away from Christ either publicly or secretly, if you were walking in faith and receiving baptism in obedience, your baptism is completely valid in the eyes of God for it is a gift from Him for which the church plays a minor role in dispensing.

    Throughout history leaders in the church were to continually go back to theological writings of this great bishop as a means of understanding the teaching of Scripture.  For his insight and deep devotion to understanding the depths of Jesus Christ, Augustine will always be considered a shaper of the Christian faith.