John Piper has given us another excellent one-talk biography. This time of George Whitefield (text, audio).
In the midst of his talk, we learn of Whitefield’s near unbelievable preaching schedule and ability. Piper cites sources revealing Whitefield spent about 60 hours a week preaching; not preparing to preaching or traveling to preaching, sixty hours preaching. Whitefield regularly spoke to crowds numbering in the thousands, once having his voice heard almost 2 miles away!
But why did he preach such? A recent criticism of Whitefield accuses him of merely acting in the pulpit. Whitefield was animated while he preaching, moving his arms, often crying, and at least one man believes it was all an act to gain fame and popularity.
So, what’s the truth – was Whitefield a saint or a huckster? Piper answers this question with these words –
[T]he question is: Why was Whitefield “acting”? Why was he so full of action and drama? Was he, as Stout claims, “plying a religious trade”?41 Pursuing “spiritual fame”?42 Craving “respect and power”?43 Driven by “egotism”?44 Putting on “performances”45 and “integrating religious discourse into the emerging language of consumption”?46
I think the most penetrating answer comes from something Whitefield himself said about acting in a sermon in London. In fact, I think it’s a key to understand the power of his preaching—and all preaching. James Lockington was present at this sermon and recorded this verbatim. Whitefield is speaking.
“I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ ‘Why my Lord,’ says Butterton, ‘the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’”
“Therefore,” added Whitefield, ‘I will bawl [shout loudly], I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.”47
This means that there are three ways to speak. First, you can speak of an unreal, imaginary world as if it were real—that is what actors do in a play. Second, you can speak about a real world as if it were unreal—that is what half-hearted pastors do when they preach about glorious things in a way that says they are not as terrifying and wonderful as they are. And third is: You can speak about a real spiritual world as if it were wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real (because it is).
Out-Acting the Actors
So if you ask Whitefield, “Why do you preach the way you do?” he would say: “I believe what I read in the Bible is real.” So let me venture this claim: George Whitefield is not a repressed actor, driven by egotistical love of attention. Rather, he is consciously committed to out-acting the actors because he has seen what is ultimately real.
He is acting with all his might not because it takes greater gimmicks and charades to convince people of the unreal, but because he had seen something more real than actors on the London stage had ever known. For him the truths of the gospel were so real—so wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real—that he could not and would not preach them as though they were unreal or merely interesting.
This was not a repressed acting. This was a released acting. It was not acting in the service of imagination. It was acting in the service of reality. This was not rendering the imaginary as real. It was rendering the super-realness of the real as sheer awesome, breathtaking real. This was not affectation. This was a passionate re-presentation—replication—of reality. This was not the mighty microscope using all its powers to make the small look impressively big. This was the desperately inadequate telescope bending every power to give some small sense of the majesty of what too many preachers saw as tiresome and unreal.
What a needed example today! How many preachers give “talks” in the pulpit, devoid of any of the joy and gravity that comes with proclaiming the glory of Christ.
It’s my earnest prayer for myself and for all who would dare preach God’s word, that we would follow the example of Whitefield and run, by God’s grace, from velvet-mouthed preaching.
For more on Whitefield, check out Dallimore’s excellent two volume biography, George Whitefiled: Life and Times, and Haykin’s book, The Revived Puritan.
Was it acting or preaching? What was the effect, were people moved then and still moved today by his words? There was much fruit, as he was in the Vine.