Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
George WhitefieldLife, Context, and Legacy$

Geordan Hammond and David Ceri Jones

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198747079

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198747079.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 17 August 2018

Whitefield, John Wesley, and Revival Leadership

Whitefield, John Wesley, and Revival Leadership

(p.98) 6 Whitefield, John Wesley, and Revival Leadership
George Whitefield

Geordan Hammond

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the relationship between Whitefield and John Wesley with a particular focus on the emergence of tension followed by conflict relating to their leadership in the early revival in Bristol. Whitefield progressed from being mentored by Wesley to pioneering for him the experience of evangelical conversion, engaging in open-air preaching, and leading the revival in London and Bristol. Tensions emerged as Wesley continued to assume a role of directing Whitefield after the latter had become a popular evangelical preacher sure of God’s divine favour upon his ministry. Public conflict and division followed Wesley’s fateful decision to cast lots directing him to ‘preach and print’ against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. This chapter sheds new light on the development of their relationship as illustrated by the progression of Whitefield’s signatures of his letters to Wesley from a ‘humble servant’ to a ‘son and servant’ to a ‘brother and servant’.

Keywords:   Oxford Methodism, John Wesley, Bristol, revival, open-air preaching, revival leadership, casting lots, free grace, Calvinism

From near the time of his first contact with the Oxford Methodists into the period of his remarkable evangelistic success in the early years of the transatlantic evangelical revivals, George Whitefield’s relationship with John Wesley was a central factor in his spiritual formation and in the leadership of the revival. The development of Whitefield’s signatures in his letters to Wesley suggests a progression from a ‘humble servant’ to a ‘son and servant’ to a ‘brother and servant’. This evolution provides a window into how Whitefield became in his own reckoning, and that of his followers, the primary leader of the revivals. There are a number of existing studies that to varying extents explore both the commonalities and quarrels between Whitefield and Wesley, often in the context of wider analysis of the Calvinist-Arminian conflicts.1 This chapter focuses on their early relationship, especially the tensions that emerged during the dramatic and sometimes chaotic beginnings of the revival in Bristol, and the central (and underexplored) role that Wesley’s enthusiasm for casting lots played in the divisions that arose.

In tracing and analysing the changing relationship between Whitefield and Wesley the letters exchanged between them are of particular importance. From the date of his first extant letter to Wesley in April 1735 until the end of 1742 when largely separate Wesleyan and Calvinist Methodist societies had emerged in England, Whitefield and Wesley sustained a frequent and fascinating correspondence with one another. The two men wrote a similar number of letters to each other, but only eight of Wesley’s letters to (p.99) Whitefield survive to the end of 1742 compared to thirty-one written from Whitefield to Wesley.2

Whitefield and Oxford Methodism

Before entering Pembroke College as a servitor in November 1732 Whitefield had heard of and admired the Oxford Methodists. He first came into direct contact with them through friendship with the recently awakened Charles Wesley, who acted as his spiritual adviser and put key Oxford Methodist texts into his hands, which helped awaken him to his need to experience new birth in Christ. With a deep desire for ‘experimental Knowledge of Jesus Christ, and Him crucified’, Whitefield resolved to dedicate himself to a single-minded devotion to Christ. However, despite glimpses of spiritual comfort, he was oppressed by fear that Satan had control over him and that pride hindered him. Following several months of severe physical and spiritual struggle, tempted by quietism, Whitefield chose to abandon even his religious friends for the sake of Christ. Wesley’s alarm at this development led him to introduce Whitefield to his brother John as one ‘more experienced in the spiritual Life’. This had the desired effect of bringing Whitefield into ‘a teachable Temper’ as an intimate friendship developed with John Wesley. Whitefield recalled that ‘He advised me to resume all my Externals, tho’ not to Depend on them in the least.’ Through Wesley’s advice he ‘was delivered from those Wiles of Satan’.3

During the Lenten season of 1735 Whitefield wholeheartedly followed the Oxford Methodist pattern of vegetarianism and fasting, and took it to an extreme level. By the time Holy Week arrived Whitefield’s five weeks of severe asceticism had damaged his body to the extent that seven weeks of serious illness followed which culminated in deliverance ‘from the Burden that has so heavily oppressed’ him.4 Sustained joy ensued alongside the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. John and Charles Wesley, called back to Epworth before their father’s death in April 1735, were not present to guide or witness Whitefield’s spiritual experience.

The first two extant letters from Whitefield to John Wesley were written in the midst of Whitefield’s spiritual depression leading up to his conversion. Like Whitefield’s autobiographical Short Account, the letters reveal a high level of deference to Wesley as his spiritual father. He repeatedly asked Wesley for (p.100) advice on his ill health and indicated that Wesley’s spiritual guidance on this matter was valued above that of his doctor and his tutor. The letters show that in his charitable and devotional practices Whitefield was a thoroughly committed Oxford Methodist who ministered to ‘The Poor Prisoners at Bocardo’, and practised prayer, devotional reading, bodily mortification, ‘acts of absolute resignation to the will of God’, analysis of his spiritual state, singleness of intention, fasting, and frequent communion.5

Very soon after his conversion in late May 1735, Whitefield went to Gloucester to recuperate, not returning to Oxford until around April 1736. We have three letters from Whitefield to Wesley during this period in which he continued to see Wesley as his ‘spiritual father in Christ’. They reveal a great deal of continuity with his pre-conversion ministry including use of Wesley’s Collection of Forms of Prayer (1733), William Law, devotion to scripture, and promotion of weekly communion. However, it is also easy to discern the effect of Whitefield’s conversion in a greater outward focus on leading others into the experience of new birth in Christ. Whitefield’s passion for the gospel led him to minister not only in Gloucester but also in Bristol and Swansea. Like the instantaneousness of his awakening and conversion experiences, the success of his ministry was immediate and Whitefield was clearly enthralled by the work of God’s ‘free Grace in Christ’ through his evangelistic efforts. Not surprisingly, his friends began encouraging him to enter into Holy Orders. In a revealing account of his deep sense of divine calling, Whitefield reminded Wesley that during the Lenten struggles leading to his conversion, ‘it was told me, I should be a Bishop, and therefore must be poor in spirit’. And now during his early successes as an itinerant evangelist, he had ‘been continually disturbed with thoughts’ that he would become a bishop. Whitefield said that he interpreted this as a warning to avoid ‘worldly temptation’, and ‘hate preferment’, and ‘pluralities’. Though he declared he would ‘not comply’ with the urging of his friends to be ordained, ‘Directed by divine Providence’, in June 1736 he was ordained deacon.6

From October 1735 through to January 1738 the affairs of the Oxford Methodists were largely left to Whitefield as John and Charles Wesley had gone as missionaries to the British colony of Georgia. In addition to being ordained deacon, during this time Whitefield superintended the work of the Oxford Methodists, while also ministering in London, Dummer in Hampshire, (p.101) and Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. In the midst of this work, he decided to join Wesley as a missionary in Georgia, and preached charity sermons to raise money for the colony.7

It appears that from the time John Wesley left the shores of England, Whitefield was open to the possibility of participating in the Georgia mission. Near the end of 1736 he received two letters from Wesley challenging him to come and help him in the colony. Whitefield was struck by the words: ‘Do you ask me what you shall have? Food to eat, and raiment to put on; a house to lay your head in, such as your Lord had not; and a crown of glory that fadeth not away.’ He noted, ‘Upon reading this, my heart leaped within me, and, as it were, echoed to the call.’ Whitefield wrote to Wesley in March 1737 declaring his final resolution to go to Georgia. His attachment to his ‘spiritual father in CHRIST’ remained so strong that he told Charles Wesley that ‘GOD calls me in a particular manner to assist your brother’.8 In Whitefield’s words, ‘Mr. Wesley was my dear Friend, and I thought it would be great Advantage to me to be under his tuition.’9

Alongside his continued special attachment to Wesley as his spiritual guide, the ‘great success’ Whitefield was experiencing in his ministry gave him a growing confidence that God’s divine favour was upon his ministry. He had served as God’s ‘instrument’ in establishing a religious society in Gloucester, and God was directing his steps and calling him from place to place to prepare him for Georgia. At a time when his father in Christ was not experiencing great success in his ministry in Georgia, Whitefield confidently declared: ‘Innumerable are the blessings our God has poured on me since I saw you last, and remarkably has he set his blessed seal to my ministry in England; which encourages me to hope he will likewise do so in Georgia.’10

Wesley, before he arrived back in England, could only have had a limited understanding of the emerging evangelical revival and Whitefield’s central role in it. Whitefield’s sense of God’s presence with him and the dramatic advance of the revival convinced him that ‘Wherever I go, he makes his divine power to be known’. His letters as he began his journey to Georgia are filled with expressions such as ‘God is with me and in me’, ‘God greatly visits my soul’, ‘He fills my soul every day with himself’, underscoring his almost (p.102) overwhelming experience of God’s presence. Now that Whitefield was sure that God’s ‘holy spirit makes me do things’, the nature of his relationship with Wesley was bound to change.11

Tensions Emerge

It was not long before Wesley gained a similar confidence in God’s divine sanction for his ministry and leadership in the emerging revival. Both evangelists became ardently convinced of the divine favour upon their ministry and theological convictions and through their preaching helped bring many to the experience of new birth in Christ. Many of these converts became fervent disciples of Whitefield or Wesley as their father in Christ. Among these spiritual and relational factors, Wesley’s enthusiastic use of drawing lots became central to the divide that opened up between the evangelists.12

Although Wesley later claimed that it was from the Moravians that he had adopted the practice of casting lots, he had in fact begun as early as January 1735, before he had come into contact with them. His early use of lots centred on testing various rules relating to his spiritual practices of self-denial.13 Not long after, while in Georgia his use of the lot took on a more communal aspect as he and his fellow missionaries resolved to cast lots when reasoned debate and ‘begging God’s direction’ failed to produce an agreed decision. Observing the Moravians’ faith in lots probably reinforced Wesley’s practice.14 His concise justification for casting lots was later included in his published journal where he confidently declared that God ‘will, where reason fails, “direct our paths”, by lot’.15 His enthusiasm for the lot was grounded in his belief that as with its use in scripture, it was ‘directed by God’s providence’ to provide ‘extraordinary directions…in extraordinary cases’ within an extraordinary movement as an expression of God’s will for his ‘extraordinary call’, which manifested itself ‘in an extraordinary manner’ through ‘the works God doth by’ his ministry. As (p.103) he boldly declared quoting 1 Samuel 14:41, ‘God will, if applied to by fervent prayer “give a perfect lot”’.16

Not surprisingly, the use of lots alongside bibliomancy fuelled anti-Methodist accusations of enthusiasm. However, although its use was limited to the first few years of the revival before his split from the Moravians, Wesley retrospectively defended the lot as having been of ‘much benefit and no inconvenience’ to him and endorsed the Moravian declaration in favour of using ‘them in public and private to decide points of importance, when reasons brought on each side appear to be of equal weight’. The theological rationale was that ‘we believe this to be the only way of wholly setting aside our own will, of acquitting ourselves of all blame, and clearly knowing, what is the will of God’.17 In practice, the Moravians used the lot more liberally than this description suggests and likely influenced Wesley in the same direction.18

The first serious tensions in Whitefield’s relationship with Wesley seem to have arisen in relation to Wesley’s use of the lot in February 1738 when Wesley disembarked from his journey back to England at Deal in Kent. Whitefield was in Deal harbour on the Whitaker waiting to sail to Georgia. Wesley evidently discovered that the Whitaker was in the harbour and elected to draw lots relating to his or Whitefield’s next steps. According to Whitefield’s recollection in his 1740 response to Wesley’s sermon Free Grace, Wesley left him a letter stating, ‘When I saw God, by the Wind which was carrying you out, brought me in, I asked Council of God. His Answer you have enclosed.’ Whitefield commented that the words written were: ‘Let him return to London.’19 By the time the letter reached Whitefield, Wesley had left Deal en route to London. Though there was no mention of this incident in the journals of Whitefield or Wesley at the time, Whitefield noted in a letter to a friend his surprise at Wesley’s arrival and his refusal to heed Wesley’s call to return to London.20 Whitefield’s responses to the letter indicated that he interpreted the lot to refer to his conduct rather than Wesley’s.21 In the first (p.104) record of him challenging Wesley, Whitefield set out a clear and confident assertion of his determination to fulfil his call to Georgia. Though Whitefield’s letter can be read as a mild rebuke of Wesley, it did not mention that Wesley had drawn lots.22 In any case, in 1740 Whitefield expressed his anger about the event due to his belief that Wesley drew lots to advise him on his conduct. Whitefield’s interpretation was probably accurate, though this is the only known instance of Wesley, in this manner, drawing lots about someone else’s behaviour. However, Whitefield claimed that he received a letter from Wesley a few months later while in Georgia with ‘Words to this Effect. “Tho’ God never before gave me a wrong Lot, yet, perhaps, he suffered me to have such a Lot at that Time, to try what was in your heart”’, adding weight to the probability of his view of Wesley’s intention.23 If Whitefield was as annoyed about this event in 1738 as he was in 1740, it could be seen as the first instance of him asserting himself as a spiritual leader independent of Wesley and a foreshadowing of the discord that erupted between them in the following year.

The ‘Free Grace’ Controversy in Bristol

After a short stay of four months in Georgia, Whitefield returned to England in late 1738 to enter into priest’s orders and raise money for his orphanage. In the meantime Wesley had experienced his own powerful evangelical conversion and was active in leading Methodist religious societies in London. Though Whitefield remained in Britain for less than a year before his return to America in August 1739, this was a crucial period that affected his relationship with Wesley for the remainder of his life. In 1739, a time in which the two leaders of the emerging revival were in regular contact with one another, we have more letters exchanged between them than in any other year.24

If their relationship was damaged by the drawing lots incident, Whitefield’s admiration and affection for Wesley does not seem to have diminished, based on his letters in early 1739. Both men regularly shared news with one another relating to the miraculous conversions taking place and the opposition they were encountering from clergy and lay people. In the midst of (p.105) such excitement, Whitefield declared to Wesley, ‘Honoured sir, I love you more than words can express.’25

In February 1739 the two evangelists collaborated to publish An Abstract of the Life and Death of the Reverend Learned and Pious Mr Tho. Halyburton, M.A. based on Halyburton’s Memoirs, recounting his conversion and promotion of heart religion. Whitefield contributed a two-page ‘Recommendatory Epistle’, and Wesley wrote a six-page preface to the volume. While both men were keen to promote Halyburton’s conversion and holy life as a model, Wesley’s preface, asserting that freedom from sin is possible for true children of God, was repugnant to Whitefield’s emerging Calvinist convictions. Whitefield soon began condemning Wesley’s view of ‘sinless perfection’, claiming that he would not have contributed to the book had he known what Wesley had written. Under criticism from American Presbyterians, Whitefield disowned Wesley’s interpretation in print, stating that his practice was now to tear out this offensive part of the preface when giving the book away.26

Although Whitefield continued to sign most of his letters to Wesley your ‘affectionate’, or ‘dutiful’, or ‘unworthy’, or ‘obedient’ ‘son and servant’,27 one can detect a subtle shift in their relationship, with Whitefield, probably because of his growing confidence in God’s divine favour upon his ministry, his deepening Calvinism, and experience as a revival leader, seeing himself as a co-leader or partner with Wesley. Whitefield, while still showing a level of deference to Wesley, noticeably stopped referring to him as a spiritual father.

Tensions relating to the leadership of the revival began to emerge with Whitefield’s criticism of the judgement of his brethren in London and Wesley’s letter of rebuke to him in March 1739. Whitefield’s meek reply thanking Wesley ‘most heartily for’ his ‘kind rebuke’, which ‘was too tender’, was the last instance of Whitefield displaying this level of deference to Wesley. To the Fetter Lane Society, Whitefield responded to Wesley more forcefully: ‘I was as much convinced that Jesus Xt bid me send for them [brethren to support his ministry in Bristol] as that the Sun is now shining around me’. Whatever personal disappointment Whitefield might have felt, there is no evidence that it diminished his confidence in his evangelistic work and intense spiritual experience.28

(p.106) These early tensions within the Methodist societies and their leadership coincided with the commencement of Methodist field preaching. A little over a month after his ordination as a priest in January 1739, and just a few days after his arrival in Bristol, on 17 February Whitefield first preached in the open air to the Kingswood colliers. This planned step no doubt contributed to ‘the Extreme fondness of some & as Extreme hatred of others’ expressed towards Whitefield and his friends. When Wesley eventually responded to Whitefield’s pleading that he come to continue the work in Bristol, a role reversal occurred: Whitefield became the teacher of his spiritual adviser and father in Christ. Whitefield persuaded him to submit to ‘be more vile’ and adopt ‘this strange way of preaching in the fields’. Showing his respect for Wesley, Whitefield immediately handed the work over to him and headed out on a planned itinerant preaching tour where the following day he ‘began to play the madman in Gloucestershire, by preaching on a table in Thornbury street’. The contrast at this stage between Whitefield’s revelling in innovative evangelistic methods and Wesley the High Churchman turned reluctant open-air preacher is striking.29

Around the time he turned over the ministry in Bristol to Wesley, Whitefield urged him to avoid disputes within the Methodist societies, especially ‘concerning predestination, because this people was so deeply prejudiced for it’. Whitefield’s rejection of the lot Wesley had likely drawn to dissuade him from travelling to Georgia did not lessen Wesley’s enthusiasm for drawing lots to discern God’s direction. Lots were used by the Fetter Lane Methodist-Moravian Society to determine whether Wesley should travel to Bristol and to select the companions who journeyed with him.30 Thankfully there is a great deal of detail on Wesley’s ministry in Bristol and surrounding areas from the regular journal-letters he sent to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society. Decisions such as selecting leaders for and allotting individuals to the growing number of bands that were being established, whether to admit a Dissenter into a band, whether to visit one of the French Prophets, and when to return to London were decided by lot.31 Wesley’s use of the lot in Bristol was clearly wider than his later published parameters for its use.

(p.107) Although Wesley had been going through a period in which he considered himself spiritually cold and dead,32 evidence from the journal-letters suggests a growing confidence in his spiritual state and the power of God working in his ministry. The intensity of his experience in Bristol was probably enhanced by his expectation and the fear of his brother and others in London that, based on bibliomancy, numerous passages of scripture suggested his ministry there could prove fatal. Following the pattern set by Whitefield, Wesley preached multiple times daily in locations at which Whitefield had led the way, and wherever he believed the providence of God led him: in Newgate prison, Methodist societies, churches, and in the open air (often to crowds in the thousands). Despite considerable opposition from clergy and laity, he noted that almost immediately people began to ‘reverence me as a saint’. At the time he arrived in Bristol, in correspondence with his sceptical elder brother, he declared that the dramatic experiences of assurance of salvation occurring in the revival could be considered to be miracles. As he ‘offered God’s free grace’ to all, and began to witness many dramatic conversions, Wesley increasingly ‘asked God to give us a living witness that signs and wonders were now wrought by the name of his Holy Child Jesus’. In Wesley’s portrayal of the revival in and around Bristol, the asking immediately led to a powerful manifestation of the presence of God. He commented, ‘We asked for one [sign and wonder]—and he hath given us four!’ Miraculous conversions became regular occurrences; sceptics were often forced to submit to the truth of such conversions when they witnessed them; and deliverances from devil-possession became commonplace. While ‘flood[s] of Tears’ in reaction to Whitefield’s preaching were common, reports of ‘Convulsions faintings Cryings & groanings’ were more frequent in Wesley’s Bristol ministry.33

In the context of such revivalist fervour, Wesley elected to instigate conflict with Whitefield by combating predestination, which was in his view a blasphemous doctrine that made God ‘worse than the devil’.34 In late April 1739 Wesley received a lengthy letter written almost a month earlier accusing him ‘roundly with “resisting the truth as it is in Jesus” by preaching against God’s decree of predestination’. This indicates that Wesley either already had a reputation as an opponent of predestination before he arrived in Bristol or gained one immediately after his arrival. Although Wesley claimed he had not (p.108) yet ‘preached against it explicitly’, he had evidently said enough about it in his preaching to invite criticism from its defenders. Two days later Wesley ‘was led, I know not how, to speak strongly and explicitly of predestination, and then to pray that…he [God] would “not delay to confirm it by signs following”. Immediately the power of God fell upon us. One, and another, and another sunk to the earth.’ Two women were dramatically converted. Later that same evening Wesley ‘made the same appeal to God, and almost before we called, he answered. A young woman was seized with such pangs as I never saw before.’ In the midst of such displays of divine favour, Wesley, pressed by one of his assistants who had been chosen by lot to accompany him from London to Bristol, ‘made four lots, and desired our Lord to show what he would have me to do. The answer was “Preach and print”.’ A few days later ‘being directed again so by lot’, in his Sunday open-air sermon before 4,000 people he ‘declared openly for the first h[our] against “the horrible decree”’. Not everyone, of course, was convinced that God was on Wesley’s side; letters accusing him of being ‘a false teacher, for opposing predestination’ continued to circulate. However, Wesley, like Whitefield and other early leaders of the revival saw opposition as a sign of God’s blessing. The rightness of his cause, he believed, was regularly confirmed by asserters of predestination being converted when he offered God’s ‘free love to all men’. After conveying this news to the Fetter Lane Society, Wesley’s actions were quickly questioned by James Hutton (though he was an opponent of predestination), who may have also been representing the views of others in the society. Unfortunately we have only Wesley’s response to Hutton’s letter declaring that the decision was made by lot rather than by his own will and that the ‘power of God…as we have never known before’ confirmed the lot.35

Whitefield and others were proved right that many converts in Bristol were convinced of predestination. As Wesley noted almost immediately after he arrived in Bristol, ‘Many Presbyterians and Anabaptists [i.e. Baptists] came to hear’ his preaching. Wesley’s confrontational move caused an immediate and lasting controversy. As T. Mitchell stated to Whitefield’s friend William Seward, ‘it has made a strange noise, that he hath preached against Predestination, especially amongst the Anabaptists’, which was a factor in Wesley making ‘many enemies’. Some of Whitefield’s supporters were immediately convinced that Wesley’s teaching was opposed to his. In an astonishing example of how Calvinist teaching could be central to the identity of evangelical lay people, a servant maid called Jenny wrote a theologically sophisticated letter to Whitefield condemning Wesley, whom she had publicly confronted as (p.109) a false teacher, and confidently declared that ‘Christ tells me it is impossible to deceive the elect’. Although in June 1740 Whitefield claimed he had not yet preached on election, by the spring of 1739, Jenny and other followers of Whitefield were writing to him in expressly Calvinist terms underscoring their view of him as a champion of Calvinist doctrine. Nonetheless, it does not appear that Wesley’s anti-Calvinist preaching caused an immediate breach with Whitefield, whose Bristol followers were probably at least temporarily comforted when he returned for a week in early July and resumed his ministry there. Suggestive of Whitefield’s pre-eminence in the Bristol revival, Wesley stood aside and allowed Whitefield to preach on every occasion during this visit, and even sat at his feet while he preached.36

In May and June 1739, Whitefield focused his ministry in and around London. Wesley returned to London from Bristol for a short visit from 13 to 17 June when the subject of predestination may have been discussed with Whitefield. Wesley continued the pattern set at Bristol by following Whitefield’s example into field preaching in Blackheath, Moorfields, and Kennington Common while also preaching against predestination. Because of Whitefield’s participation in the Fetter Lane Society, he would have been aware of Wesley’s frequent journal-letters addressed to Hutton and the society. However, there is no evidence until July that Whitefield knew Wesley had drawn a lot directing him to ‘preach and print’, and in his later printed response to Wesley’s sermon Whitefield indicated that he did not think the sermon had been printed when he departed on his second journey to America in August 1739.37

It appears that in obedience to the providential direction provided by the lot, Wesley wasted no time in having his sermon, Free Grace, printed and distributed in Bristol. On the day after he first preached the sermon, Wesley visited Samuel and/or Felix Farley, printers of the first 1739 Bristol edition of the sermon, indicating he began making immediate plans to have the sermon published. A letter of 14 May to Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society suggests (p.110) that the sermon had been published. Wesley evidently kept its publication secret from Whitefield despite them having met in person and been in frequent correspondence.38

In his 25 June 1739 letter to Wesley, Whitefield noted that he had gained word that Wesley was planning to ‘print a sermon against predestination’. Given the connection Wesley made between signs and wonders and preaching against predestination, it is not surprising that Whitefield rebuked him for giving ‘so much encouragement to those convulsions which people have been thrown into under your ministry’. While Whitefield believed God was working through these signs, he thought the devil would seek to take advantage of them, and they would ‘take people from the written Word’. His first reaction to the news that the Wesley brothers were actively speaking against predestination was to implore them to be silent on the subject along with the accompanying doctrines of election and final perseverance in order to avoid controversy and division that would only bring further opposition to the Methodist movement. The first appearance of Calvinist sentiments in the letters of Whitefield’s constant companion, William Seward, at this time, suggests that Wesley’s actions contributed to Whitefield’s growing embrace of Calvinism. It appears that the emerging predestination controversy emboldened Whitefield in his general willingness to criticize Wesley.39

The dominant emotion engendered in Whitefield by Wesley’s decision to print the sermon was that of genuine sorrow. He commented, ‘my heart has been quite broken within me. I have been grieved from my soul, knowing what dilemma I am reduced to.’ Now that Whitefield had crossed the threshold of sending his first highly critical letter to Wesley, he would not hesitate to do so again, particularly when offended by Wesley’s Arminianism and anti-Calvinism. Whitefield’s letters in June and July 1739 demonstrate that the emergence of the predestination controversy had the long-term effect of increasing Whitefield’s distrust of Wesley’s motives and actions. Wesley discerned this development and reproved Whitefield for basing at least some of his criticisms on false rumours. In response, Whitefield issued one last apologetic letter to Wesley thanking him for his reproof and expressing his desire to ‘be taught true humility and poverty of spirit’. Though there are at least twenty-seven extant letters following this one, this was the final time that Whitefield referred to himself as Wesley’s ‘son’ in the signature of one of his (p.111) letters. While Whitefield still considered Wesley to be his brother in the revival, Wesley the anti-Calvinist was no longer fit to be his spiritual mentor. As he would soon write to Wesley in the aftermath of the free grace controversy, ‘GOD was pleased to send me out first, and to enlighten me first, so I think he still continues to do it’. Whitefield had become convinced that he had advanced beyond Wesley in the depth of his spiritual experience.40

The growing controversy with Wesley over predestination strengthened Whitefield’s deepening adherence to moderate Calvinism. On his second voyage to America in the autumn of 1739 he studied Daniel Neal’s The History of the Puritans (4 vols; 1732–8), John Guyse’s A Practical Exposition of the Four Evangelists (1739), Philip Doddridge’s Family Expositor (vol. 1; 1739), and expressed a desire to study the lives of Luther and Calvin and the history of the Reformation. Probably hinting that he had too easily allowed Wesley to gain the ascendency in speaking against Calvinism to the Methodists, he declared that ‘At my return I trust I shall open my mouth and speak boldly, as I ought to speak.’ He had already become audacious enough to write to the Bishop of Gloucester, Martin Benson, ‘meekly telling him of his faults’.41 Whitefield was ready not only to challenge his spiritual father in Christ, but even Benson, the bishop who had helped enable his extraordinary ministry by ordaining him both deacon and priest.

When Whitefield penned his Christmas Eve 1740 response to Wesley’s sermon, Wesley’s use of the lot played a prominent role in his critique. Not only did he condemn Wesley’s February 1738 casting of lots which he believed ordered him back to London, but he also publicly exposed Wesley’s decision by lot to ‘preach and print’, stating three times that Wesley had ‘tempted God’ and that he had gained an ‘imaginary Warrant’ for his actions. Whitefield noted that Wesley had already admitted in a letter that he perhaps received a ‘wrong Lot’ in the former instance and so this was surely another case of the same. Not surprisingly, Whitefield did not mention that he had been involved in casting lots on several occasions and had very recently given qualified approval to the practice in ‘extraordinary occasions’.42

The vehemently anti-Methodist High Church newspaper The Weekly Miscellany had already ridiculed the one time Whitefield referred to casting lots in his journal as a ‘religious Lottery’, acceptable ‘provided always it be with inspired Box and Dice, or supernatural Cards’. Soon after Whitefield published his response to Wesley, the same newspaper took up the topic at length, (p.112) declaring it to be a ‘heathenish Practice’ marked by ‘Superstition, Ignorance, Infatuation, and Presumption in the highest Degree’. Exploiting their public debate, the paper stated, ‘Now here is Oracle against Oracle, Revelation against Revelation, and the God of Truth in one is declared to be a Liar, by what he mentions in the other. And who can bear to hear this without just Indignation?’ Anti-Methodist writers were still satirizing Wesley’s use of the lot nearly forty years later. Nonetheless, although his last recorded use of the lot was in October 1739, Wesley defended the practice into the 1740s while Whitefield rejected it. Whether Whitefield’s criticism of his use of the lot was a factor in Wesley’s abrupt discontinuation of the practice is unknown.43

While Wesley accepted a doctrine of conditional election, and understood and sometimes acknowledged the moderate Calvinist position that emphasized predestination of the elect while de-emphasizing or rejecting reprobation, he often refused to recognize the validity of this view. Whitefield allowed that ‘Election and Reprobation must stand or fall together’ while holding the moderate position that stressed ‘Predestination to Life’.44 Whatever the content of Whitefield’s teaching in Bristol in 1739, Wesley and other opponents consistently charged him with teaching the doctrine of reprobation. And Whitefield later regretted that he made ‘some too strong expressions about absolute reprobation’ in his response to Wesley’s sermon.45 However, Wesley’s sermon Free Grace, targeted at the doctrine of reprobation, expressed his fears of the consequences of Calvinist doctrine rather than the content of what we know of Whitefield’s teaching. Likewise, Whitefield’s accusation that Wesley taught ‘sinless Perfection’ was overstated though widely accepted by Wesley’s critics.46 And Wesley soon modified the most radical statements he ever made (p.113) in this direction in his 1740 preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems. Predictably, anti-Methodist polemicists followed suit by characterizing their doctrines in their most extreme light.47


Although the intensity of the conflict between the two great evangelists lessened in the early 1740s, it was never fully resolved. The relationship between Whitefield and Wesley was damaged; they never again regained the intimacy of friendship they shared at Oxford and at the beginning of the revival. Alongside these personal tensions, the Methodist revival, with some local exceptions, was permanently split into separate Calvinist and Wesleyan societies. Both men desired to promote and embody a ‘Catholic spirit’, but they were not able to consistently demonstrate it in their relationship with one another. Perhaps this was almost inevitable given its seeming incompatibility with their deeply held convictions that God’s divine favour was manifest in their ministries and that opposition and persecution was a welcome sign of God’s blessing. Sufficient reconciliation took place for Wesley to preach, according to Whitefield’s wish, his funeral sermon at his London chapels. However, although Whitefield accepted some responsibility and apologized for his role in the controversy, particularly in publicly exposing Wesley’s use of the lot in guiding him to ‘preach and print’, Wesley consistently laid the blame on Whitefield, despite the fact that the evidence indicates that Wesley was the primary instigator in the early stages of the free grace controversy.48

Clearly, though, the division was considerably more complex than the Whitefield–Wesley relationship. In the heat of the revival, both evangelists gained intensely devoted followers, to them as individuals and to their theologies, some of whom contributed to both creating and sustaining the divide. When the Wesleyan-Calvinist conflict broke out afresh in the 1770s, the ‘memory’ of the free grace controversy elicited considerable anger from Whitefield’s Calvinist friends Augustus Toplady and Rowland Hill, though neither of them had yet been born when Wesley preached his Free Grace sermon. Predictably, they both ridiculed Wesley’s ‘casting lots for his creed’, (p.114) and Hill defended Whitefield as the pioneer in the revival.49 While Wesley had been a lifelong Arminian, Toplady and Hill correctly recognized that casting lots played an important role in his split from Whitefield.

The way that Whitefield signed his letters to his spiritual father in Christ reveals the changing nature of their relationship between 1735 and 1739. In his four 1735 letters he declared himself Wesley’s ‘humble servant’; from 1736 until July 1739 he typically signed himself Wesley’s ‘son and servant’; and after July 1739 and into the 1740s ‘brother and servant’ became his most common way of subscribing his letters to Wesley. Never again after July 1739 did Whitefield call himself Wesley’s ‘son’ in signing off his letters. In one way this progression was natural as Whitefield grew older and experienced evangelical conversion and success as an evangelist before Wesley did. Whitefield was a leader in the Evangelical Revival for several years before Wesley began to work alongside him in the movement. Whitefield was Wesley’s ‘father’ in pioneering the revival and was his ‘brother’ in the movement in the sense of being a co-leader long before he began to sign his letters to Wesley using this word. However, in another way, the shift of language in Whitefield’s letter signatures is suggestive since it closely coincided with the breakdown of his relationship with Wesley in mid-1739, even if neither man was fully conscious of the change in language that occurred. By this time both evangelists had declared the whole world to be their parish. And once again, the extant evidence demonstrates that Whitefield led the way in using this phrase.50 Despite their shared burning passion to propagate the gospel, they failed to consistently work closely together in unity when their parishes coincided.


(1) See, for example, Allan Coppedge, John Wesley in Theological Debate (Wilmore, KY, 1987) and David Ceri Jones, ‘A Glorious Work in the World’: Welsh Methodism and the International Evangelical Revival, 1735–1750 (Cardiff, 2004), esp. chapter 4.

(2) After 1742 there are only three extant letters from Wesley to Whitefield and thirteen from Whitefield to Wesley.

(3) A Short Account of God’s Dealings with the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield, A. B. (London, 1740), 24, 26–7, 30, 44–5.

(4) Short Account, 49.

(5) Whitefield to Wesley (8 May 1735), Letters I, The Works of John Wesley (Oxford and Nashville, 1975–), vol. 25, ed. Frank Baker (1980), 423–6. Hereafter, volumes in this edition will be cited as WJW.

(6) Whitefield to Wesley (11 June 1735), Methodist Magazine, 21 (1798), 439–40. Whitefield to Wesley (11 July 1735), Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, 48:4 (1992), 120–2. Whitefield to Wesley [c.April 1736], Methodist Magazine, 21 (1798), 357–9. Whitefield to Wesley (2 September 1736), A Collection of Letters, on Religious Subjects (London, 1797), 9.

(7) Short Account, 60–74; Further Account.

(8) Further Account, 10–11. Wesley to Whitefield and the Oxford Methodists [10 September 1736], WJW, 25:472. Whitefield to Wesley (17 March 1737), WJW, 25:498–9. Whitefield to Charles Wesley (30 December 1736), Letters of George Whitefield for the Period 1734–1742 (Edinburgh, 1976), 488.

(9) Further Account, 11.

(10) Whitefield to Wesley (15 April 1737), WJW, 25:505. Whitefield to Wesley (2 September 1736), Collection of Letters, 9. Whitefield to Charles Wesley (30 December 1736), Letters of Whitefield, 487–8. Whitefield to Wesley (17 March 1737), WJW, 25:499.

(11) Graham C. G. Thomas (ed.), ‘George Whitefield and Friends: The Correspondence of Some Early Methodists’, National Library of Wales Journal, 26:3–27:4 (1990–2). Volume 26:4: Whitefield to Mr Debart [i.e. Dennys de Berdt] (23 January 1738), 380; John Edmonds (10 January and 13 January 1738), 372, 374; John Bray (22 January 1738 and 5 January 1738), 377, 369.

(12) There is evidence of Wesley casting lots on approximately twenty occasions from 1735 to October 1739.

(13) The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained (1746), The Methodist Societies: History, Nature, and Design, WJW, vol. 9, ed. Rupert E. Davies (1989), 203. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 2nd edn (Nashville, 2013), 59–60.

(14) Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford, 2014), 47, 87.

(15) Journal and Diaries I (1735–1738), WJW, vol. 18, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (1988), 3 February 1738, p. 221; Prov. 3:6.

(16) Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, 3 vols (Bristol, 1765), Prov. 16:33, 3:1862; Wesley to Lady Cox (7 March 1738) and to Charles Wesley (23 June 1739), WJW, 25:534, 660.

(17) Principles of a Methodist, WJW, 9:203–4; cf. WJW, 18:297. Similar explanations for the use of lots were later given in Wesley’s Explanatory Notes, Ezra 5:63, 2:1433–4; Prov. 16:33, 3:1862. Surprisingly, in his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1755), Wesley omitted any comment on casting lots in Acts 1:26. See also the criticism of Wesley’s practice of casting lots in The Weekly Miscellany (6 June 1741).

(18) Martin Schmidt, John Wesley: A Theological Biography, vol. 1, tr. Norman P. Goldhawk (New York, 1962), 230, 243, 261.

(19) A Letter to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley: In Answer to his Sermon, Entituled, Free-Grace (London, 1741), 7.

(20) Whitefield to John Edmonds (1 February 1738), ‘Whitefield and Friends’, 26:4, p. 385; cf. Whitefield to James Hutton (2 February 1738), Moravian Archives, London.

(21) Whitefield’s interpretation may have been affected by his own willingness to use lots to determine the decisions of others. See Whitefield to Wesley (22 March 1739), WJW, 25:612.

(22) Whitefield to Wesley (1 February 1738), WJW, 25:528. The following year Whitefield again asserted in slightly stronger language that Wesley’s letter was meant by God to ‘try’ him (Whitefield to My Dr. Brethren in Xt [14 March 1739], Moravian Archives). Lots were also not mentioned in his letters to Edmonds and Hutton (see note 20).

(23) Letter to Wesley, 8.

(24) There are eight extant letters from Whitefield to Wesley and three letters from Wesley to Whitefield.

(25) See Wesley to Whitefield and William Seward [26 February 1739] and to Whitefield [16 March 1739] and Whitefield to Wesley (3 March 1739), WJW, 25:601–3, 605–9, 604–5, quote at p. 605.

(26) Whitefield to John Miller (8 June 1739), summarized in Boyd Stanley Schlenther and Eryn Mant White (eds), Calendar of the Trevecka Letters (Aberystwyth, 2003), 24. A Letter from the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, to some Church Members of the Presbyterian Perswasion (Boston, 1740), 10. On Whitefield’s Calvinism, see David Ceri Jones, George Whitefield and the Revival of Calvinism in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London, 2014) and Mark K. Olson’s chapter in this book.

(27) See Whitefield’s letters to Wesley dated 13 February, 3, 22 March, 3 April, 25 June, 2, 23 July 1739 in WJW, vol. 25.

(28) Whitefield to My Dr. Brethren in Xt (14 March 1739), Moravian Archives. Wesley to Whitefield (20 March 1739) and Whitefield to Wesley (22 March 1739), WJW, 25:610–12. Whitefield to Dearly Beloved in the Lord (22 March 1739), Moravian Archives.

(29) Journal 3, p. 31. William Seward to James Hutton (16 and 20 February 1739), Moravian Archives. Journal and Diaries II (1738–1743), WJW, vol. 19, ed. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater (1990), 1–2 April 1739, p. 46 (Journal). Whitefield to Wesley (3 April 1739), WJW, 25:621.

(30) Wesley to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society (30 April 1739), WJW, 25:639. WJW, 19:38, 382 (Journal and diary); Wesley to Victory Purdy (1 February 1784), The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. John Telford, 8 vols (London, 1931), 7:208.

(31) References in letters between 9 April and 7 June 1739 (leaders: p. 636; bands: pp. 631, 654; Dissenter: p. 633; French Prophet: p. 658; to London: p. 630 and WJW, 11 June 1739, 19:393 [diary]). There are nine recorded instances of Wesley casting lots in Bristol between April and June 1739, mostly in relation to settling individuals into bands and choosing their leaders.

(32) For example, Wesley to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society (16 April 1739), WJW, 25:633; cf. 25:580, 583, 584, 664.

(33) WJW, 19:37–8 (Journal). Wesley to [John Edmonds] (9 April 1739), WJW, 25:630. Wesley to Samuel Wesley, Jun. (4 April 1739), WJW, 25:622. Wesley to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society (16 April and [21–6 April 1739]), WJW, 25:632, 636. William Seward to James Hutton (20 February and 9 July 1739), Moravian Archives.

(34) Wesley’s sermon Free Grace, in Sermons III, WJW, vol. 3, ed. Albert C. Outler (1990), 556. That Wesley said this in the oral sermon is confirmed in the letter from Jenny to Whitefield cited in note 36.

(35) Wesley to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society (30 April and 7 May 1739) and to Hutton (8 May 1739), WJW, 25:639–44. Wesley to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society (28 May 1739), WJW, 25:653. See also Wesley’s less revealing Journal and diary for this period in WJW, vol. 19.

(36) Wesley to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society [9 April 1739], WJW, 25:625. Mitchell to Seward (5 May 1739), John Rylands Library, Manchester, DDSe 45. Whitefield to Wesley (25 June 1740), Works, 1:189. Jenny to Whitefield (2 May 1739), 299–301, at 299, Thomas Jones to Whitefield (25 April 1739), ‘Whitefield and Friends’, 27:3, pp. 295–8. WJW, 6–14 July 1739, 19:397–8 (diary). William Seward to Samuel Mason (7 July 1739), ‘Whitefield and Friends’, 27:3, p. 312. Josiah Tucker also associated Calvinism with the ‘Anabaptists’ in Bristol: A Brief History of the Principles of Methodism (Oxford, 1742), 41.

(37) WJW, 11–19 June 1739, 19:65–73, 393–4 (Journal and diary). Journal 4, p. 5. The Manuscript Journal of the Reverend Charles Wesley, M.A., ed. S T Kimbrough, Jr and Kenneth G. C. Newport, 2 vols (Nashville, 2008), 1:179. Whitefield to Wesley (2 July 1739), WJW, 25:667. Whitefield, Letter to Wesley, 7. Whitefield had begun preaching at Moorfields and Kennington Common six weeks earlier on the same Sunday that Wesley preached his Free Grace sermon in Bristol. In preaching against predestination John Wesley inspired his brother Charles to follow suit.

(38) WJW, 30 April 1739, 19:387 (diary), see also diary for 1, 22 June 1739. Wesley to James Hutton and the Fetter Lane Society [14 May 1739], WJW, 25:650. Free Grace was also printed in London in 1740 and 1741, twice in Philadelphia in 1741, and in Boston in 1741. Whitefield has already established a friendly relationship with the Farleys (William Seward to James Hutton [28 February and 6 March 1739], Moravian Archives).

(39) Whitefield to Wesley (25 June 1739 and 2 July 1739), WJW, 25:661–2, 667; cf. Whitefield to Charles Wesley (22 June 1739), Moravian Archives. Seward to James Hutton (29 June and 5 July 1739), Moravian Archives.

(40) Whitefield to Wesley (2 and 23 July 1739), WJW, 25:667–9. Whitefield to Wesley (25 August 1740), Works, 1:205. Whitefield to James Hutton (29 November 1739), Moravian Archives.

(41) Whitefield to Wesley (8 November 1739), WJW, 25:698–9.

(42) Letter to Wesley, 7–9. See Arnold A. Dallimore’s summary of Whitefield’s use of lots in George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1970, 1980), 1:592–3.

(43) Mr. Whitefield’s Journal, from His Arrival at London, 5. The Weekly Miscellany (21 July 1739), in [Josiah Tucker], The Life and particular Proceedings of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield (London, 1739), 82–3. The Weekly Miscellany (6 June 1741), also printed in The Gentleman’s Magazine (11 June 1741). Albert M. Lyles, Methodism Mocked: The Satiric Reaction to Methodism in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1960), 86. WJW, 16 October 1739, 19:412 (diary). Wesley, Principles of a Methodist, WJW, 9:201–4; A Letter to the Author of the Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compar’d [1750], The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion and Certain Related Open Letters, WJW, vol. 11, ed. Gerald R. Cragg (1975), 372. Whitefield, Some Remarks on a Pamphlet, Entitled, The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists compar’d (London, 1749), 39.

(44) Wesley, Predestination Calmly Considered (1752), in Doctrinal and Controversial Treatises II, WJW, vol. 13, ed. Paul Wesley Chilcote and Kenneth J. Collins (2013), 268. Herbert Boyd McGonigle, Sufficient Saving Grace: John Wesley’s Evangelical Arminianism (Carlisle, 2001), 115–16. Letter to Wesley, 10, 9, 24, 30. The phrase ‘Predestination to Life’ is in Article XVII of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

(45) For example, Wesley, A Letter to the Rev. Mr. Thomas Maxfield (London, 1778), 9 and ‘James Hutton’s Second Account of the Moravian Work in England, Down to the Year 1747’, tr. J. N. Libbey, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, 15:8 (1926), 212. John Gillies (ed.), Memoirs of the Life of the Reverend George Whitefield, M.A. (London, 1772), 68; cf. Some Remarks, 38.

(46) Letter to Wesley, 20, 26.

(47) For example, The Progress of Methodism in Bristol: Or, the Methodist Unmask’d (Bristol, 1743), 29–30.

(48) Whitefield to Wesley (10 October 1741), Works, 1:331. WJW, 4 April 1741, 19:189–90 (Journal); Wesley, A Short History of Methodism (1765), WJW, 9:369–70; Sermon ‘On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel’ (1777), WJW, 3:590–1; Letter to Maxfield.

(49) Rowland Hill, Imposture Detected, and the Dead Vindicated, 2nd edn (London, 1777), 8; Augustus Toplady, A Letter to the Rev. Mr. John Wesley: Relative to his pretended Abridgment of Zanchius on Predestination (London, 1770), 7.

(50) ‘The whole world is now my parish’: Whitefield to Daniel Abbot (3 March 1739), ‘Whitefield and Friends’, 27:1, p. 91. ‘I look upon all the world as my parish’: Wesley to [?] [28 March 1739?], WJW, 25:616.