By Evan D. Burns
George Whitefield (1714-1770) and Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) both ministered during the First Great Awakening (c. 1731-1755). Both men were evangelical Calvinists and both were mightily used by the Spirit of Christ to breathe fresh life into the church. Nevertheless, they were quite different and inimitable in their own ways.
In his book, Evangelical Spirituality, James M. Gordon briefly compares and contrasts George Whitefield with Jonathan Edwards. Where Edwards was the philosopher-theologian, Whitefield was the evangelist-theologian. Both men were mightily used by God, but in different ways, often depending upon their God-given temperaments and capacities. Gordon observes that Whitefield was a “dramatic, colourful orator,” and Edwards was “much more controlled.” In Whitefield’s sermon delivery, he was “forceful… and unrivaled in his day.” The pathos of his sermons was found in his “presence and personality.” Yet, Edwards was compelling in his “firm grasp” of the gospel and his commanding ability to extrapolate “a reasoned, biblical psychology of Christian experience.” Whitefield was a “restless, energetic activist,” while Edwards “lived in a relatively small area.” They both promoted evangelical Calvinism, but in Whitefield’s sermons, “there is little that is new or subtle.” Yet, “by contrast Edwards conveyed a towering sense of the majesty of God.” The Holy Spirit empowered both of them uniquely to awaken and provoke renewal in ways that still deserve celebration and emulation today.
James M. Gordon, Evangelical Spirituality (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1991), 63--64.
Evan D. Burns (Ph.D. Candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is on faculty at Asia Biblical Theological Seminary, and he lives in Southeast Asia with his wife and twin sons. They are missionaries with Training Leaders International.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, October 21st-22nd, a conference will be held on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on George Whitefield and the Great Awakening. You can watch the conference via livestream here.