George Whitefield and Dissent

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As the Dissenting divine Isaac Watts lay on his death bed in November 1748, just hours before breathing his last, he received a visit from George White-field. In a touching scene, Whitefield, chastened after a troubling four years in the American colonies, assisted a doctor in making Watts comfortable before some final pain relief was administered. Whitefield professed that it had been a joy ‘to wait on a waiting servant of Christ’. 1 A decade earlier, Watts had assumed the role of critical friend to the youthful Whitefield, in the first flush of fame after his open-air preaching in London and Bristol had made him a figure of national interest. Whitefield’s preaching of the new birth in the late 1730s had been combined with a virulent polemic against those Church of England clergy who closed their pulpits to him. Condemning many of them as having a ‘zeal for God, though,…not according to knowledge’ and being a ‘stumbling block to thousands’, 2 it was not long before the Church began to fight back against him. In 1739 the bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, published a pastoral letter to the clergy under his care. While the bishop urged his charges to be fervent in their pastoral responsibilities, much of the letter was spent warning them about the dangers Whitefield represented. Gibson charged him with ‘enthusiasm’, a heavily weighted accusation that focussed in the main on the suspicion that White-field claimed a near apostolic authority, operated under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit and had assumed to himself the responsibility for discerning who was a real Christian and who might not be.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEvangelicalism and Dissent in Modern England and Wales
EditorsDavid Bebbington, David Ceri Jones
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages19
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sept 2020

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Evangelicalism


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