George Whitefield's Last Sermon
'There is no end to the interest which attaches to such a man as George Whitefield'. So wrote C. H. Spurgeon in a personal appreciation of that great leader of the 18th century. The passage of more than a hundred years since Spurgeon has not changed his assessment. The ministry of George Whitefield was so great as to baffle description and evaluation. More recently, in the present century, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote of Whitefield:
His whole career from beginning to end was an amazing phenomenon and his Herculean labours both in Great Britain and America can only be explained by the power of the Holy Ghost.
Anything which is allowed to eclipse what God then did is to our serious spiritual disadvantage today.
Whitfield delivered his first sermon in his native city of Gloucester in England on Sunday, June 26, 1736, 'to a very crowded audience, with as much freedom as though I had been a preacher for some years' (Journals, p.69). Thirty-four years later, in 1770, he had preached no less than 18,000 times, in more locations and to more hearers than any other preacher in the history of Christianity to that time. He was then on his seventh visit to the American colonies and passing through the town of Exeter in New Hampshire, on the North-East Atlantic coast of America.
Now close to total and final physical exhaustion, he still could not refuse the request to preach a sermon, although it had not been planned. The mighty herald, striving to overcome bodily weakness, proclaimed the gospel for the last time in his customary manner. The following evening, a few miles' journey by horse and ferry took him across the Merrymac river to Newburyport. As he was about to retire for the night he addressed an indoor congregation from the stairs of the parsonage just a few hours before his death. The story of this candlelight address, with all its pathos, has often been told. One of Whitefield's foremost biographers, Luke Tyerman, calls this his last sermon, which continued until the candle burned itself out. It is a remarkable symbol of what was happening to the man. He died a few hours after he had finished speaking. But this vivid and moving scene has tended to obscure the fact that it was on the previous day that Whitefield's last sermon, in the fullest sense of the term, was preached.
It was Exeter which had the honour to have heard him for the last time in the capacity which had become uniquely his:
Whitefield commenced his service in the forenoon of that day in the church of the second parish, but as it was found altogether insufficient to accommodate the throng who assembled to hear him, he was obliged to preach outside. In order to avoid the shining of the sun in his face he crossed the street, and mounted upon a board laid upon a couple of hogsheads, from which he addressed his congregation.History of the Town of Exeter, Charles H. Bell, 1888
As Whitefield prepared himself to preach a friend observed, 'Sir, you are more fit to go to bed than to preach'. 'True, sir', replied Whitefield; and then, clasping his hands together, and looking up to heaven, he added, 'Lord Jesus, I am weary in thy work but not of it. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for thee once more in the fields, seal thy truth, come home and die!' For two hours he expounded, developed and applied 2 Corinthians 13:5: 'Examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith'. He was a dying man, and must have known it.
It is naturally a point of interest to know something of what Whitefield said, and how his tremendous vocal powers and incomparable eloquence served him at this concluding moment in his ministry. One eye-witness report informs us:
His voice was hoarse, his enunciation heavy. Sentence after sentence was thrown off in rough, disjointed portions, without much regard for point or beauty. At length, his mind kindled and his lion-like voice roared to the extremities of his audience. He was speaking of the inefficiency of works to merit salvation, and suddenly cried out in a tone of thunder, Works! works! a man get to heaven by works! I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand!Life of George Whitefield, Luke Tyerman, vol. 2
Another eye-witness has recorded a moving personal reference from this sermon:
I go, I go to a rest prepared; my sun has arisen, and, by aid from heaven, has given light to many. It is now about to set for — No! it is about to rise to the zenith of immortal glory. I have been outlived by many on earth, but they cannot outlive me in heaven. Oh, thought divine! I shall soon be in a world where time, age, pain and sorrow are unknown. My body fails, my spirit expands. How willingly would I live for ever to preach Christ! But I die to be with him.op. cit.
The site of this remarkable occasion, which brought to a close one of the most thrilling epochs in the history of preaching, is marked today by a Memorial Stone in Front Street, Exeter, inscribed: 'George Whitefield here preached his last sermon Sept. 29, 1770'.