Friday, December 15, 2006

George Whitefield and His Eventual Influence on Southern Baptist Preaching

In New England during the decades immediately prior to the First Great Awakening, many preachers read their sermon manuscripts from the pulpit. During the First Great Awakening in New England, Whitefield’s successful preaching was a catalyst for change in the preaching style of many other preachers. His influence also extended to the South where Separate Baptists multiplied exceedingly by utilizing his preaching style.

John Sparks stated that the preachers in New England who were supportive of the First Great Awakening imitated Whitefield’s preaching style, which came to be known as the “New England Holy Tone”:

“The New England New Light preachers labored on, and although few if any could match Whitefield’s dramatic flair, they compensated by developing a distinctive cadence based largely on Whitefield’s own emotive style and embellished by a singsong, almost hypnotic chant.”

John Sparks, The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shubal Stearns (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 27.

Alan Heimert also described Whitefield’s preaching and its effect:

“Both admirers and critics noted how Whitefield employed changes in tone and dramatic, though controlled, gestures. From Whitefield’s example was derived a radical redefinition of the nature and character of ‘evangelical preaching.’”

Alan Heimert and Perry Miller, eds., The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), xxvi.

Five of Whitefield’s critics in Connecticut in a 1744 letter described his imitators and their preaching:

“Mr. Whitefield, passing through this land, condemning all but his adherents, and his followers and imitators, by their insufferable enthusiastick [sic] whims and extemporaneous jargon, brought in such a flood of confusion among us, that we became sensible of the unscriptural method we had always been accustomed to take in our worship.”

Henry Cook, Barnaby Ford, Isaac Castel, John How, and Thomas Claselee, in The Great Awakening: Documents Illustrating the Crisis and Its Consequences, 397.

Thus, many New England preachers imitated Whitefield’s preaching in terms of both its extemporaneous nature and its dramatic aspects, such as tones and gestures.

Whitefield’s preaching greatly affected Shubal Stearns, the founding pastor of the Sandy Creek Baptist Church in North Carolina, the mother church for Separate Baptists in the South. Southern Baptist Convention historians have traced the denomination’s roots to both the Separate Baptists of the Sandy Creek tradition and the Regular Baptists of the Charleston tradition. Sparks described the effect of Whitefield’s preaching on Stearns when Stearns was in New England in 1740:

“He had been overpowered by Whitefield’s preaching along with many of his relatives and neighbors—including his parents—and had experienced an ecstatic New Birth in Christ.” (Sparks, 29)

Stearns imitated Whitefield’s preaching style, and his preaching was very effective after he moved to the backcountry of the South, according to Sparks:

“His family’s regard for him would only have furthered the wild adulation with which his musical, emotive New England Holy Tone preaching had been accepted on the backcountry frontier.” (Ibid., 93)

Sparks quoted Morgan Edwards, a minister of the Philadelphia Baptist Association who heard Stearns preach a year before Stearns’ death, to indicate that all Separate Baptist ministers copied Stearns’ preaching style. (Ibid., 65)

The preaching style utilized by Whitefield and Stearns emphasized the conversion experience, which most Southern Baptist preachers also typically emphasize. Heimert explained that Whitefield and his followers measured success by conversions:

“Success, in turn, was measured by what Whitefield and his fellow workers termed the ‘New Birth.’ Not the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, but the existential fact of the conversion experience, became the ‘principal hinge’ of what Edwards called ‘the evangelical scheme.’” (Heimert, xxvii)

Most Southern Baptist preachers frequently utilize a lively, extemporaneous preaching style, which is somewhat similar to that utilized by Whitefield and Stearns. God can still utilize this type of preaching to win many souls to Christ.

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