and appears not to have prospered in business; at any rate, she never seems to have been able to do anything for her son’s advancement in life. Whitefield’s early life, according to his own account, was anything but religious; though, like many boys, he had occasional prickings of conscience and spasmodic fits of devout feeling. He confesses that he was ‘addicted to lying, filthy talking, and foolish jesting’, and that he was a ‘Sabbath-breaker, a theatre-goer, a card-player, and a romance reader’. All this, he says, went on till he was fifteen years old.
Poor as he was, his residence at Gloucester procured him the advantage of a good education at the Free Grammar School of that city. Here he was a day-scholar until he was fifteen. The only known fact about his schooldays is this curious one, that even then he was remarkable for his good elocution and memory, and was selected to recite speeches before the Corporation of Gloucester at their annual visitation of the Grammar School.
At the age of fifteen Whitefield appears to have left school, and to have given up Latin and Greek for a season. In all probability, his mother’s straitened circumstances made it absolutely necessary for him to do something to assist her in business and to get his own living. He began, therefore, to help her in the daily work of the Bell Inn. ‘At length’, he says, ‘I put on my blue apron, washed cups, cleaned rooms, and, in one word, became a professed common drawer for nigh a year and a half.’ This, however, did not last long. His mother’s business at the Bell did not flourish, and she finally retired from it altogether.
An old school-fellow revived in his mind the idea of going to Oxford, and he went back to the Grammar School and renewed his studies. At length, after several providential circumstances had smoothed the way, he entered Oxford as a servitor at Pembroke at the age of eighteen. Whitefield’s residence at Oxford was the great turning-point in his life. For two or three years before he went to the University his journal tells us that he had not been without religious convictions, But from the time of his entering Pembroke College these convictions fast ripened into decided Christianity. He diligently attended all means of grace within his reach. He spent his leisure time in visiting the city prison, reading to the prisoners, and trying to do good. He became acquainted with the famous John Wesley and his brother Charles, and a little band of like-minded young men. These were the devoted party to whom the name ‘Methodists’ was first applied, on account of their strict ‘method’ of living.
At one time he seems to have been in danger of becoming a semi-papist, an ascetic, or a mystic, and of placing the whole of religion in self-denial. He says in his Journal, ‘I always chose the worst sort of food. I fasted twice a week. My apparel was mean. I thought it unbecoming a penitent to have his hair powdered. I wore woollen gloves, a patched gown, and dirty shoes; and though I was convinced that the kingdom of God did not consist in meat and drink, yet I resolutely persisted in these voluntary acts of self-denial, because I found in them great promotion of the spiritual life.’
Out of all this darkness he was gradually delivered, partly by the advice of one or two experienced Christians, and partly by reading such books as Scougal’s Life of God in the Soul of Man, Law’s Serious Call, Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, Alleine’s Alarm to Unconverted Sinners, and Matthew Henry’s Commentary. ‘Above all’, he says, ‘my mind being now more opened and enlarged, I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light, and power from above. I got more true knowledge from reading the Book of God in one month than I could ever have acquired from all the writings of men.’
Once taught to understand the glorious liberty of Christ’s gospel, Whitefield never turned again to asceticism, legalism, mysticism, or strange views of Christian perfection. The experience received by bitter conflict was most valuable to him. The doctrines of free grace, once thoroughly grasped, took deep root in his heart, and became, as it were, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Of all the little band of Oxford Methodists, none seem to have got hold so soon of clear views of Christ’s gospel as he did, and none kept it so unwaveringly to the end. Continue reading