George Whitefield (1714-1770): Letters to students

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In keeping with recent posts from 18th century English theologians (namely Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge), together with another recent post, 20 points of advice to prospective students of theology, I now turn to two letters from George Whitefield (1714-1770), both written to students. The first letter was written to seminary students at Philip Doddridge’s Northampton Academy, the second to students at Harvard and Yale:

TO THE STUDENTS AT DR. DODDRIDGE’S ACADEMY, NORTHAMPTON

Philadelphia, Nov. 10, 1739

MY DEAR BRETHREN IN CHRIST,

The cordial love I bear you will not suffer me to neglect writing to you; as God has been pleased to bless my ministry to your souls, so I think it my duty to watch over you for the good, and assure you constantly you are all upon my heart.

Your last letter gave me great pleasure – but it was too full of acknowledgments, which I by no means deserve. To Him alone, from whom every good and perfect gift comes, be all the thanks and glory.

I heartily pray God that you may be burning and shining lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Though you are not of the Church of England, yet if you are persuaded in your own minds of the truth of the way wherein you now walk, I leave it. However, whether Conformists or Nonconformists, our main concern should be to be assured that we are called and taught of God – for none but such are fit to minister in holy things.

Indeed, my dear brethren, it rejoiced me much to see such dawnings of grace in your souls, except that I thought most of you were bowed down too much with a servile fear of man. But as the love of the Creator increases, the fear of the creature will daily decrease in your hearts. Nicodemus, who at first came by night to our Lord, afterwards dared to own Him before the whole council in open day. I pray God make you all thus minded. For unless your hearts are free from worldly hopes and worldly fears, you never will speak boldly as you ought to speak. The good old Puritans, I believe, never preached better than when in danger of being taken to prison as soon as they had finished their sermon. And however the church may be at peace now, I am persuaded [that] unless you go forth with the same attitude you will never preach with the same demonstration of the Spirit, and of power.

Study therefore, my brethren, I beseech you by the mercies of God in Christ Jesus. Study your hearts as well as books; ask yourselves again and again whether you would preach for Christ if you were sure to lay down your lives for doing so. If you fear the displeasure of a man for doing your duty now, assure yourselves you are not yet thus minded.

But enough of this. I love to hope well of you all. I trust, as you are enlightened with some degree of knowledge in the mysteries of godliness, you will henceforth determine not to know anything but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. This is, and this (the Lord being my helper) shall be the only study of, my dear brethren.

Your affectionate friend, brother, and servant in Christ,

G.W.

TO THE STUDENTS, ETC., UNDER CONVICTIONS AT THE COLLEGES OF CAMBRIDGE [HARVARD] AND NEW-HAVEN [YALE], IN NEW ENGLAND AND CONNECTICUT

DEAR GENTLEMEN,

With unspeakable pleasure have I heard that there seems to be a general concern among you about the things of God. It was no small grief to me that I was obliged to say of your college that “your light was become darkness” – yet are ye now become light in the Lord.

I heartily thank God, even the Father of our glorious Redeemer, for sending dear Mr. T – among you [Note: “Mr. T” refers to Gilbert Tennent, who was one of the leaders of the First Great Awakening together with Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield]. What great things may we not now expect to see in New England, since it has pleased God to work so remarkably among the sons of the prophets? Now we may expect a reformation indeed, since it is beginning at the house of God.

A dead ministry will always make a dead people, whereas if ministers are warmed with the love of God themselves, they cannot but be instruments of diffusing that love among others. This, this is the best preparation for the work whereunto you are to be called. Learning without piety will only make you more capable of promoting the kingdom of Satan. Henceforward, therefore, I hope you will enter into your studies not to get a parish, nor to be polite preachers, but to be great saints.

This, indeed, is the most compendious way to true learning, for an understanding enlightened by the Spirit of God is more open to divine truths and, I am certain, will prove most useful to mankind. The more holy you are, the more will God delight to honor you.

I hope the good old divinity will now be precious to your souls, and you will think it an honor to tread in the steps of your pious forefathers. They were acquainted with their own hearts. They knew what it was to be tempted themselves, and therefore from their own experience knew how to give help to others. O may you follow them, as they followed Christ. Then great, very great will be your reward in heaven. I am sure you can never serve a better Master than Jesus Christ, or be engaged in a higher employment than in calling home souls to Him.

I trust, dear gentlemen, you will not be offended at me for sending you these few lines. I write out of the fulness of my heart. I make mention of you always in my prayers. Forget me not in yours. I am a poor weak worm. I am the chief of sinners, and yet, O stupendous love!, the Lord’s work still prospers in my unworthy hands. Fail not to give thanks, as well as to pray for

Your affectionate brother and servant in our common Lord,

G.W.