4 Lessons Southern Baptists Can Learn From Whitefield and Wesley

I originally wrote this post as I prepared to leave for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans in 2012.  I grieved then over the contention and dissension in our Convention regarding the issue of Calvinism and grieve now that some choose to continue this debate.  As I read recent posts and comments on social media arguing over this issue, I am reminded of a similar debate over soteriology that occurred between the two great evangelists George Whitefield and John Wesley.

Although they were close friends and brothers in Christ, Whitefield and Wesley disagreed over Whitefield’s Calvinism in general and his understanding of the doctrine of predestination in particular. Wesley published a sermon attacking Whitefield’s views regarding the doctrine of predestination. Whitefield published a letter in response, refuting the points of Wesley’s sermon. The result was a schism between the two men that would eventually be healed, but would cause dissension and distraction among pastors and Christ-followers who witnessed and participated in the First Great Awakening. These two evangelists’ actions and comments during and after their public schism serve as a reminder to me regarding how we Southern Baptists should approach such theological differences between fellow workers for the gospel.

First, we Southern Baptists should focus more on reaching people with the gospel of Jesus Christ than we do on our differences regarding tertiary theological issues. In a private letter written before either had brought their disagreements into the public arena, George Whitefield wrote to Wesley:

The doctrine of election, and the final perseverance of those that are truly in Christ, I am ten thousand times more convinced of, if possible, than when I saw you last.–You think otherwise: why then should we dispute, when there is no probability of convincing? Will it not in the end destroy brotherly love, and insensibly take from us the cordial union and sweetness of soul, which I pray God may always subsist between us? How glad would the enemies of the Lord be to see us divided? How many would rejoice, should I join and make a party against you? And in one word, how would the cause of our common Master every way suffer by our raging disputes about particular points of doctrines? Honoured Sir, let us offer salvation freely to all by the blood of Jesus, and whatever light God has communicated to us, let us freely communicate to others.[1]

Although he was opposed to Wesley’s theological views regarding election, Whitefield gently admonished his friend and attempted to avoid entering into a public dispute with him. His concern was to avoid such contentions because of their distraction from the preaching of the gospel. He wanted to find common ground with his friend in Christ’s death on the cross being the only way for the salvation of men. Whitefield was so willing to focus on their unity in the gospel that he asked Wesley to follow up on the people converted under his preaching while he was away in the American colonies trying to build an orphanage. He did not allow his differences over the doctrines of election, particular atonement, and the perseverance of the saints to prevent their cooperation in the gospel; however, this cooperation and loving unity for the sake of the gospel ceased when both men brought their argument over these doctrines into the public arena.

Second, we Southern Baptists must be careful regarding entering into public debates over these doctrinal issues. In a letter written on June 25, 1740, George Whitefield admonished John Wesley, “For God’s sake, if possible, dear Sir never speak against election in your sermons: no one can say that I ever mentioned it in public discourses, whatever my private sentiments may be. For Christ’s sake, let us not be divided amongst ourselves: nothing will so much prevent our division as your being silent on this head.[2] After Wesley printed his sermon “Free Grace” attacking Whitefield’s understanding of predestination, Whitefield asked his friend, “Why did you throw out a bone of contention? Why did you print your sermon against predestination? . . . But I must preach the gospel of Christ, and that I cannot now do, without speaking of election.[3]

After they aired their disagreements over doctrine in the public eye, both men were compelled to answer each new contention from the other publicly. They felt compelled to not allow the other’s public comments to go unanswered. This practice of public debate over tertiary issues distracted from their preaching, encouraged division among believers, and hindered the movement that was spreading throughout England and the colonies. Now rather than calling themselves Methodists, people broke into camps following either itinerant and called themselves Methodists (Wesley) or Calvinist Methodists (Whitefield). They identified themselves by their differences over non-essentials, rather than unifying themselves under the cross and the gospel.

Third, we Southern Baptists must avoid encouraging division by fostering political or theological camps within our denomination that identify themselves with a particular stand on these tertiary issues. In a letter to a man disturbed by John Wesley’s attacks against Calvinism, George Whitefield admonished:

But what is Calvin, or what is Luther? Let us look above names and parties; let Jesus, the ever-loving, the ever-lovely Jesus, be our all in all.–So that he be preached, and his divine image stamped more and more upon people’s souls, I care not who is uppermost. I know my place, (Lord Jesus enable me to keep it!) even to be the servant of all. I want not to have a people called after my name, and therefore act as I do. The cause is Christ’s, and he will take care of it.[4]

He encouraged believers holding differing views on election to show love towards one another regardless of their theological differences. He asked one of his audiences:

Has he wrought in thee a love to his people, not people that are Calvinists only; not people that hold universal redemption only? O be careful as to that. O what nonsense is that, for people to hold universal redemption, and yet not love all mankind. What nonsense is it to hold election, and not “as the elect of GOD to put on bowels of mercy, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and long-suffering.” As the woman said, I have a house will hold a hundred, a heart ten thousand.[5]

Rather than spending our time as Southern Baptists marching under the banners of various political and theological leaders, whether they be historical or contemporary, whether they be within or outside of the Southern Baptist Convention, we must march unified under the banner of the cross of Christ. Remember the prayer of our King Jesus who prayed:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:20-23 ESV

Jesus is telling us through this prayer that our effectiveness in reaching the world with the gospel is directly related to our unity in Christ. If we divide into camps and pour our energies into building those camps, we dishonor King Jesus and will be ineffective in our gospel efforts.

Finally, we can learn from Whitefield and Wesley by observing how they eventually reconciled their relationship while maintaining theological differences. One person asked Whitefield if he would see John Wesley in Heaven. It is reported that Whitefield responded that Wesley would be so much closer to the throne of glory than he that he would not get a glimpse of him. In a sermon preached on the occasion of Whitefield’s death, John Wesley queried:

Have we read or heard of any person since the apostles, who testified the gospel of the grace of God, through so widely extended a space, through so large a part of the habitable world? Have we read or heard of any person, who called so many thousands, so many myriads of sinners to repentance? Above all, have we read or heard of any, who has been a blessed instrument in his hand of bringing so many sinners from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God?[6]

We Southern Baptists need to learn from these two men and their similar disagreement over particular doctrines related to Calvinism. We need to see the damage the public disagreement caused to the progression of the gospel. We need to pursue unity in the love of Christ and under the authority of His inerrant Word. We would be wise to follow the guidance of Rupertus Meldenius, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

You can read more on the relationship between Whitefield and Wesley in my new book entitled No Better Gospel.

[1] GeorgeWhitefield, “Letter CLXIX,” in The Works of the Reverend George Whitefield, 1:156.

[2] Ibid.

[3] George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Letters, 509.

[4] Whitefield, “Letter DCCCCXII,” in TWRGW, 2:428-29.

[5] George Whitefield, “Self-Inquiry Concerning the Work of God,” in Sermons on Important Subjects, 711.

[6] John Wesley, A Sermon on the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 14-15.

Tim is the Associate Professor for Youth Ministry & Missions at Anderson University and is the Executive Director of Youth Ministry Round Table. He is the author of No Better Gospel and the coauthor of the upcoming Raising the Bar 2nd edition.

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