There can be few Christians who changed the life of nations only to be as little remembered as George Whitefield (1714-70). In part this was because he left no denomination. Except for the short biography by the Scotsman, John Gillies (published two years after his death), Whitefield’s memory was left largely in the hands of those who wished to attribute his influence to ‘theatrical talent’ and fanaticism. The English evangelical, Thomas Wilson, who died in 1794, called for a fuller biography, but nothing came until Robert Philip’s volume in 1837. After Philip’s work there was a turning of the tide, and by 1852 J.C.Ryle was among those popularizing the belief that ‘Whitefield was one of the most powerful and extraordinary preachers the world has ever seen.’ Later and more definitive biographies were to confirm this opinion, notably the two volumes of Luke Tyerman 1876-77 and of Arnold Dallimore in 1970 and 1980.
Philip’s work, however, has not been displaced. It remains the best account to be found in a single volume. As a biographer he has his own distinctive merits. Although Whitefield was dead more than twenty years before he was born, Philip knew and spoke with those who had a personal knowledge of his subject. From them, and from his own extensive study of Whitefield’s Journals, letters and sermons, he grasped the great lesson of his life, namely, it is the Holy Spirit who makes preachers.
Philip is not an uncritical writer, and he is ready to note weaknesses and failures that admirers of Whitefield have ometimes passed over. But the great feature of his work is the way in which he leaves his subject to speak for himself. He seems to have absorbed all that Whitefield ever said and wrote, and his selection brings us into direct contact with the man. Thus Philip can truthfully write: 'This work is chiefly from Whitefield’s own pen. So far as it is mine, it is in his own spirit.'
For those who want a work of quiet scholarship, Philip is not their man. But where the desire is for the evangelical flame - for words that burn, and reach heart and soul – this is a volume that shows why the gospel can turn the world upside down.
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