Untold millions in America today believe that moral living and occasional church attendance will please God at the last day. But from the very beginning of his public ministry—in fact, from his first-ever sermon—George Whitefield made it clear how deceptive this mindset can be. Whitefield, the most influential evangelist of the eighteenth century, believed and taught that godly fellowship offers indispensable aid in avoiding the snares that hold us back from enjoying a God-honoring, holy life. Whitefield was convinced that all Christians desperately need vital, continuous fellowship with other believers.
Whitefield often preached to massive crowds, and report after report revealed that these crowds were often overcome with pangs of conviction or the heights of joy. His first public sermon proved no exception. Delivered on June 27, 1736, in his hometown of Gloucester, England, Whitefield believed the Holy Spirit enabled him to speak with “gospel authority” that day as many people in the audience were “struck” by his remarkable oratory. In fact, some worried Whitefield’s sermon had driven fifteen congregants “mad.” Whitefield himself was elated with the sermon and its effect: “Glory! Glory! Glory!” he wrote upon reflection.
Given the dramatic effects of the sermon, we might be surprised to learn its title and topic: “The Necessity and Benefits of Religious Society.” Although many of Whitefield’s greatest orations would focus on the need for the new birth of salvation, this one called fellow Church of England parishioners beyond obligatory adherence to vital community in the church. To Whitefield, a life of joyful fellowship was one of the clearest marks of a true believer. This might surprise some, as his itinerant ministry maintained a laser focus on individuals and their need for conversion. As a result, Whitefield has developed a reputation for fostering the evangelical problem of hyper-individualism. Perhaps that was an unintended effect of Whitefield’s work since he never permanently attached himself to a particular congregation. But from the start, Whitefield emphasized that the biblical Christian life was never a solitary pursuit, but something that must be practiced in the community of the redeemed.
Whitefield’s inaugural sermon drew on lessons he learned from John and Charles Wesley in the Methodist society at the University of Oxford. The Methodist movement criticized the nominal spirit that had infected the eighteenth-century Church of England. In earlier centuries, the Puritans had similarly called on Anglicans to a higher level of devotion, to something more than just going to church for weddings and funerals, Christmases and Easters. The Methodists followed suit and set out a rigorous system of devotion, prayer, and accountability to one’s brothers and sisters. They offered a blueprint that guided Whitefield in what it meant to be a real Christian.
Whitefield’s text was Ecclesiastes 4:9–12: “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (KJV). In Whitefield’s parish-based Anglican society, the problem wasn’t that people weren’t part of a “church.” Most English people were affiliated at birth with their local parish church, where they’d been baptized. Instead, Whitefield argued that the “sad decay of true Christianity” persisted because people “neglect[ed] to assemble [themselves] together, in Religious Societies.” In today’s terminology, this meant people weren’t meeting in groups for godly fellowship.
God designed mankind for fellowship, Whitefield noted, creating Eve because it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone. How much more, in our fallen state, do we need others to help us stay on the path of devout holiness? “Kindled coals,” he said, “if placed asunder, soon go out, but if heaped together, quicken and enliven each other and afford a lasting heat.” Likewise, “if Christians kindled by the grace of God unite, they will quicken and enliven each other; but if they separate and keep asunder, no marvel if they soon grow cool or tepid.”
Of course, Whitefield connected the need for godly fellowship to the need for conversion. After all, it would be hard to imagine a Whitefield sermon that failed to mention the new birth! He knew Christians would always have worldly input from unconverted friends and family, those who would say believers need not take their faith so seriously. True Christian friends, however, would caution the believer that “if you will be an almost Christian (and as good be none at all) you may live in the same idle indifferent manner as you see most other people do.” If you want to be an “altogether Christian,” though, you must go much further. You must strive to enter the narrow gate, the “narrow passage of a sound conversion.”
People naturally gravitated toward societies of one kind or another, Whitefield noted. It was wired into our natures. Some unregenerate people were fond of fellowships devoted to sin itself, including drunkenness or debauchery “at which a modest heathen would blush.” But Whitefield issued a more pointed warning about “seemingly innocent entertainments and meetings which the politer part of the world are so very fond of, and spend so much time in,” such as debating clubs or dances. Today one imagines he might indict us for spending so much time socializing around sporting events. Being obsessed with such time-wasting distractions, especially at the expense of religious fellowship, was “absurd, ridiculous, and sinful.”
But the insidiousness of our sin made even religious fellowship an opportunity for hypocrisy and deceit. Abundant religious activity cannot mask a rebellious heart at the last day. It would do no good for the hypocrite to say, “Lord, have we not assembled ourselves together in your Name, and enlivened each other, by singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs?” No, “you shall receive a greater damnation, if, in the midst of these great pretensions, you are found to be workers of iniquity.” But Whitefield had confidence that the believers meeting in Methodist-style fellowships in Gloucester were “willing, not barely to seem, but to be in reality, Christians,” and that at the judgment seat of God they would be regarded as “holy, sincere disciples of a Crucified Redeemer.”
Whitefield may have said much more than this in the sermon, perhaps exhorting and extemporizing in such a way that drove the congregants “mad.” (The published text of his sermons frequently differed from what he said in person.) But he said enough to show how his vision of vital fellowship exposed the spirit of nominal religion that was so debilitating both to England and to so much of America today.
Editor's note: this originally published at 9Marks.org.