Buried in the Basement: George Whitefield and the Resurrection2
One day that church basement is going to be glorious!
Right now, it’s damp and musty. There are traffic cones on a pile of dirt in the shadows. Some cleaning supplies are stacked up in a corner. The stairs that descend require anyone above average height to stoop their head.
It’s the basement of Old South Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Our family was able to tour the church building this past summer. The volunteer tour-guide described this mainline church as a Bible-believing presbyterian church… and one of the greatest preachers in church history is buried in the basement.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) was converted at 20 years old while a student at Oxford. It was there—along with John and Charles Wesley—that Whitefield discovered the life-giving, soul-saving, comfort-supplying truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Through a series of circumstances, God led Whitefield to see religious devotion, though important, could never remedy what was broken between sinful man and holy God. Only Jesus could do that because of what he had done for his people in his death and resurrection. This message so captured Whitefield’s heart that he made it his life’s message to invite sinners to find forgiveness and reconciliation with God in Christ Jesus.
And Whitefield did this with a tenacity and a God-given effectiveness that is almost unparalleled in church history. According to one source, over his thirty-year ministry, Whitefield spoke approximately 1,000 times per year (the estimate includes about 18,000 sermons and 12,000 talks over the course of his ministerial career).1 Often times his sermons would happen outdoors to crowds of thousands of people, even while revilers jeered at him and tried to drown out his voice. All this, of course, was in a day before a sound team could amplify Whitefield’s voice with a microphone.
After his 13th transatlantic crossing, Whitefield continued to preach across New England at an almost-daily rate (a frantic pace that no ordinary minister should seek to copy) until his heart failed in September 1770. He asked to be buried under the pulpit of the local presbyterian church where he was supposed to preach the next day.2
According to the local historian, after Whitefield’s death, admirers of Whitefield—adopting an attitude resembling the Roman Catholic use of relics—would come to the church and plunder Whitefield’s coffin. The infamous Benedict Arnold, for example, visited the church with a party before an important battle and cut off a portion of Whitefield’s clothing. Even more shocking, a man from England was asked by a minister to fetch something from Mr. Whitefield while in America (referring, of course, to some of Whitefield’s papers). Misunderstanding, the man brought back a box back to England containing something very precious to Mr. Whitefield: his forearm! (The bone was promptly returned).
For such transgressions as these, George Whitefield’s body was eventually moved into the basement and his coffin sealed in concrete, but a plaque in the church reads: “I am content to wait for the day of judgment for the clearing up of my character: and after I am dead I desire no other epitaph than this, ‘here lies G.W. what sort of man he was the great day will discover.”
The body of George Whitefield, a man who passionately loved Jesus, lies ensconced in stone in a church basement while his spirit worships Jesus in heaven. But one day, that basement will be witness to a most glorious scene! At the last trumpet sound, the concrete shall crack and crumble and George Whitefield’s body will come alive. The decay will be undone and every cell returned to its place. The perishable will put on the imperishable. And George Whitefield shall be raised to die no more. He shall be ushered, body and soul, into the presence of his Savior whom he shall enjoy fully and forever!
But not only Mr. Whitefield! And not only great men, such as Whitefield was! But all who believe in the gospel—the Jesus—that Mr. Whitefield preached. For Jesus has said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). May God fill us with the blessed hope which comes from believing this gospel today!
What I’m Reading or Listening To:
- Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones – On the theme of famous preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the preeminent Reformed preachers in the 20th century. This book captures the philosophy behind Lloyd-Jones’ dynamic preaching ministry.
- “I Will Not Be a Velvet-Mouthed Preacher! The Life and Ministry of George Whitefield” by John Piper – When visiting the burial site of George Whitfield, I subjected my family to this message by John Piper in which he speaks about the life and ministry of George Whitfield. Guess what? The family enjoyed it (and you might too).
- A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland by Troy Senik – My wife bought me this interesting biography of the man who was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. It’s been a good read so far!
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Laurie and I visited Old south church about 10 years ago on a trip to Maine and it was a blessing to walk up and down the center aisle and imagine Whitfield‘s voice thundering as he preached the gospel!