On the walls of my office at church are portraits of several well-known preachers and theologians of the past. Most are Calvinists: Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, John Bunyan, and others. There are also pictures of George Whitefield the Calvinist and John Wesley the Arminian. I count all of them my brothers in Christ.
Whitefield and Wesley met while studying at Oxford. Though both were religious members of the “Holy Club,” neither was as yet saved. In God’s timing, they were truly converted soon thereafter. The Lord used both of them mightily in open-air evangelism across Great Britain during the Evangelical Awakening (also known as the Great Awakening as it affected the American Colonies). They worked closely together for the same goal of winning souls to Christ by the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.
Both Whitefield and Wesley were ordained ministers in the Church of England. Their ordination vows bound￼them to the official Thirty-Nine Articles, which were explicitly Calvinistic. From the start, most of the leaders of the Evangelical Awakening were staunchly Calvinistic.
Though Whitefield was a Calvinist, he generally did not preach the doctrines of grace openly. But that soon changed when he encountered Jonathan Edwards on his first preaching trip to the American Colonies. Soon Whitefield was more outspoken on the subject. On the other hand, Wesley never seemed to have any taste for these great truths. He was influenced more by English Arminians such as William Law and by German Moravians such as Peter Boehler and Count Zinzendorf—godly giants all, but decidedly non-Reformed. They tended to be mystical and subjective in their spirituality. Whitefield preferred the Calvinist Puritans and Jonathan Edwards.
In 1740, Wesley published a controversial sermon titled “Free Grace.” In it, he attempted to stop the spread of Calvinism in the awakening by disproving the doctrines of election, reprobation, particular redemption, and the perseverance of the saints. He charged that these doctrines were un-Biblical, blasphemous, demonic, and detrimental to holiness and evangelism.
Whitefield was personally wounded and theologically offended. He replied in print with “A Letter to the Rev. Mr. John Wesley in Answer to His Sermon Entitled ‘Free Grace.'” In it, he gently but firmly corrected Wesley point by point. He further exposed Wesley’s inconsistency in rejecting unconditional election, which was explicitly taught in the Thirty-Nine Articles, to which both of them had sworn allegiance. He also chided Wesley for teaching perfectionism and for presumptuously casting lots rather than prayerfully studying Scripture before publishing the sermon. Later Calvinists such as Augustus Toplady (Anglican) and John Gill (Baptist) would also take Wesley to task.
As with Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, the controversy became so intense that the two great evangelists parted ways to labor in different corners of the Lord’s vineyard. Whitefield concentrated his efforts more with his fellow Calvinists, with whom he formed the Calvinistic Methodist Conference. (Yes, there were Calvinist Methodists!) This association later became the Welsh Presbyterian Church. Wesley took advantage of the parting to solidify his influence in those Anglican churches favorable to the Evangelical Awakening. Soon he would organize and dominate them. Eventually this group would become the Methodist Church, which always has been Arminian.
But the two men stayed in touch, and within a few years they were partly reconciled. Though they would never work as closely as at the beginning, they cooperated as much as their agreements and differences allowed. Like Paul and Barnabas, they loved each other deeply and held one another in high esteem. When Whitefield died in 1770, it was Wesley who preached the funeral.
These events illustrate several Biblical truths that we may apply to evangelical Calvinists and Arminians today. First, doctrine mattered much to both Whitefield and Wesley, whereas it is often downplayed today by evangelicals, especially those involved in evangelism. Both men considered election to be important, but not essential to the basic Gospel. But Whitefield proved that Wesley was wrong to claim that holding to election would hinder one from preaching the Gospel to all. Whitefield wrote, “Though I hold to particular election, yet I offer Jesus freely to every individual soul.” And he did so to more people in that time than anyone else, including Wesley. We Calvinists would do well to imitate Whitefield in this (and not merely admire him).
Whitefield also displayed great love for Wesley, as is evident in his letters and journals. We, too, can disagree in a loving spirit. Further, Whitefield did not overreact to Arminianism and back into hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinists have usually denied that any Arminian, including Wesley, is saved. They are wrong. Whitefield’s example needs to be followed by young, zealous Calvinists who sometimes anathematize all Arminians as lost heretics.
For all his faults, Wesley was used of God in a mighty way. It needs to be pointed out that Wesley did not teach or practice “easy believism.” He would have stringently opposed manipulative tactics such as the altar call or the repetition of a prayer to “ask Jesus into your heart.” Later Arminians such as Charles Finney promoted these ideas, but not Wesley. We can praise God for godly Arminians who have opposed easy believism.
Another point needs to be made. Whitefield was right to remind Wesley that both of them were honor-bound to uphold the Calvinism of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Whitefield was right to try to correct Wesley. In this he was imitating Paul with Peter (Gal. 2), and Aquila and Priscilla with Apollos (Acts 18). Iron sharpens iron, and faithful are the wounds of a friend. Calvinists today need to refute recent attacks on Calvinism by Dave Hunt, Norman Geisler, Lawrence Vance, and others.
The story is told of someone asking Whitefield whether he expected to see Wesley in heaven. He replied, “No.” But before the questioner could jump to the wrong conclusion, Whitefield added: “Mr. Wesley will be so close to the throne of Jesus and I’ll be so far from it, that I won’t be able to see him.” They are now before mat throne, adoring their mutual Lord. In my view, Wesley became a Calvinist in the first five minutes he was in heaven.