For Whitefield, clearly, one can be aware of, and even repent of, particular sins without having a clear understanding of one’s spiritual and moral condition, and therefore without recognizing the One Path to salvation. That I commit this or that sin is not my problem; what afflicts me, rather, is this inborn, as it were “natural,” “perverseness of the heart” that sets my own will at “enmity” with the will of God. As he would put it, even more bluntly, in another sermon, “If you have never felt the weight of original sin, do not call yourselves Christians. I am verily persuaded original sin is the greatest burden of a true convert; this ever grieves the regenerate soul, the sanctified soul.”

It was Whitefield’s experience — and this, I think, should seem reasonable even to those who share none of his theological beliefs — that while this message was consistently offensive to people who held some status in the world (whether the Duchess of Buckingham or Mr. Benjamin Franklin) it could be a message of great comfort to the insulted, the degraded, and the poor. Not all of them, of course: Whitefield was often mocked and heckled by at least a portion of his crowds, and in his journal makes the inadvertently slightly comical comment that he considered it an honor to be pelted with rotten fruit and “pieces of dead cats” for the sake of the Gospel. (The more dignified and scholarly John Wesley did not like the idea of outdoor evangelism precisely because he preferred not to be subjected to such possibilities, but eventually Whitefield talked him into it and he had some success.) But Whitefield also records in his journal a moving account of his experience preaching to coal miners near Bristol in 1739. The preaching did not go well at first — very likely there were some dead cats at hand — but gradually more and more of the miners came to hear his messages. “Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear or a Jesus who was a friend to publicans, and came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. The first discovery of their being affected, was to see the white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully ran down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits.”

Having no righteousness of their own to renounce — this is the heart of the matter, and a thought deeply consistent with the Catholic Rosenstock-Huessy’s celebration of the feast of All Souls’ as the “universal democracy” of sinners under judgment. These coal miners, who knew that they were not thought worthy of education, or the vote, or perhaps even admission to the local Anglican church, heard from Whitefield that their condition was truly dire — but no more dire than his own, or that of the local Lord, or the owners of the coal pits. One of the great hymns of later (nineteenth-century) evangelicalism is Charlotte Elliott’s “Just As I Am” —

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come

— and this was the word of comfort that Whitefield brought to the miners: that God loves them just as they are, and asks for nothing more than their repentant hearts, which is what he asks of everyone, even the Duchess of Buckingham. Really, it’s no wonder they wept.

On the 300th birthday of George Whitefield, an excerpt from my book Original Sin: A Cultural History.

I mention the Duchess of Buckingham here because of her response to an aristocratic friend who had shared with her the message of the “new evangelical preachers”: “It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting; and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.”