This episode is called, "Ben Chimes in on George," and I bet you're wondering who the Ben is. You might think it's Big Ben. Well it's not, it actually is America's Ben—this is Ben Franklin. So now that we have the Ben, we need to talk about the George. This George is none other than George Whitefield, the evangelist of the Great Awakening.
Benjamin Franklin wrote his autobiography, and in that autobiography he devotes a number of pages to his recollections of his friendship with George Whitefield. He introduces Whitefield in his autobiography with this line:
In 1739, arrived among us from England, the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher. He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches, but the clergy taking a dislike to him soon refused him their pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the fields.Well, that was nothing new for Whitefield. He was used to being uninvited from pulpits back in old England. One of his sermons he liked to preach is "The Almost Christian." And he would walk into churches and he would say, "You know who the almost Christian is? Well, it's one who is resting in simply being a churchgoer. One who is resting in the fact that maybe they were baptized as an infant in the Anglican church, but they're not a true Christian. They're an almost Christian. So it probably shouldn't surprise us that after a few of those kinds of sermons Whitefield found himself uninvited from pulpits. Didn't stop him though. He simply turned into the open fields, or, even, as in the case of Philadelphia, into the open streets of Philadelphia.
In his autobiography Franklin goes on to say of Whitefield, "I observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them by assuring them they were naturally half beasts and half devils." Of course, what Franklin is referring to here is Whitefield was a Calvinist. And as he's talking about the gospel he needs to say, as I think Dr. Sproul wrote in one of his books, if we're saved the question is "What are we saved from?" And we're saved from the wrath of God because we are sinners. And this was the message of Whitefield.
Franklin was anything but a Calvinist. In fact, at one point he said that "My mother mourns because one of her sons, an Arian, and one of her sons is an Arminian." Well, actually Ben Franklin was both an Arian and an Arminian, and so he wasn't too keen on Whitefield's Calvinism. But they developed a friendship nevertheless. In fact, at one point Whitefield had founded an orphanage in Georgia, and he would take up collections at his revival meetings for these orphans. And of course the nay-sayers and the critics were saying, "O, he's just lining his pockets." And Franklin is going to speak directly to that. Let's see what he says about Whitefield's character. "So these enemies of Whitefield's, they said he was going to apply these collections to his own private profit. But I who was intimately acquainted with him, being employed in the printing of his sermons and the printing of his journals, etc., never had the least suspicion of his integrity, but am to this day decidedly of opinion that he was in all his conduct, a perfectly honest man."
Franklin was not simply impressed by Whitefield's oratory—that he was a great speaker to crowds. What he was impressed by in addition to that was that what was in front of him was a man of integrity. Now, he was a great speaker there's no doubt. In fact, Franklin has a great story he tells in this regard. He says:
I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with the collection. And I silently resolved, 'He should get nothing from me.' I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, 3 or 4 silver dollars, and 5 Spanish gold coins. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver. And he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector's dish. Coppers, silver, gold, and all.Well, this was a remarkable man—George Whitefield—and this is a remarkable testimony from Ben Franklin. Again, not only of his powerful oratory, but of his integrity. So that is Ben chiming in on George.