Whitefield and Wesley–The Divisiveness of Debate over Calvinism/Arminianism

As I type, the Building Bridges Conference sponsored by the Southeastern Seminary and the Founders Ministries is coming to a close. You can find the audio here, here, or here. Central to this conference are questions over Calvinism and Arminianism. This debate has raged white-hot among Southern Baptists as some deny the validity of the Calvinistic position for Southern Baptists while others vehemently defend it. One of the results of this debate is misunderstanding and division. Hopefully, this conference will be one step towards reconcialiation, peace and cooperation–only time will tell. Nonetheless, this issue has divided brothers for years. What can we learn from some of our forefathers on this issue?

Robert Philip gives an excellent account of the division between Whitefield and Wesley in his Life and Times of George Whitefield.


George Whitefield’s Arrogance

In March, 1741, George Whitefield set sail to return to London after his first two year stint in Colonial America. In response to his dear friend, John Wesley, who “some way or other, had been prevailed on to preach and print in favour of perfection and universal redemption; and against election,” Whitefield responded with a strong defense of  “absolute reprobation.” Robert Philip claims that neither Wesley nor Whitefield had read a word of Calvin before their conflict, but “when they began to preach, the one for and the other against it.” They both published on the subject, and in one fit of arrogance, Whitefield embarrassed his dear friend in print, by publishing an otherwise private conversation. Whitefield would repent of this offense his whole life. However, Wesley’s public humiliation was unbearable, and separated the two, even to Whitefield’s death. When Wesly recieved the published Letter from Whitefield, he tore it to pieces:

I will do just what I believe Mr. Whitefield would, where he here himself.

See one account of John Wesley’s struggle with Calvinism in Iain H. Murray’s Wesley and the Men Who Followed. Buy it on Amazon.


John Wesley’s Unforgiving Spirit

In his biography of Wesley, Iain H. Murray claimed that “Calvinism, as Wesley misunderstood it, meant no proclamation of the love of God for all men.” Thus, Wesley was theologically predisposed against Calvinism. He could not budge, neither could Whitefield. Furthermore, Murray reports that Wesley was pained as his closest followers turned to Calvinism: “But during this time, well nigh all the religious world hath set themselves in array against me, and among the rest of many of my own children, following the example of one my eldest sons, Mr Whitefield.” Even after Whitefield’s death, Wesley defended himself against his former friend. His paranoia controlled him. However, Whitefield, in numerous letters, sought reconciliation with Wesley. Whitefield, though, was unwilling to give up his Calvinism, though he loved Wesley from the bottom of his heart. It appears that Whitefield’s theology sparked fear in Wesley.

Hear Whitefield cry:

Ten thousand times would I rather have died than part with my old friends. It would have melted any heart, to have heard Mr. Charles Wesley and me weeping, after prayer, that if possible, the breach might be prevented.

But the damage had been done, and the rest of their lives, they were in competition.

How often does this conversation end just as it did with these great lights of God’s kingdom?

Are you quick to humiliate the brother who disagrees with you?

Are you slow to forgive the brother who misrepresents your position?

Let us listen to how these two still respected each other:


Mr. Wesley I think is wrong in some things, and Mr. Law wrong also; yet I believe that both Mr. Law and Mr. Wesley, and others, with whom we do not agree in all things, will shine bright in glory. It is best therefore for a gospel minister, simply and powerfully to preach those truths he has been taught of God, and to meddle as little as possible with those who are children of God, though they should differ in many things.

Wesley: (Note: Wesley Preached the Whitefield’s Funeral in England)

His [Whitefield’s] fundamental point was, Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man: set Christ as high, and man as low as possible, in the business of salvation. All merit is in the blood of Christ, and all power in and from the Spirit of Christ.

What can we learn from Whitefield and Wesley’s mistakes?

What can we learn from the mutual love for one another besides?



Add yours →

  1. The answer lies in the remarks attributed to both men concerning each other, namely, that the one would be so close to the throne that the other would not be able to see him. Whitefield is supposed (before his death as justification for having him preach his funeral) to have said that Welsey would be so close to the throne, and Wesley supposedly said the same about Whitefield after preaching his funeral and wishing his own death could be as as Whitefield’s. The principles of conflict resolution with full faith and credit to the truth where ever it is found needs to be exercised in theological difficulties. Nothing worthwhile is ever likely to be easy. Just consider the matter of presenting Islam as fatalistic. Some of it probably is just as some of Christianity. But there is instance of predestination in Islam which seems to not be fatalistic. The problem is really being able to think outsde the box on issues where one’s passion is involved, where one’s values lie. It is also hard to realize that the others do not see things in the same way and there might be some validity in what they see. The Johari Window might have some interesting uses in this area.Out of love for the truth, and out of confidence that truth will prevail, let us pray for truth to have its free way in the world and act accordingly. God have mercy upon the whole earth, if we labor and pray not for such an effort at this time as there are those who would rather see the whole world might be destroyed, if their view should fail to win.

  2. The typical revisionism of the historically & Biblically illiterate. As an ex-arminian who made the mistake of reading the Bible, thereby encountering the Divine Word that also knocked Paul off his high horse of salvation by works, I’m always amazed at how manifestly pelagian* arminianism is always given a pass as if it were a legitimate, Biblical Christian option, something that can only happen in an age of gross historical and especially Biblical illiteracy like ours where synergism’s mendacity is clearly seen regarding its man-centered notions being Biblical, conveniently without a solitary verse other than easily refuted prooftexting to back it up, while falsely opining “calvinism” (always “defined” as confusingly as possible to keep folk from recognizing it’s Biblical basis) is merely man’s reason and not Biblical, conveniently ignoring the uncountable millions of pages of Biblical exegesis of places like Romans (especially 8-11 not even Arminius himself, as with other pelagians, dared effectively to touch, unlike monergists who love it like they do ALL of Scripture) & Hebrews putting to death that lie that so sadly appeals to the flesh that sadly seems to control soteriological conceptualization these days. Soli Deo gloria!

    *=I purposely use “pelagian” vs the more popular but woefully inaccurate “semi-pelagian” because that’s like calling a woman “semi-pregnant” when she rather either is or she isn’t; it being impossible for one to be “semi-pregnant” any more than it’s possible to be “semi-pelagian,” for it man contributes the slightest bit to his own salvation it can no longer be “sola gratia” and is thus, no matter the clever spin (with which I’m painfully familiar as a deeply ashamed ex-pelagian-wesleyan-arminian), clearly an ungodly rejection & repudiation of the Reformation’s Biblical solas and a return to the popery that rejected “sola gratia,” albeit without a Vatican pope, now with protestant ones.

  3. It is interesting how you completely ignored the point of the original article by engaging in an ad hominem polemic against anyone who cannot see the truth of Calvinism. I, for one, find the tenets of TULIP to be unscriptural and a defamation of the character of God as revealed in the entirety of scripture and yet I will not engage in the name calling and disparaging that you have exhibited. I believe Calvinists are good intentioned, love scripture, and are sincere in their beliefs even though I disagree with them and I believe we are not enemies but on the same side.

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