Two hundred and eighty years ago, a Barnabas and Paul twosome influenced America. They were not Jewish believers, but English preachers who had burning fires in their hearts.
The Barnabas member of the twosome was George Whitefield, from Gloucester, England. He became the most popular itinerant preacher of the First Great Awakening in America. Historians state that Whitefield was heard by 80 percent of the 2 million people living in our nation before he died in 1770.
When Benjamin Franklin first heard Whitefield preach in 1739, Franklin determined not to give him one penny. As Franklin continued to listen, he made up his mind to give Whitefield only a few copper coins. A few minutes later, he released his grip on the silver dollars in his pocket. Then, on all of his gold coins. Before Whitefield finished, Franklin felt ashamed that he didn’t have more money in his pocket to give to the evangelist.
Franklin did not even believe in what Whitefield preached or in his theology. Yet, he loved him and heard him preach every chance he could. Such was the powerful anointing on George Whitefield’s life.
The Paul member of the twosome was John Wesley, who was from London, England. If Whitefield was a sleek racehorse loved by all, then Wesley was a workhorse, who plowed fallow ground and suffered heavy persecution.
The paths of George Whitefield and John Wesley intersected when both were members of a club at Oxford, along with Wesley’s brother, Charles, and two other men. The club met for the sole purpose of seeking a devout Christian life.
John Wesley became the leader of the group and quickly convinced the others to raise their Christian commitments. This resulted in their meeting together six days a week at 6 a.m., praying, singing hymns and reading the Bible until 9 a.m. They also followed an early church tradition of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m.
It wasn’t long before others at Oxford labeled the group the “Holy Club.” But it was another name that forever attached itself to the group: the Methodists.
In 1733, Wesley made his only trip to America as a missionary to Savannah, Georgia. He considered his efforts there a failure and said, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who shall convert me?”
Although Wesley never preached successfully in America, he ordained lay preachers and sent them to the colonies. These preachers set up home societies − basically home churches − to handle the new converts. These home societies eventually became Methodist churches.
George Whitefield and John Wesley considered themselves to be good Methodists, but there was friction between the two. Whitefield was a firm Calvinist who believed in predestination, while Wesley held to the Arminian belief of free will.
“Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cypress; but Paul chose Silas and departed” (Acts 15:39-40).
Like Barnabas and Paul, George Whitefield and John Wesley split and went their separate ways. So deep was the split, they even preached against each other’s teachings and practices.
A few months after the split, George Whitefield felt he had a revelation from the Lord and wrote a long letter to John Wesley about his findings. He mailed it by ship from America to Wesley’s home in England.
Wesley at almost the same time believed he had a revelation and wrote a long letter to Whitefield. He also mailed his letter by ship to Whitefield in America.
Both ships passed each other in the Atlantic Ocean.
The two letters contained one identical statement: “God has shown me that I am right and that you are wrong.”
If Bible heavyweights, such as Barnabas and Paul, and their later counterparts, George Whitefield and John Wesley, couldn’t agree with each other, how can today’s Christians possibly walk together in unity?
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).
The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth approximately five years after his rift with Barnabas. Just a few years later, the cause of the rift − John Mark − was a valuable asset to the apostle’s ministry. So we can safely assume that Paul and Barnabas patched up their differences.
As far as the disagreement between Whitefield and Wesley, it lasted a couple of years. Then in the words of John Wesley, they agreed to disagree on certain doctrines and became friends again.
A follower of Wesley once asked him, “Do you think we shall see Mr. Whitefield in heaven?”
“No,” Wesley answered, “I do not. I think he will be so near the Throne, and you and I so far away, that we shall not get within sight of him.”
John Wesley preached the sermon at George Whitefield’s funeral at Whitefield’s request in 1770.
Love never fails.