Our city is filled with historic churches. Churches filled with ministers and members who witnessed the great march of American history. So, it comes as a big surprise that the Old South on Federal Street is often singled out as the visiting site for visitors from all over America and the World. In this secular age, puzzled looks from the locals as some of these visitors get very excited over the privilege of being in the building and seeing particular sites in the sanctuary.
This coming weekend, tours will be conducted Saturday and Sunday in conjunction with many deeply historic places in Essex County during the Trails and Sails event.
Regardless of what religious background you may be from or perhaps, have no religious background to speak of, it is important to understand and accommodate our many guests from around the world.
IT’S A BIG DEAL TO THEM and it aught to be a BIG DEAL TO THE AVERAGE NEWBURYPORTER.
And it centers around one man, the Rev. George Whitefield. (pronounced ‘whitfield’) For one thing, you could label him as the first inter-denominational minister. He wasn’t even an American. He was ordained an Episcopal priest in England but he was willing to speak in any church as long as their doors were open to him. And if all the ecclesiastical gateways remained shut, he would pick out a field and preach there. It mattered not to him.
Though he had visited America from England before; his real ministry started when he disembarked from a ship on Newburyport’s waterfront in 1740 and thus had a special relationship with our town. It was he that recommended to a small group of believers that they should start a Presbyterian church to “secure their freedom”. (Presbyterian churches are setup much like a Republic in their church government.) Though more often than not, finding but a pasture to speak from; he always knew he had a building to preach from here. Therefore, in his will, he specifically requested that he be buried under the pulpit. (where he lies now.) As he grew aged, he had planned to have Newburyport as his final disembarking point to return to England.
But he was a powerful advocate for liberty and constantly warned the colonist that their free, independent ways would soon be lost: As early as 1764, he warned:
“I can’t in conscience leave the town without acquainting you with a secret. My heart bleeds for America. O poor New England! There is a deep laid plot against both your civil and religious liberties, and they will be lost. Your golden days are at an end. You have nothing but trouble before you.”
But it was his love for America and his compassion that he laid the groundwork for liberty.
He ardently preached the doctrine, rooted in the Scriptures, of the Priesthood of the Believer: the belief that, having the Holy Spirit, the individual had direct access to God:
The anointing you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things (1st John 2:26-27).
This meant, there was no need for priests, and that meant kings! (At that time, royalty was automatically the head of their country’s churches which meant the King of England was the head of the church. They would approve ministers, prayer books, hymn books and even the translation of the Bible i.e. the King James Version)
From Maine to Georgia, the Rev. George Whitefield preached his gospel message. It wasn’t just rank and file who heard his message, accepted Christ and then believed his teachings. Many American leaders and fervent patriots were inspired by his powerful messages.
It wasn’t long that the cry went out that spurred a revolution, that would be chanted as they entered battle, “No king but King Jesus! No King but King Jesus.”
Other Founding Fathers and Patriots, believers and non-believers would state:
“I know of no philosopher, or theologian, or moralist, ancient or modern, more profound, more infallible than Whitefield.”
“Upon his lips the Gospel appears even to the coarsest of men a sweet and as true as, in fact, it is.”
“Would that every bearer of God’s glad tidings be as fit a vessel of grace as Mr. Whitefield.”
“His integrity, disinterestedness, and indefatigable zeal, in promoting every good work, I ha’never seen equaled, and shall never see excelled.”
Later, he became a fast friend and said as he had heard that Whitefield was ill,
“He is a good man and I love him.”
It was this embracing reverence for the man who philosophically and spiritually created America that when he had died and was laid to rest in his tomb on Federal Street; that soldiers came who were on their way to a great battle, came to his tomb and paid homage to him – as if as Julius Caesar did at Alexander the Great’s tomb; inspired to fight on –
not for conquest but for liberty.
I invite you to the tours that will be held this Saturday and Sunday – The first tour will be held at 11:00 and the last will start at 2:00 and on Sunday, the first will be at 12:00 and the last will start at 1:00.
Take the time to visit and learn about Newburyport’s only truly international draw: the Old South Church.