George Whitefield (1714-1770) remains among the greatest evangelists in church history. His ministry spanned two continents, and between his missionary endeavors in England and America it is estimated that he preached as many as 18,000 times to as many as 10 million hearers. (Learn more about Whitefield here).
In a very real sense, his grand ministry was precipitated by a book recommendation from a friend. That book was The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal. Originally composed as a letter to a dear friend, the work was later published and went on to be a help to many.
In this short work Scougal puts forth the proposition that true religion is not an outward observance of particular traditions or rituals and instead is experienced as the life of God in the soul of man, which enables and motivates us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.
Here is what Whitefield later wrote of how this book took him from being an outwardly obedient religious person to truly understanding what it meant to be a Christian.
“I really wanted to know God and be assured of salvation, but even strict discipline didn’t seem to help. God showed me (in Scougal’s writings) that I must be born again.” He also said, “I never knew what true religion was till God sent me this excellent treatise.”
Whitefield expanded on this elsewhere:
“When I was sixteen years of age, I began to fast twice a week for thirty-six hours together. I prayed many times a day. I received the sacrament every Lord’s day. I fasted myself almost to death during the forty days of lent, during which I made it a point of duty never to go less than three times a day to public worship, besides seven times a day to private prayers; yet I knew no more that I was to born a new creature in Christ Jesus than if I’d never been born at all.
I must bear testimony to my old friend, Mr. Charles Wesley. He put a book into my hands called The Life of God in the Soul of Man, whereby God showed me I must be born again or damned. I know the place; it may be superstitious perhaps, but whenever I go to Oxford, I cannot help running to that place where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me and gave me the new birth.
I learned that a man may go to church, say his prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian. How my heart did rise. How my heart shuttered like a poor man that is afraid to look at his ledger, lest he should find himself bankrupt.
And yet, shall I burn that book? Shall I throw it down? Shall I put by it? Shall I search into it? I did search it; and, holding my book in my hand, thus addressed the God of heaven and earth: ‘Lord if I am not a Christian, for Jesus Christ’s sake, show me what Christianity is that I may not be damned at last.’
I read a little bit further. Oh, says the author, that they know anything of religion know that it is a vital union with the Son of God – Christ formed in the heart. Oh, what a ray of divine light that broke upon my soul!
I fell a writing to all my brethren and to my sisters. I talked to the students as they came into my room. I laid aside all trifling conversation. I put all trifling books away, and was determined to study to be a saint, and then to be a scholar.
From that moment God has been carrying on His blessed work in my soul. I am now fifty-five years of age and shall leave you in a few days. But I tell you brethren, I am more and more convinced that this is the truth of God, and that without it you can never be saved by Jesus Christ.”
You can find a free digital copy of The Life of God in the Soul of Man at Monergism, or you can purchase a nice paperback edition by using this link.