George Whitefield Tried to Kill Me

By Joe Holland    |    March 6, 2023


George Whitefield was an impressive man by most accounts.1 He made numerous missionary trips to the American Colonies. He started the earliest charity in North America—an orphanage in Savannah. He had a prolific transatlantic letter-writing duel with John Wesley over Calvinism. He was an avid evangelist. Benjamin Franklin would remark on the power of Whitefield’s oratory. Much of his success can be attributed to his sheer drive. In fact, his drive extended back before his conversion, back to his college days and the creation of the Holy Club with the Wesley brothers. The fasting that went along with that club decimated the body of the undeterred Whitefield who would have holiness at any expense, not knowing at that time the only expense necessary was an expense he could not provide on his own—the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.2 Conversion brought miraculous renovation to Whitefield, but his drive remained.

There is so much about Whitefield that a pastor would want to emulate. And as a young pastor who had just read Arnold Dallimore’s biography of George Whitefield, I did find much to emulate in Whitefield’s life. I should note that I wasn’t just a young pastor; I was a young everything. My marriage was less than a decade old. My wife and I had three young children. I was in my first pastorate—the youth minister of a large church in Jackson, Miss. I read Dallimore’s biography voraciously. It just so happens that I was also researching sleep at that time. It seemed to me that sleeping less could be a way to get more done. Who wouldn’t want more hours in the day? So I read sleep studies and looked into polyphasic sleeping.3 Whitefield, too, had ideas about sleeping and rising early. In fact, he would get up at 4:00 AM to begin a regimen of prayer and study.

I decided to do the same.

What Doesn’t Kill You, Doesn’t Kill You

Aside from the mid-afternoon grogginess, the new sleep pattern was going great. I used the time to invest in all the practices that I thought were most important during those early years of ministry. My mornings would begin with Scripture reading from Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s calendar readings. Then I’d take a good chunk of time to keep my original languages fresh. I think I did some sort of light-along-the-path style readings in both Greek and Hebrew. Next, I read a portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Then there was prayer in the Valley of Vision. After that, I read Jonathan Edwards from his two-volume works that everyone was reading around that time. Then I prayed some more before my family woke up, and the day began in full. This had to be how Whitefield attained such prodigious fruitfulness. This must be the true practice of spiritual health. Then the headache started.

I’ve never been a headache guy, never had a migraine. But this headache was a doozy. It was crippling in the way that only people who have had crippling headaches can understand. And I had a fever. My wife wisely said I should go to the doctor. The doctor wisely said that I should go to the ER. The ER wisely order a lumbar puncture. The lumbar puncture confirmed that I had viral meningitis.4 It’s hard to describe a meningitis headache. The medical way to define it is that your spinal fluid is infected and expands, creating some pretty nasty pressure up in your cranium, making you light sensitive and such. But what it feels like when you have one is that every photon of light is conspiring with every neuron in your head to shove all of your gray matter into the inner wall of your forehead, kind of like those professional train passenger pushers in Tokyo. And the real bummer of it all is that this kind of headache makes theological study untenable other than repeating the prayer, “Lord, make it stop.”

Six Lumbar Punctures Later

I left the hospital, and months went by that accumulated to close to two years. I was young and dumb and didn’t connect the dots. I mean, plenty of people get random viral meningitis. The world is fallen. Illness exists. I was still young. I kept up with similar patterns of sleep and study. I also pursued a new ministry opportunity. I was now an assistant pastor in a small town in Mississippi. I was learning all about pastoral ministry, getting experience in everything from preaching to hospital visits. The pressures of life and ministry were all the same, mainly because they were self-imposed, and I hadn’t changed in how I looked at myself, my need to excel, my stupid thought that it all depended on my capacity rather than on the Lord’s gracious and sovereign care over all his creatures and all their actions. So I kept at my Whitefieldian pseudo-sleep-deprivation-driven theological study. My wife was also pregnant with our fourth son.

And then the fever-accompanied headache came back.

This time, if only for precaution’s sake, I knew to go to the hospital. The only problem was that I was now in a much smaller town. And small-town emergency medical care isn’t exactly the same as capital-city medical care. The ER doctor came in and attempted a lumbar puncture, and then another, and another. By the sixth unsuccessful lumbar puncture, he left the room frustrated. Because of that whole photons-conspiring-with-neurons thing, the lights were dim in my exam room at my request. There was a glass cabinet that, in the low light, served as a perfect mirror facing the hall. I watched from a distance as the exasperated doctor went into the hall and sat in a chair. He called a nurse over, not for me but for him. He said something that obviously surprised the nurse because she paused before she put the blood pressure cuff on his arm. I thought to myself, “If this headache doesn’t kill me, this doctor will.” By the end of the day, I was admitted with my second case of viral meningitis. And what’s worse, my wife couldn’t visit me because she was pregnant with our fourth son. There are levels of misery.

I finally returned home from the hospital thinking, ‘George Whitefield tried to kill me.’”

—Joe Holland

Meningitis occurring once can be inexplicable. But when it occurs twice in eighteen months, folks with MD by their name start to ask questions. Apparently, things like stress and not sleeping enough can weaken your immune system to the point that, in some people, viruses can more easily find their way into your spinal fluid. I was apparently one of those people, thanks to my Whitefieldian study habits. I finally returned home from the hospital thinking, “George Whitefield tried to kill me.”

Lessons for Hardheaded Men

After returning home, I made some changes that had needed to happen for a long time, like getting more sleep and repenting of my need to be more than God was asking me to be. I was chastened by my own theology. I had to repent and remind myself of what the Bible teaches, lessons like:

I also had to learn the hard lesson that the personal practices of others are not necessarily what I should follow. It was said of Robert Murray M’Cheyne that he was very reluctant to share his personal practices of piety for fear that people would follow them without first asking if they were the best practices for them. So take my advice. George Whitefield will kill you if you let him. Walk before the Lord according to His Word, and don’t put pressure on yourself that doesn’t come from the conviction of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

  1. However, his advocacy for slaveholding in America was not impressive. It was heinous. I just wanted to say that from the start.
  2. There will be more about decimated bodies later on.
  3. I know some of you will look this up. I will tell you in advance, don’t adopt this pattern of sleeping, unless, of course, you’re confined to a small prison cell and tortured or if you choose to take a solo boat trip across the Atlantic.
  4. For those of you unfamiliar with meningitis, all of it is bad. But bacterial meningitis is way worse than viral. So, whereas I was very sick, I wasn’t in critical condition.
Joe Holland

Joe Holland is professor of Christian ministry and academic dean for Grimké College. He also serves as managing editor for Grimké Seminary and College.

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