John Wesley and George Whitefield first met when they were students at Oxford. Wesley was the leader of the “Holy Club,” a group dedicated to the pursuit of holiness. Wesley’s little band was derided at Oxford; they were ridiculed by being dubbed “Methodists” because of their vigorous discipline. It was Whitefield who first received a revelation of grace which powerfully equipped him to be a great evangelist. He enjoyed great popularity among the common people, until the churches he preached in became so packed that he had no choice but to preach outdoors. Crowds of over ten thousand people would often gather to hear him preach. John Wesley soon followed Whitefield’s example at his friend’s invitation and had the same spectacular results. Tens of thousands were converted and the awakening spread throughout England.
The styles of the two preachers were quite different. Whitefield was a flamethrower; his words were like a burning fire, like a hammer smashing a rock into pieces. But Wesley was a wise master builder; he carefully laid out the foundations of the faith in the hearts of his hearers. In fact, many of those converted through Whitefield’s preaching later became known as Methodists through Wesley’s continual ministry. Both Wesley and Whitefield regarded preaching as the primary means which God used to save souls. Both were ready to preach at any time the fundamental doctrines of Christianity – sin, repentance, salvation, the atonement, the work of the Holy Spirit, repentance, faith, holiness – and they preached these truths unceasingly.
“Wesley, however, was very unlike Whitefield in one important respect. He did not forget to organize as well as to preach. He was not content with reaping the fields which he found ripe for harvest. He took care to bind up his sheaves and gather them into the barn. He was far superior to Whitefield as an administrator and as a man of method, as he was inferior to him as a mere preacher.
“A writer in the North British Review described the difference: ‘All force and impetus, Whitefield was the powder-blast in the quarry, and by one explosive sermon would shake a district, and detach materials for other men’s long work; deft, neat, and painstaking, Wesley loved to split and trim each fragment into uniform plinths and polished stones’” (J.C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century).