Last month I finally got round to reading a book I bought over a year ago. I know, it takes me a while! The book was ‘Old Wives Tales’ by Clare Heath-Whyte, which profiles a number of 18th century women, many who were wives of influential evangelists, and reveals some great lessons for us in the 21st century.
You would imagine that the wives of people like Charles or John Wesley, would be like the ‘Wife of noble character’ described in Proverbs 31, but as is the case throughout time correspondence shows that they had just as many faults and struggles as we do, as did their husbands.
I was particularly inspired by the humble Elizabeth Whitefield, wife of George Whitefield, one of the leaders of the Evangelical Revival. The beginning of their married life did not have the best start, from a romantic 21st century perspective anyway. A 36 year old widowed housekeeper from Wales, Elizabeth was not his first choice of bride. George was determined that married life would not distract him from the extensive travelling and preaching that he undertook, and Elizabeth was expected to travel with him within the British Isles and America, which involved a lot of outdoor preaching and provided little income, comfort or security.
Elizabeth was brave and courageous, encouraging George to continue preaching to crowds, even when in one case he was pelted with rubbish and stones. Whilst travelling to America in 1744 on an 11 week voyage, they endured horrendous weather and believed at one point that they were about to be attacked by enemy ships. Instead of hiding in a safe place, Elizabeth set about preparing cartridges to defend themselves.
Once they finally arrived in America they still had to travel 700 miles to Bethesda orphanage in Georgia where George left her to go preaching and fundraising, and she began managing the place. She suffered tremendously in the heat and whilst there had her 4th and final miscarriage. On her own between February 1747 to June 1749 she finally returned to England due to poor health.
Elizabeth’s marriage was unconventional by romantic standards, but her support in George’s ministry was invaluable. She was childless (one infant death, 4 miscarriages and one stillbirth) and suffered poor health, but letters to friends show she used the gifts God gave her, had a strong faith and felt privileged to be a child of God.
It would be so easy to put people such as George Whitefield or the Wesley brothers on a pedestal as some of the ‘greats’ of evangelical history, but this book also reveals how flawed and human they were as husbands. What encouragement to know that God could still use their marriages to produce such important ministry despite all their faults! Elizabeth’s story really challenged me to reflect on how comfortable and secure a life I have as a 21st century Christian, in the UK. How blessed I am!
Would I have stood firm in my faith in the circumstances that she endured? Could my witness be more effective if I thought more of others’ interests? These women may have lived their lives over 250 years ago but it is encouraging to know that their struggles and triumphs are as relevant today as they were then.