To describe both Methodism and the HTB network as renewal movements within the Anglican church is both disingenuous and yet true at once. Both were certainly birthed in Anglicanism, but both have expanded beyond the fold. Both have created a series of renewal meetings (class meetings / Alpha), but the scope and purpose of those meetings have been different. Both have established something of a denomination within a denomination, although unlike Methodism the HTB network seems very unlikely to break away from the mothership. 

Both movements have been accused of ‘enthusiasm’. This term had a more pejorative meaning for Wesley and Whitefield’s opponents than today when any enthusiasm that might lead to church growth is more likely to be prized.[1] But the charge particualrly relates to how each recognise and promote an experience of the empowering Spirit. For Guest it is precisely by ‘fostering an embodied experience of the Holy Spirit’ alongside a plain and propositional presentation of Christian truth that Alpha has managed a tension that is the key to its success.[2] As Millar states it simultaneuosly appeals to head, heart and will.[3] We will return later to consider the impact of Wesley’s 1738 ‘evangelical conversion’ on Keswick Evangelicals and the Pentecostal Movement, but for now it is worth noting that for each this ‘enthusisatic’ experience helps break them from the constraints of accepted norms – whether freeing themselves from liturgical and parish boundaries or stepping out in field preaching. 

Both have a style that has been honed for maximum impact. Whitefield was more skilled in this than Wesley. He broke ecclesiastical boundaries with his crowd drawing, dramatic preaching focused almost entirely on the individual experience of the New Birth. He relied on William Seward to stoke the highly efficient publicity machine as expertly as Tricia Neill was later to organise and market the Alpha Course in Kensington.[4] His innovative style as much as his substance seems to many biographers to be the key to his impact. Where his style (sometimes literally) embodied his message in his dramatic delivery,[5] the HTB network style embodies the message in a more muli-layered mixture of carefully controlled community, multimedia presentations, and attractive, winsome, ‘reasonable enthusiasts’ presenting the message, or curating the worship experience, to the predefined time allocation given, counting down on the large clock facing them.[6]Core teaching material is honed not just to the minute but to an exact word count.[7] But the HTB network  in other ways stands more in the traditon of Wesley. Snow and Machalek assert that,

‘George Whitefield was content merely to preach and hope for the best. Wesley, however, declined to preach where it seemed impossible to consolidate his evangelical efforts.’[8] 

This desire to structure for long-term impact lies behind the more recent push towards planting resource churches, after the more ad hoc scattering of Alpha courses has been deemed not to have had the lasting impact desired.

Celebrity leaders have been central to the development of both movements. Whitefield was adored throughout North America, an anti-insitutional icon of the colonies, ‘articulating increasingly a Whiggish Republicanism’ that enamoured him to them even more. He was an ‘A’ list celebrity that crowds would flock to see. Stout sees him as at best a ‘spirit-filled minister’ who ‘directed his work first at the soul and second at charity and never one without the other,’ [9] but at worst he labels Whitefield as a ‘modern promoter’ with a ‘shameless ego’.[10] 

A legacy on the development of the church in America and beyond can be drawn from this promotional ability. Walker credits Whitefield with instigating a personality driven preaching style that metamorphosised down the years into an ‘almost “show-biz” obsession with the big-name charismatic stars, and its reliance on management and commericial techniques’.[11] 

At HTB the key clergy have been largely understated and known for upper-middle class British charm, but the succes of Alpha and his prominence in the published video and print material has afforded Nicky Gumbel his own celebrity status. A recent Times article describes Gumbel as turning Alpha into a ‘global phenomenon’, and being ‘arguably the most influential Christian in Britain today.’[12]  For a brief comparison consider Heard, drawing on Awamleh and Gardener’s framework in his extended critique of Alpha, who describes Gumbel as ‘embodying many of the characteristics of a Weberian charismatic leader’… and has the belief that he, like other such leaders in, is ‘particularly attuned to God’, and able to build ‘sufficient prestige through his self-confident manner.’[13] He quotes a National Director of Alpha USA describing Gumbel as an apostle Paul for this generation, as Billy Graham was for the last. Gumbel, an introvert, is a different personality to Whitefield whose ‘public self was his private self’,[14] and yet the charismatic legacy in both is clear.  Expressed over a series of evenings and a weekend retreat Gumbel offers his viewers an individualised divine encounter described not so much as ‘new birth’ but ‘an encounter with the Holy Spirit’, with individual results reported in Alpha News as dramatic as those recorded in Whitefield’s publicity. 

Both have been adept at marketing, although using very different principles when it comes to courting (or avoiding) controversy. Frank Lambert dedicates a whole chapter of his revisionist biography of Whitefield examining his, ‘adaptation of commercial strategies.’[15] Pete Ward similarly uses HTB and Alpha as a case study in his work on the ‘McDonaldisation of religion,’ which Booker and Ireland see as linked to George Ritzer notion of rationalization.[16] Alpha International’s Annual Report to the Charity Commissioners shows a consistent £1million plus expenditure on media and publicaitons and savvy use of the celebrity status of key Alpha graduates and TV personalities, most notably Bear Grylls: 

“Bear Grylls has 1.6 billion viewers and is in the unique position of having 6 new shows being released globally in 2015. His global recognition and influence as a respected spokesman has never been stronger. Alpha has already filmed with Bear for this campaign and will translate this into a global media pack over the course of 2015, allowing countries to maximize impact.[17]

HTB annual report

But where Lambert uses loaded phrases such as ‘Whitefield as good business’, ‘exploiting the intercolonial print network’ and ‘creating an intercolonial revival’ to promote his thesis that Whitefield was a ‘pedlar in divinity’[18], and Stout points to the role of William Seward, who travelled ahead of Whitefield writing hundreds of letters to promote him, there is a key difference between their respective modus operandi. In Stout’s account Seward’s letters were often designed to incite a galvanising oppostion and controversy was used to procure crowds. He recalls one occasion of Whitefield ‘gloating’: 

“…little do my enemies think what service they do me. If they did one would think, out of spite they would even desist from opposing me.”[19]

George Whitefield on the benefit of opposition

Yet the strategy of Nicky Gumbel and his publicity officer in chief Mark Elson Dew with regards to controversy has been the polar opposite. Gumbel tweeted on 17 September 2019, ‘sometimes the best response to criticism is keeping a dignified silence,’ and on 7 February 2018, ‘Never waste too much time explaining yourself. Your critics probably won’t believe it and your friends don’t need it.’ On 15 March 2016, again he asserted: ‘Be slow to critizise. And fast to appreciate.’ In Chapter Three it will be seen how Gumbel and Elson Dew studiously avoid courting controversy, to the point of self-editing material that might be considered polemical. The charge will be considered that this non-engagement with polemics is because Alpha operates on an alleged ‘bait and switch’ methodology, requiring a gentle osmosis of a world view,[20]rather than being upfront about beliefs which, of course, Wesley and Whitefield were willing to do to a fault.[21] But for an increasingly ecumencially minded Gumbel bad press is bad press. 

A further dissimilarity concerns the degree of alignment each movement has sought and gained with the ecclesiastical powers of the Church of England. For a large part this reflects the temperament of their key leaders and their relation to power. In this the HTB network has been essentially governed by the stance of Sandy Millar (building on other influences including John Stott and John Collins) that the Church of England is as good a ship to fish from as any other, and that he had as much right to fish from it as any other ordained minister. With the ‘effortless ease’ of the upper / upper-middle classes, HTB’s Etonian and Oxbridge dominated leadership has found it relatively easy to imagine and act itself into a place of power, despite years of intransient opposition from many who would have loved to thwart its more expansionist tendencies. They were aided in this especially by a strong relationship with the Lord Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, himself from a line of Irish Gentry, of Huguenot origin.[22] Prince Charles has been among the many celebrity guests at HTB events. By contrast Wesley, and especially Whitefield, were very much from the poorer end of the aspirant lower middle-classes and had to work much harder for patronage with episcopal and aristocratic influencers alike. They spoke more easily to the new urban poor than to the young urban professionals who have been HTB’s target audience. 

Finally, there is a savvy use of technology. We have already noted Lambert’s convincing arguments about how the consumer revolution and new cheap printing material contributed to the Awakening.[23] Whitefield and asscociates ‘developed a pervasive publicity campaign featuring endorsements, testimonials, and controversy in newspapers magazines and pamphlets and they exploited the demand among evangelicals for his revival publications through such merchandising devices as quantity discounts, prepayment incentives, serial publication, convenience packing, and home delivery.’[24] 

In a similar way HTB have been adept at using new technology, ranging from audio and video cassette, to the current Alpha Film series, live streaming, and social media, as well as harnessing their own inhouse print media to promote their core product – Alpha, through Alpha News, paperbacks and  other published works.  Tricia Neill speaks of the benefits of professionalisation at HTB concluding ‘we have definitely reaped positive benefits from applying business principles in a Christian way,’[25] although writing in 2006, notes a reluctance to take on technology that has not been proven, will be hard to maintain or makes the main leader seem more remote to the congregation.[26]

So for their Anglicanism, their impact, their offer of an experience of the Spirit, their savvy use of technology, their leadership and their birthing of a movement,  despite being separated by 250 years of history Wesley and Whitefield make very interersting conversation partners for our review of the contemporary charismatic church exemplified in the HTB network. 


Despite the doctrinal meanders and differences between them examined above,[27] Wesley and Whitefield from their days at the Oxford Holy Club to their final discourses were clear that they were calling people out of one reality into another. Their experiences of conversion and the Holy Spirit spurred on a quest for holiness rather than sating it, and this pursuit has had a long legacy in church history. A bust of John Wesley and a bust of George Whitefield sit on either side of the writing desk of John Collins, vicar of HTB in the 1980s. His ‘A Vision for Life’ chapter in his final book A Diagram of God’s Love, begins with the words: ‘Is it possible to live a holy life, a useful life, pleasing to God? Yes, it is. It will not be easy; nonetheless it is possible’.[28] His vision echoed that of Wesley and Whitefield remarkably, calling a holy people to a holy God. 

[1] Rack labels Wesley as A Reasonable Enthusiast meaning someone who was rational (‘reasonable’)as well as emotional (‘enthusiast’).

[2] Guest, M, 2007, p.47. Hence he argues it traverses the modern/post-modern divide.

[3] in Kurht, G, (ed.) 1995, pp.146-147

[4] Stout, H, 1991, pp.89-90; cf Neill, T, 2006, pp.7-1 and Heard, J, 2012 p. 17

[5] Preaching technique included graphic re-enactments of gospel passages, including Mary in child-birth!

[6] See Justin Welby commenting on the countdown clock in this address (Worship services tend to be most carefully curated at HTB and flagship events such as Leaders Conference. In more local network churches structure is more varied). Historically David Watson who relocated to HTB briefly in 198_ before settling, more happily, at St Michael’s Chester Square, was a significant part in the shift to 

[7] e.g. Nicky Gumbel edits his Bible in One Year commentary to an optimum 1500 words per day. 

[8] Snow and Machalek, 1983, 263; Whitefield assented to this view himself towards the end of his life cf Doughty, 1955, 57. 

[9] Stout, 1991, 287

[10] Stout, H, 1991, p.287

[11] Walker, 1992, pp.60

[12] Damian Arnold, Why Generation Z is reinvigorating the Alpha Course, The Times, 7.3.20

[13] Heard, 2012, pp.18-19. 

[14] Stout, H, 1991, p.287

[15] Lambert, 1994, 52-94

[16] Booker & Ireland, 2003, 21

[17] 31/12/2014 annual report[accessed 31.3.2020]. 

[18] The phrase is drawn from an anonymous critic of Whitefield in the Boston Weekly Newspaper April 22, 1742. See Lambert, 1994, 93. 

[19] Stout, 1991, 103. He argues that controversy helps make Whitefield a ‘cause célèbre’ which helps account for his crowds. 

[20] Cf the alleged experience of blogger: [accessed 4.3.20]. “I think the course is dishonest in its advertising and its arguments, sometimes manipulative, and always cynical. Finding out quickly moves into being taught, and then into emotional exploitation in unfamiliar group settings, all step by step, like a frog being boiled alive.”

[21] Although see Stout, 1991, 191, for a sense (contra Lambert) that Whitefield matured beyond such a polemical stage between his second and third visits to America, citing apologies he makes in 1745 including to Harvard College: “…I have no intention of stirring people against their pastors”. 

[22] Burke’s Irish Family Records, 5th edition, ed. Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, Burke’s Peerage Ltd, 1976, p. 225

[23] Lambert notes that Stout modified his view on this between 1977 and 1991, coming eventually to accept the role of print. Lambert, 1994, 7

[24] Lambert, 1994, 9

[25] Neill, T, 2006, From Vision to Action, 13. 

[26] Ibid. 53. 

[27] see Hindmarsh (1999) 910-929 and Heitzenrater, 1990, 49-61 for further examinations of Wesley’s developing concept of his conversion, and ‘changing self-interpretation’. 

[28] Collins, 2013, 201