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It is generally known, that Mr. [George] Whitefield often preached in the open air; sometimes, because houses of worship were shut against him; and at others, because his audiences were too large to be accommodated in any ordinary building. In Philadelphia, he often stood on the outside steps of the Court-house, in Market-street, and from that station addressed admiring thousands who crowded the street below. On one of these occasions [c. 1739], young Rodgers was not only present, but pressed as near to the person of his favourite preacher as possible; and to testify his respect, held a lantern for his accommodation. Soon after the sermon began, he became so absorbed in the subject, and, at length, so deeply impressed, and strongly agitated, that he was scarcely able to stand; the lantern fell from his hand, and was dashed in pieces; and that part of the audience in the immediate vicinity of the speaker’s station, were not a little interested, and, for a few moments, discomposed, by the occurrence.
The impressions thus begun, were confirmed and deepened, and resulted, in a short time afterwards, as he hoped, when he was but little more than twelve years of age, in a saving knowledge and acceptance of Jesus Christ as the only refuge and hope of his soul; and in a cordial devotedness to his service.
From this period he resolved, if God should enable him, to devote himself to the service of Christ, in the work of the Gospel ministry.
Miller adds that there is more to the story.
A subsequent circumstance, connected with this event, and not less remarkable, is worthy of being recorded. Mr. Whitefield, in the course of his fifth visit to America, about the year 1754, on a journey from the southward, called at St. George’s, in Delaware, where Mr. Rodgers was then settled int he Gospel ministry, and spent some time with him. In the course of this visit, Mr. Rodgers, being one day riding with his visitant, in the close carriage in which the latter usually travelled, asked him, whether he recollected the occurrence of the little boy, who was so much affected with his preaching, as to let his lantern fall? Mr. Whitefield answered, “Oh yes! I remember it well; and have often thought I would give almost anything in my power to know who that little boy was, and what had become of him.” Mr. Rodgers replied with a smile, “I am that little boy!” Mr. Whitefield, with tears of joy, started from his seat, took him in his arms, and with strong emotion remarked, that he was the fourteenth person then in the ministry whom he had discovered in the course of that visit to America, of whose hopeful conversion he had been the instrument.
This fascinating account is derived from Miller’s Memoirs of the Reverend John Rodgers, D. D. (1813). Rodgers was such an important figure in colonial American Presbyterianism that this biography is a valuable window into the period as well as a portrait of the man. Take time to peruse its pages, and learn more about the boy who broke a lantern in his excitement at hearing the gospel preached, and later became a leading minister of the gospel in the early American Presbyterian Church.