Wesleyan Wisdom: Getting straight about Wesley at Aldersgate

William Quick tells the story of two cleaning women staring at an artist’s rendering of John Wesley at Aldersgate. A curator heard one say as a prayer, “Do it again, Lord. Do it again.”

In some sense each of us who has grown up with the Aldersgate experience in our “spiritual DNA” has yearned that God indeed would replicate in us the “strangely warmed” encounter John Wesley had there on May 24, 1738.

Yet every generation has asked: What happened to Wesley at Aldersgate? Some preachers and scholars have insisted that Wesley, Oxford don, Anglican priest and missionary to Georgia, was finally converted. Others have said Wesley was sanctified. More recently, scholars who have combed Wesley’s diaries from early 1738 until his death have documented that he referred to Aldersgate with much less frequency than his progeny have.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

We must begin with Wesley’s experience in Georgia.

Though Wesley felt his ministry there a failure, his successor, George Whitefield, wrote, “The good Mr. John Wesley has done in America is inexpressible. His name is very precious among his people, and he has laid a foundation that I hope neither men nor devils will ever be able to shake. O that I might follow him as he followed Christ.”

However, Wesley had critics in Georgia. He was far too much a high Anglican for colonial America. When baptizing infants, he insisted on immersing them three times—not a popular position with young parents. He announced his first Sunday that if a parishioner had been persistently absent, he or she would not be served communion without prior confession on Friday.

Then, he did not keep proper pastoral boundaries in his ministry with Sophia Hopkey, an 18-year-old parishioner. Indeed, he fell in love with her, kissed her and wrestled with whether to marry her. When she married William Williamson, Wesley became distraught. When Mrs. Williamson returned for worship, after a long absence, he passed over her with the chalice when he served communion.

For all these reasons, Wesley did not serve out his contract. Leaving Savannah on Dec. 2, 1737, he wrote in his journal, “I shook off the dust of my feet and left Georgia after having preached the gospel one year and nine months.” He walked to Charleston, sometimes through swamps with water up to his chest. On Saturday, Dec. 24, 1737, he wrote, “We sailed over the Charleston bar and about noon lost sight of land.”

He wrote about spiritual struggles. Indeed, on Jan. 8 he was troubled about four issues: “having no such faith in Christ as will prevent my heart from being troubled”; “pride, throughout my life past”; ‘in a storm I cry to God every moment; in a calm, not”; and “levity and luxuriancy of spirit, . . . speaking words not tending to edify.”

Wesley concluded that entry with the sad refrain, “Lord save, or I perish.” Then he itemized the dimensions of the faith he sought: “a faith that implies peace in life or in death”; “humility as may fill my heart from this hour forever”; and “steadiness, seriousness, sobriety of spirit, never speaking of any who oppose me. . . .”

As they sailed into English waters, he wrote, “It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity. But what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I who went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God.”

Wesley had a bent toward hyperbole. During this spiritual introspection, he had faithfully carried on an effective ministry aboard the ship Samuel. He preached twice daily to passengers and sailors.

Many years later, in 1774, Wesley re-read his journal entry of Jan. 28, 1738, where he wrote, “I . . . was never myself converted to God.” He made this note: “I am not sure of this.” The older, more mature Wesley did not doubt his being a Christian before Aldersgate.

‘Answering trust’

In Aldersgate Reconsidered, edited by Randy Maddox, Ted Runyon has a most valuable chapter. He credits Rex Matthews with tracing Wesley to the writings of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. Locke insisted on an understanding of God in which the divine is both present in an experience and independent of the experience.

It is a misnomer to define Aldersgate as “experiential grace.” Wesley came to prefer words like “trust” and “confidence” and “sincerity” to “assurance” and “experience.”

Wesley had no “appointment” as he struggled through the spring of 1738. Kenneth Collins describes well Wesley’s gradual insight by the end of April—that grace can effect a change brought about “not by human effort, desire, or will, but by God alone.”

Ted Runyon cites Peter Bohler’s letter to Wesley on May 8, 1738, in which the Moravian brother urges the seeking Anglican to “believe in your Jesus Christ . . . [so] that he may not refrain from doing for you what he hath done for so many others. . . . Surely he is now ready to help; and nothing can offend [or prevent] him but our unbelief.”

So it was that on May 24 Wesley, as he would write, “went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.

“About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.” The words that the layman read were, “Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God.”

Dr. Runyon observes, “As Christ’s love was received, it created an answering trust in Wesley’s heart. A relationship was established of which Christ, not Wesley’s feelings, was the guarantor.” This slightly corrective word we need to hear. It is a shift from being saved by our faith to being saved by God’s grace.

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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It depends on your understanding of the atonement. Read Wesley's letter to William Law after his Aldersgate experience. Before Aldersgate, Wesley knew nothing of Christ his Savior; he only know Christ his pattern.

Law was clueless, just as so many UM Clergy remain clueless.

Or, consider Charles. How much poetry did he produce prior to his conversion? I'm told very little. After his conversion, praise exploded from his soul, enfleshing the rhythm of Ps. 51: THEN my mouth shall sow forth praise, and sinners will be converted unto thee.

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