This is the third in a series of columns in which we’re looking at John Wesley’s experience at Aldersgate, its 13-year prelude and its long aftermath from 1738-1791. Let us never forget the incredible blessing that is ours for having not only Wesley’s sermons but the diaries and journals that put on record his journey of the soul. What better way to experience revitalization than to challenge local congregations to follow Wesley’s journey through small group studies, and in so doing, break out of our focus on the institutional church.
The big word “pneumatology” means “study of the Spirit.” That is, the work of the Holy Spirit in us to bring about a change in our self-esteem as daughters and sons of the most high God, and then to stir up the gifts with which we are endowed by our Creator. When this happens, a church becomes more than committees, boards, or worship services in which the preacher and choir are participants and the rest of those present are spectators.
Calvinists believe that God is the sole actor in our personal salvation and the direction and destiny of churches, nations and history at large. Humanism, with which all us moderns were injected, insists that “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Like the Deists, we believe that God made an incredible universe, wound it up like a fine watch, and maintained no further connection. That is, we are on our own; so morality and ethics become the focus of our faith. On the other hand, Wesley discovered—and Methodism has retained—a middle way.
In 1725, when Wesley was an undergraduate student at Christ College, Oxford, he decided with his mother’s coaching that humankind has a role of “response-ability” in being saved. We are not pre-programmed computer chips; rather we are made in the image of God, which Wesley said includes God’s endowing us with a will that can accept being loved by our Maker or can resist this love.
Rex Matthews and others have tracked this at least partially to Wesley’s agreement with John Locke, whose political writings inspired Thomas Jefferson’s concept of “inalienable rights” and James Madison’s writing of the U.S. Constitution. Locke believed that we act when impressions are made on our physical senses by the external world. In an important chapter by Ted Runyon in Aldersgate Reconsidered, we learn that Locke was the father of “truth experienced by empirical data”—a philosophy that produced the scientific advances of the modern age. Wesley absorbed all of this new thought and, according to Runyon, is “Lockean in his epistemology” (i.e. “study of knowledge”). Wesley later put Locke in the curriculum for his Kingswood School near Bristol and quoted him in the Arminian Magazine. However, he added to Locke’s “physical senses” what he called a “spiritual sense.” This, for Wesley, is God’s gift that we call prevenient grace, or God’s “whispers to the soul.”
Yet Wesley was not a mystic! In a sermon titled “The Imperfections of Human Knowledge,” he preached, “The little which we do know of God . . . we do not gather from any inward impression, but gradually acquire from without. . . . A thousand circumstances attended the process of our conviction which we do not comprehend.” In that sermon, Wesley wonders why one person may come to Christ “as soon as he calls upon God,” while “another seeks after him, and, it seems, with the same degree of sincerity and earnestness, and yet cannot find him . . . for weeks, or months, or years. We know well this cannot possibly be owing to any absolute decree, consigning one before he was born to everlasting glory, and the other to everlasting fire; but we do not know what is the reason for it: It is enough that God knoweth.”
In the 13 years before Aldersgate, Wesley read widely and deeply, led the Oxford Methodists (or “Holy Club”), taught at Lincoln College, served as a missionary to the Native Americans in Georgia, and preached every week. In an early sermon, he insisted that salvation does not come from “baptism, or any other outward form, but a right state of soul, a mind and spirit renewed after the image of Him that created it.” He defined faith as “the surest light of them that are in darkness.”
However, as Richard Heitzenrater teaches us, “measuring a right state of soul and testing a renewed spirit presented a challenge” for Wesley.
In 1735, he accepted Governor James Oglethorpe’s invitation to come to Georgia as parish priest in Savannah and missionary to the “Indians.” Of this he wrote, “My chief motive is the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the Gospel by preaching it to the heathen. . . . I cannot hope to attain the same degree of holiness [in England] which I may there.”
We know that from the storm at sea en route to Georgia until the summer of 1740, Wesley’s major spiritual mentors were Moravians. All the time he was in Georgia, he visited with them regularly and they interrogated him severely about his lack of faith. In his Anglican heritage, one could have “weak faith” or “strong faith”; but the Moravians rejected the notion of degrees of faith and placed no value on simply doing your best. As it did for Wesley, this knocks the props from under the “Christian walk” that many of us take today—activity in church, some modicum of personal morality, random acts of kindness, and living at peace with our neighbor. In some way, surely, we can all identify with Wesley’s predicament.
Combined with his issues as a parish priest and the Sophia Hopkey matter, the Moravian tutors had Wesley in a terrible state of discouragement, despondency and spiritual confusion. He left Savannah and on Christmas Eve of 1737, sailed out of Charleston Harbor and returned to England.
In still another column, we will track Wesley’s journey through the hard winter to Aldersgate on May 24, 1738, his summer with the Moravians in Germany, and his response to George Whitefield’s invitation to preach in the fields. There is so much in Wesley’s story that can be our teacher today.
Dr. Haynes, a retired UM clergyman, is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: email@example.com.