Wesleyan Wisdom: Continuing to mine the Aldersgate experience

On May 24, 1738, John Wesley experienced what became a key moment in Methodism, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed” during a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London.

Sadly most interpreters have found in Aldersgate evidence to document and justify whatever theological premise they bring to their studies. Wesley was not so precise and systematic as Calvin, Luther or Barth, and the unfortunate result is that one can do with Wesley what we shamefully do with the Bible—find quotes to support our own biases!

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

Those who are revivalists or evangelicals have called Aldersgate his conversion. Those in the holiness movement have called Aldersgate Wesley’s instantaneous sanctification. Theological liberals have tended to fit Aldersgate into their paradigm of “gradualism.” The unfortunate result of these divergent viewpoints is that we yield to the temptation of “talking points” rather than honest, careful and painstaking research.

John Wesley, by nature and training, was not an emotional man. But he referred to what he called our spiritual sense—“avenues to the invisible world,” one of the serendipities of prevenient grace to every person. At Oxford, this philosophy was combined with an almost monastic lifestyle of self-discipline, frugality and compassion for the needy. However, he remained a seeker for a deeper assurance of his personal salvation.

One cannot read his diary or his sermons of that era and not see that he was searching the Scriptures, a man of prayer, engaged in holy conversation, regular in communion and worship, a practitioner of fasting and leader of a wide range of social holiness ministries. What he lacked was what he called “joy.”

Then came the influence of the Moravians—on board ship in 1735, in Georgia from 1736-37, and back in London in the winter and spring of 1738. In practicing Moravian Peter Bohler’s advice to “Preach faith until you have it, then preach faith,” Wesley preached sermons that spring that were different and disturbing to Anglican congregations. He dutifully recorded the names of churches in which he preached and was told he “should never preach there again.”

On May 13, he received a letter from his Moravian mentor, Bohler (in German since Bohler did not speak English): “I love you greatly and [pray] that the tender mercies of Jesus Christ . . . may be manifested to your soul: That you may taste and then see, how exceedingly the Son of God has loved you, and loves you still; and that you may continually trust in him, and feel his life in yourself.”

As a young Christian at Oxford, Wesley’s mentors had been Jeremy Taylor, William Law and Thomas à Kempis—all calling for devout spiritual disciplines shaping us into the “mind that was in Christ Jesus.” That was the Anglican paradigm. By 1738, however, the paradigm for being a devout Christian was Moravian. In response to Bohler’s letter, Wesley wrote to his old Oxford friend, John Gambold, “How fallen I am from the glory of God! . . . Yet I hear a voice (and is it not the voice of God?) saying, ‘Believe, and thou shalt be saved. . . .’” He concluded this letter, “Draw us after thee! Let us be emptied of ourselves, and then fill us with all peace and joy in believing, and let nothing separate us from thy love, in time or in eternity!”

Five days before Aldersgate, Wesley learned that his brother Charles had “found rest to his soul.” In his journal, he wrote of his conviction that he must renounce “my own works or righteousness, on which I had really grounded my hope of salvation, [and add] the constant use of all other means of grace. . . .” The time had come in Wesley’s spiritual journey when he would not pursue “holy living” so much as saving faith, trusting in Jesus “as my Christ, as my sole justification, sanctification, and redemption.”

In his journal, Wesley writes that Peter Bohler and three Moravian friends visited him on Wednesday, May 24 and testified that each of them had a personal experience that the fruit of pardon is a “true, living faith in Christ and freedom from all present sins.” They assured him that “this faith was the gift, the free gift of God, and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it.”

Now hear this from Wesley: “I think it was about five this morning that I opened my Testament on those words: ‘There are given to us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.”(II Peter 1:4) Again he let his Testament fall open and his eyes fell on the text, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

He then writes, “In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s [Cathedral]. . . . In the evening I 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.” Note the word “strangely” in juxtaposition to the word “warmed.” He was not emotional by disposition.

The next key words are “trust” and “assurance” (italics are mine): “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This was the assurance that Wesley had longed for, and trust is the foundation of any soul mate relationship—filial, marital, platonic or agape. Trust does not depend on feeling.

Wesley then recorded that he “testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart.”

Now the next sentence: “But it was not long before the enemy suggested, ‘This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?’” Then, bless him, “After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations [that] fled away [but] returned again and again.” Wesley compared these spiritual highs and lows with his former state, writing, “then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.”

The following day he wrote, “Yet the enemy injected a fear, ‘If thou dost believe, why is there not a more sensible change?’ I answered (yet not I), ‘That I know not. But, this I know, I have “now peace with God.” And I sin not today, and Jesus my Master has forbidden me to take thought for the morrow.’”

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


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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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