Thinking he was dying, Evangelical Awakening leader John Wesley penned his epitaph, “John Wesley, a brand plucked out of the burning.” Brother Charles Wesley quipped, “Not once only.” The ‘brand plucked’ phrase encapsulated the reality upon which not only his but many of his spiritual descendants’ spiritual and moral transformation hinged. Recount with me the life events that prepared John Wesley for the signal manifestation on 24 May 1738 of his coming to saving faith two hundred and eighty one years ago this year.
At age 23, John Benjamin Wesley read Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s book, Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. It deeply affected him. He said, ‘Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words and actions.’ The next year he read the Catholic monk Thomas à Kempis’s book The Imitation of Christ. There John Wesley saw that to give his life to God meant giving ‘my heart, yea, all my heart to him.’ John Wesley became what is called a ‘f-a-n-a-t-i-c’ or, same thing, a ‘Methodist’! Theologian Albert Outler with others following suit argues the 1725 event was John Wesley’s conversion. Granted, it was a change. Nevertheless, it was neither the relational change of justification with God nor the new birth from above. Dedicating his life meant to John Wesley becoming an Olympic religious athlete/monk (like Simon Stylites the ancient ascetic monk who lived on a small platform on top of a pillar for 37 years). Still, he was in dead earnest about bringing all of himself – all thoughts, all words, and all actions – and then some – into perfect conformity with religious righteousness – a.k.a. the rich, young ruler.
His brother Charles and another friend Robert Kirkham responded to Oxford University’s Vice-Chancellor’s call for students to keep university rules. What a novel idea! They started a club in answer to the Vice-Chancellor’s call and made John its leader. The club aimed at nothing short of “perfection.” They kept track of every hour’s activity – was it done to God’s glory? They read the Greek New Testament; fasted; prayed continually; took communion once a week; visited prisoners in the Oxford jail (I visited the cell in the 1980’s); and went to daily worship. Fellow students called out ‘nerd alert’: here comes the “the Holy Club,” the “Bible Moths,” and the “Methodists” – likely a pun. Methodius was a primitive church father and the Methodists followed a stringent, methodical, Christian discipline.
Meanwhile, things were not going particularly well vocationally with John. Though he was a tutor of Lincoln College, Oxford, some parents were reluctant to send their sons to be taught by the oddball, “Mr. Primitive Christianity.” Moreover, his brief experience of pastoring a church was lackluster.
When the invitation came to go to Georgia as a missionary, he was ready for a “New World.” He would oversee the English colonists and evangelize the Indians. In crossing the Atlantic, Wesley’s tiny ship, the Simmonds, encountered a raging hurricane. Waves vaulted the ship and smacked its wooden hull. Each time they hit, John thought the ship would be dashed into a thousand pieces. The turmoil was not just outside. Inside he asked himself, “Why are you so afraid to die? ... How is it that thou hast no faith?”
Meanwhile, German Moravian Lutherans on board quietly served the passengers and calmly sang through the valley of the shadow of death. They were on their way to Georgia to escape religious persecution. Intrigued, Wesley after the storm asked a Moravian, “Were you not afraid?” “Thank God, no,” was the answer. “How about your women and children?” “No, they are not afraid to die.”
When John arrived near Tybee Island, Georgia, Moravian leader August Spangenberg asked him point blank a question he had never considered. “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Wesley paused. Then he said, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” Spangenberg shot back, “But do you know He has saved YOU?” “I hope He died to save me,” said Wesley. “But do you know yourself?” Spangenberg insisted. “I do,” said Wesley. He later confessed, “But, I fear those were vain words.” Indeed.
Undaunted, still hot from the Holy Club culture, John Wesley was determined to make the American colonists into an Oxford Holy club – an admixture of Catholicism and Protestantism. The colony would not. A friend told John, “They (the parishioners) say they are Protestants, but as for you they cannot tell what religion you are of; they never heard of such before.”
In the meantime Wesley was forming a close attachment to the magistrate’s niece, Sophie Hopkey. Long story short, she married another man. Wesley refused to serve her communion because he said she deceived him and had not repented of it. Her uncle the magistrate served a warrant for Wesley’s arrest. One night Wesley quietly slinked away through the Georgia swamps. England bound sounded pretty good. So much for being a missionary.
Sailing home, he was dejected. He had lost a potential wife. His congregation was not “holy” – just irate. His rigorous religion was giving him cold comfort. “I have a fair summer religion,” he confessed to himself. “Let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled”… “I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore!” He mused, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me!”
He could not by all the rigors of self-denial, prayers, fasting, and good works make himself acceptable to God. After all his strenuous, spiritual athletics, he could not rid himself of sin and guilt. Should he die, he feared meeting God.
A couple of months after returning to England, in March 1738, he wrote in his Journal, “I was, on Sunday the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.” Moravian Peter Bohler counseled him to preach faith until he received it. The Moravian Lutheran understanding of justifying faith is that it is a gift which God gives and one receives. One decides for it but God sends faith in his own time. In April John Wesley realized he was a sinner without recourse. Several times he wept privately over his state. By now he had no intellectual objections to the nature of evangelical faith. He accepted it as a sure trust in God that through the merits of Christ one’s sins are forgiven and one is reconciled to God’s favor. However, was saving faith instantaneous like the Moravians claimed? He studied Scripture and concluded it was instantaneous. But was it for today? Moravian leader Peter Bohler gave him many current witnesses who testified to it. He was beat out of that retreat. Intellectually and willfully he had accepted justification by faith.
Several weeks later on 24 May, 1738, after soul searching, Bible study, discussion with the Moravians, and a great sense of his spiritual lack before God, John Wesley went very unwillingly to a religious house group meeting in Aldersgate Street, London. (Nazi bombing in WW II destroyed the house.) At about a quarter before nine, someone was reading Martin Luther’s Preface to his commentary on the Book of Romans. As Luther was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, John Wesley felt “my heart strangely warmed.” He said, “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.”
Once he had been providentially plucked from his bedroom in flames. Now he was rescued from the fires of God’s wrath. As a child, he was helpless to get out of his flaming room. Now he conceded he was helpless to make himself righteous. Two men had to snatch him out of his childhood inferno. Only Jesus Christ and his mercy offered in the atoning cross could save him from his sin. Only Jesus could declare him acceptable to God.
Wesley scholars will forever debate the nature of the Aldersgate event. Was Aldersgate just another step in his Christian pilgrimage? Was it more assurance of faith than justifying faith? The bottom line is that that night in a room on Aldersgate Street John Wesley’s inner, spiritual ear heard Christ forgive him and accept him. He went from knowing Jesus as Exemplar to knowing Jesus as Savior. He no longer trusted in his own but Jesus’ merits. Aldersgate is the landmark event that notes a change in status having occurred in John Wesley’s life: once a child of this world he was now a child of God; once guilty he was now forgiven; once unrighteous he was now declared righteous. Now holy living really began.
Aldersgate was the hinge of John Wesley’s spiritual and moral transformation. May many, many others today have their own similar Aldersgates. Our hope is that our children and children’s children will not only be retelling his and ours, but theirs as well.
Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July. Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house. Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University. Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.