This is the fourth column in which we look at John Wesley’s “strangely warmed heart” experience on London’s Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738 and ask, “What insight does Wesley’s journey to Aldersgate give to me?” We ask further if small groups in our churches might find in Wesley’s journey an avenue to becoming “vital congregations.”
Until about 1850, Methodist preachers defined Aldersgate as Wesley’s conversion. They had not done their homework, minimizing his 13 years of seeking “holiness of heart and life” within his Anglican tradition. While attending Oxford University, Wesley spent thousands of hours in the best libraries of his day. His excellence as a student prompted Lincoln College to offer him a faculty position, and while leading the Oxford Methodists—colloquially known as “The Holy Club”—he preached most Sundays, participated in what we know as “holy conferencing” with colleagues, and engaged in what he called “social holiness” or deeds of kindness and works of mercy among the prisoners, the poor and the children of Oxford.
During that period (1729-35), religious regimen for the Oxford Methodists involved study of the Bible and “useful books”; encouraging each other in holy living; prayer, including confession to each other; acts of self-denial such as fasting; and charitable activities in the streets and prisons. If we don’t believe Wesley was converted before Aldersgate, how else can we accurately describe the leader of the Oxford Methodists?
During this formative period, after reading Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Wesley wrote in his diary, “The light flowed in so mightily upon my soul that everything appeared in a new view.” Decades later, he recalled: “Hence I saw in a clearer and clearer light the indispensable necessity of having ‘the mind that was in Christ,’ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and of ‘walking as Christ also walked’ (1 John 2:6). . . . And this was the light wherein at this time I generally considered religion, as a uniform following of Christ, an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.”
Can this leave any doubt that he was a Christian before Aldersgate?
However, as he assessed what it meant to know that one is a Christian he wrote this in the flyleaf of Imitation of Christ: “Do what lieth in thy power and God will assist thy good will.” That is, we are to do what is sincerely our best, and every effort of ours will be augmented by God’s preparing and sustaining grace. Meanwhile, we continue as humans to struggle with our weaknesses to various addictions and habits, our DNA personality traits, our personal temptations and the blinders of our culture.
In his journey toward “holiness of life and heart,” Wesley did what many of us have also done, entering a life of Christian service. We travel in mission teams to other countries, support relief work after natural disasters, volunteer at church, befriend neighbors and live a “life that becomes the gospel.” We are Christians, and yet we may be stuck precisely where Wesley was.
What kept him from the inner peace and full assurance of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his soul? Wesley’s doctrine was sound and his self-discipline was exemplary, but he still lacked what Paul called “witness of the spirit.” Wesley admitted later that he did not understand his father, when the old Anglican on his death bed in April 1735 told him that “inward witness” was the “strongest proof of Christianity.”
Surely, many of us know how Wesley must have felt. In the years since revival altar calls gave way to confirmation classes, very little has been said in most United Methodist churches about an experience of assurance that one’s sins are forgiven. Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist children once learned a little chorus: “I’ve got the peace that passeth understanding down in my heart . . . down in my heart today.” The second stanza was the same except the last line, “down in my heart to stay.”
How many of us must confess—while we believe that God loves us, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died to save us from our sins, that the Bible is the Word of God, and that we are to reach out with deeds of kindness and acts of mercy—we still have a missing link in our relationship with God? Deep in our soul, there is an empty spot which only the Holy Spirit can fill. Is this not the Achilles heel of multiple millions of Christians? Is this not one important clue to the net loss of 650,000 United Methodists already in the 21st century?
In 1735 Wesley accepted an invitation to become a missionary to Native Americans in Georgia and pastor of an Anglican church in Savannah. Wesley scholar Kenneth Collins notes that John had two reasons for going with his brother Charles into the mission field. First, he wrote of “the hope of saving my own soul.” Second, he wrote that he could not “hope to attain the same degree of holiness here [England] that I can there.”
Upon boarding the ship to the colonies in November 1735, the Wesley brothers found 26 Germans aboard. John spent three hours each morning studying German and before they left English waters on Dec. 7, he could preach to all the passengers. En route, they survived five storms; most every reader of this column knows that the Anglican priest, Wesley, was afraid and the Moravian craftsmen, women and children sang hymns while the storm raged. He set foot on American soil on Feb. 6, 1736, and remained in Georgia for 23 months.
During that time, and back in England in the first five months of 1738, Wesley was tutored by the less lettered but more spiritually confident Moravians. Spiritual mentors in our malleable moments of life bring about profound changes, don’t they? The next column will track that relationship. It is the final leg on the journey to Aldersgate.
Dr. Haynes, a retired UM clergyman, is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.