Continued from The forgotten John Wesley (1)
In October 1735 John Wesley was on board The Simmonds, bound for Savannah (see ET, February 2015). He was a fully fledged Anglican clergyman, and a missionary to Georgia, commissioned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
But, en route, two things challenged Wesley to the core — a violent and dangerous storm, and the calm and trusting devotion of 26 Moravian missionaries amid the storm’s fury.
Wesley came to the realisation that, ‘I who went to America to convert others was not converted myself’.
It wasn’t that he lacked sincerity and religious zeal. He had been a clergyman since 1726, including curate to his father, Samuel Wesley, at Wroot in Lincolnshire. He had also, in 1729, dutifully returned to be tutor at Lincoln College, Oxford, of which he was a Fellow; and which position required him to be an Anglican clergyman.
Here he had become leader of a small group of Oxford students — such as Thomas Brougham, John Clayton, John Gambold, James Hervey, Benjamin Ingham, Charles Wesley and George Whitefield — meeting together regularly and privately for academic and religious improvement.
Members of this group were labelled the ‘Holy Club’ or ‘Methodists’ and faced considerable mockery from other Oxford students, a mockery that Wesley was fully prepared to endure. The Holy Club engaged in prayer, Bible study, fasting, taking communion together, visiting prisons and caring for the sick, as well as academic discussion.
Moreover, as early as 1729, Wesley was studying the Bible with a new focus and intensity as ‘the one, the only, standard of truth, and the only model of sure religion’.
He studied the writings of Thomas a Kempis, William Law, the early church fathers and Catholic mystics, but was still a stranger to salvation by grace and not at all at peace in his soul.
He later wrote of this period: ‘By my continual endeavour to keep [God’s moral law], inward and outward, to the utmost of my power, I was persuaded that I should be accepted of him, and that I was even then in a state of salvation’.
Nehemiah Curnock describes his mind-set in this memorable way: ‘He binds his tortured soul to the horns of the altar, and the flames play around it. He has no mercy on himself. Not once does he excuse himself or enter a single plea in extenuation…
‘As we read from page to page [of his journal] we expect to find this self-upbraiding candidate of saintliness in the grip of despair. Nothing, however, daunts him. Saturday night finds him in the depths, but on Sunday morning he is bravely beginning again. Defeat and failure seem to stimulate Wesley to new effort’.
Wesley was a perfect illustration of what the apostle Paul had said nearly two millennia ago about his own fellow-countrymen, the Jews: ‘For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God’ (Romans 10:2-3).
In this restless spiritual condition, John Wesley finally disembarked in Savannah on 6 February 1736. The next day, Georgia’s governor, General Oglethorpe, introduced him to Moravian leader August Spangenberg.
Wesley records what happened next. Spangenberg said to him, ‘My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?’
Wesley wrote: ‘I was surprised and knew not what to answer. He observed it and asked, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” I paused and said, “I know he is Saviour of the world”.
‘“True,” replied he. “But do you know he has saved you?”
‘I answered, “I hope he has died to save me”.
‘He only added, “Do you know yourself?”
‘I said, “I do”. But I fear they were vain words.’
On 31 July Spangenberg explained to Wesley that conversion meant ‘passing from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God’, and that this event can either be gradual or instant.
With this exchange firmly lodged in Wesley’s mind, the next two years proved a very mixed experience. He diligently undertook his ministry in Georgia, but it was as a high-church and somewhat high-handed clergyman.
Nor did he succeed in all his personal relationships. Things came to a dramatic head after a hesitant — and consequently failed — courtship by John of Sophia Hopkey, a niece of Savannah’s chief magistrate. In the wake of the ensuing debacle, other relationships deteriorated rapidly and John, under something of a cloud, felt he had little choice but to return to England (Charles had returned in late 1736).
On landing back home on 1 February 1738, John met Peter Boehler, another Moravian, who had recently arrived from Germany.
Peter Boehler and Charles Wesley became firm friends, and John took Boehler to Oxford and to Stanton Harcourt in the Cotswolds, where former Holy Club member John Gambold was rector.
On the way to Oxford, Boehler warmed to John. He became convinced that John did not yet ‘know the Saviour’, but was teachable. Deeply challenged once more by the searching personal work of a Moravian, John declared: ‘I resolved to seek [salvation] unto the end, first, by absolutely renouncing all dependence, in whole or in part, upon my own works of righteousness — on which I had really grounded my hope of salvation, though I knew it not, from my youth up’.
Charles Wesley received assurance of salvation on 21 May (Whitsunday) 1738. A few days later, the decisive moment came for John. John’s now famous journal entry for Wednesday 24 May 1738 records: ‘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. I felt I did trust 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’.
At last, John knew that his sins were forgiven, that Jesus Christ was his Saviour and that he had the witness of the Spirit within himself.
The second reason, after his conversion, why we should not forget John Wesley is because he reminds us of the need for authentic spiritual experience in professed believers.
There are many incidents that could illustrate this point, but perhaps the most prominent is what occurred very early on 2 January 1739, seven months after Wesley’s conversion.
It began with a Moravian love feast at the Fetter Lane Society, at 9.30pm, on New Year’s Day. That whole night was spent in prayer to God and in ‘psalms and thanksgivings’. George Whitefield pronounced it to be ‘the happiest’ New Year’s Day he had ever seen.
As well as about 60 Moravians, at least seven Oxford Methodists were present, namely John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Wesley Hall, Benjamin Ingham, Charles Kinchin and Richards Hitchins.
John Wesley wrote: ‘About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of his Majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord!”’
This Pentecost experience was surely an endowment of the future Methodist leaders with power from on high, in preparation for their imminent and far-reaching gospel work into Britain, Ireland, America and other nations.
This was for Wesley a vital spiritual anointing, preparing him for the labours, trials and blessings of 50 years of nearly ceaseless itinerant preaching ministry; and not least for the radical step of open-air ministry to thousands — a step which, unbeknown to him, he was to embark on very soon in Bristol (although very reluctantly at first).
The authentic spiritual experience exemplified in Wesley’s life remains a huge challenge to evangelicals today. His Fetter Lane Pentecost, coming as it did in a simple context, devoid of ‘worship’ aids, stands in stark contrast to the mind-numbingly arid spirituality of many of today’s ‘exciting’, man-centred and entertainment-driven church and para-church programmes.
To be continued
The author is a director and editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press and Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and pastor of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon.