The Moravian connection –
Moravians and the Evangelical Awakening (3)
On 24 May 1738 John Wesley wrote in his journal, ‘Wednesday, May 24. 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.’
Some historians have argued that this Aldersgate Street experience was not Wesley’s conversion, but a baptism with the Holy Spirit subsequent to his regeneration. They maintain his entry into Christ’s kingdom occurred at some imprecise but earlier date (ranging from years to days before this, depending on the historian’s theological stance).
That a Spirit baptism occurred six months later is indisputable, but it is unsafe to doubt the conversion that Wesley implies here. An impartial reading of his journal leaves little doubt that 24 May was the day he moved from seeking to finding and from conviction of sin to a sense of forgiveness. Before that, his experience is best described in the words of Proverbs 14:10 – ‘the heart knoweth his own bitterness’.
The joyful presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul is the ‘seal’ that gives the regenerate person a new sense of belonging to Christ. However muted, or even suppressed, this new sense may be, it is always there in a born again person (Ephesians 1:13-14). Without the indwelling Spirit, no one is a true Christian (Romans 8:9).
For some months after his conversion, Wesley was effectively under Moravian pastoral care. His journal records two days later: ‘My soul continued in peace, but yet in heaviness, because of manifold temptations. I asked Mr Telchig, the Moravian, what to do. He said, “You must not fight with them as you did before, but flee from them the moment they appear, and take shelter in the wounds of Jesus”.’
A fortnight afterward Wesley visited the Moravian community at Herrnhut in Saxony. From there he wrote, ‘God has given me at length the desire of my heart. I am with a church whose conversation is in heaven; in whom is the mind that was in Christ and who so walk as he walked’.
He arrived back in London on 16 September and on 21 October visited, along with his brother Charles, Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London. They asked the bishop if ‘religious societies’ were ‘conventicles’. Gibson did not think so, and Wesley saw his way clear for establishing Moravian-type bands among the Methodist societies.
However, before John had left for Herrnhut, a striking and significant event had taken place. On 11 June, only 18 days after his conversion, he was due to preach before the University of Oxford.
This is how Dr A. Skevington Wood describes the scene: ‘It is a warm Sunday afternoon in June … As the clock in the famous Tom Tower strikes two, an impressive procession moves slowly into the university church of St Mary the Virgin on High Street.
‘It is led by an official bearing the insignia of the vice-chancellor, followed by the vice-chancellor himself arrayed in all his finery. Sandwiched between him and the university proctors is the select preacher for the day, with the scarlet-robed doctors of divinity bringing up the rear.
‘This is a university service which all resident members are expected to attend. The church fills as a hymn is sung and a bidding prayer offered. Then the preacher, small in stature and quiet in manner, announces his text from Ephesians 2:8: “By grace are ye saved through faith”.
‘Before long it is clear that this is no routine sermon. It is a cry from the heart and a call to battle. It is the manifesto of a new movement within the church of God … The preacher was John Wesley, almost 35 years of age, the son of a cleric and a Fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford.
‘The message was a re-affirmation of the Protestant Reformers’ emphasis on free grace and saving faith. Nothing but this, Wesley declared, could check the immorality which was flooding the land’.
Undaunted by his august audience, Wesley blew the gospel trumpet at full blast. It was a new and unfamiliar sound to them, and an indirect but powerful testimony to what the Moravians had done for him.
When Peter Boehler left England for America soon after, he could write to Count Zinzendorf, ‘The English people made a wonderful to do about me and though I could not speak much English, they were always wanting me to tell them about the Saviour, his blood and wounds, and the forgiveness of sins’. Among Boehler’s spiritual children were John Wesley, John Gambold, James Hutton and John Cennick.
What was the spiritual condition of the Britain whose needs Wesley described in this sermon to his fellow dons, 270 years ago?
It was one of spiritual destitution. The established church had squandered the heritage of the Reformation and Puritan eras and largely succumbed to deism. Sermons were generally lifeless moral exhortations, inviting hearers to do good and to be good. It is said that sermons fell into three categories – dull, duller and dullest!
The nation’s morals were appalling; slavery an institutionalised sin. The British aristocracy was cultured, magnificent and dissolute; the poor downtrodden, illiterate, gin sodden, and given to vicious living and brutal pastimes. Those pastimes included bear-baiting, bull-baiting, badger-baiting, cock-fighting, goose-riding and dog-tailing.
Prize fights attracted large crowds. Sometimes the contestants were women – one boasted in the name of Bruising Peg! Fifty years later, in 1790, drunkenness, gambling, political corruption, kidnapping, crimping (press ganging), prostitution and child neglect were still rampant.
Forty years after the Gin Act of 1751, one eighth of deaths in London adults were said to be through drinking excess spirits. Henry Fielding, a London magistrate, declared that ‘should the drinking of this poison be continued at its present height during the next twenty years, there will by that time be very few of the common people left to drink it’.
With 253 capital offences on the statute-book, the law had fallen into disrepute. Anarchy and violence prevailed. The nickname ‘Sir Mob’ was an acknowledgement of the strength of mob rule in the cities.
Footpads and pickpockets abounded. Muggings were an everyday occurrence. Gambling had reached epidemic proportions. The licentiousness of the eighteenth-century stage was deplored by Joseph Addison in the pages of theSpectator. Wesley castigated the theatre as ‘that sink of all profaneness and debauchery’.
It was this Britain and those who had responsibility for its spiritual care that Wesley was addressing in St Mary’s, but now from a very different perspective than the early church fathers and Christian mystics.
In May 1738, the Moravians had imparted to John Wesley three things which a pious home, a famous university, an established church and learned books did not – the knowledge that salvation is through Christ’s atonement and not through our good works; that it is taken hold of by faith; and that it leads to an experience of Christ mediated by the Holy Spirit.
Wesley’s conversion reminds us forcibly that we must be born again; religiosity, orthodoxy and missionary zeal are not enough to earn salvation. We must embrace justification by faith alone, trusting in Christ and not our moral efforts for the forgiveness of sin.
Today, as in the eighteenth century, gospel truth is absolutely central to the progress of vital Christianity, both individually and ecclesially. The Evangelical Awakening was not carved out of the philanthropy of the Holy Club but by biblical doctrines preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. That Methodism now embraced this emphasis was, under God’s hand, due to Moravianism.
The evangelical message exalting Christ as Saviour and Redeemer is the priceless heritage of the church, and instrument and weapon by which the church builds the kingdom of God.
We must not lean for success on social or political action, on music and singing – whether high- or low-brow, on orchestras, large numbers, dramatic presentations and celebrities, but on the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified.
It was this message that reversed the spiritual tide in Wesley’s day; and it alone can do it today.
To be continued