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Pastor Blog - Union Grove UMC

John Wesley Before and After Aldersgate

May 20, 2016

6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.                                                                                     John 1:6(NIV)

 

            In the tradition and history of the United Methodist Church there is no greater name than that of John Wesley. While the “Holy Club” at Oxford that became known derisively as “Methodist” was begun by his brother Charles, it was the keen mind, indefatigable zeal, and organizational genius of John Wesley that nurtured and guided this movement as it matured into a new denomination that eventually grew to claim tens of millions of adherents around the world. To refer to him as “a man who was sent from God” would hardly be an exaggeration.

            I must confess that, having grown up in a non-Methodist tradition, I had never heard of Aldersgate Sunday before receiving an assignment to prepare an Aldersgate Sunday sermon for the class “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit.” So, being possessed of a somewhat curious nature, I set out to learn what I could about Aldersgate Sunday and the Aldersgate experience of John Wesley. What I have learned is fascinating historically but it is also challenging spiritually. Over these next few minutes I’d like to share some of what I have learned in the hope that you will be as blessed and challenged by the impact of this episode upon the life of John Wesley as have I.

            It is tempting to give this space to a simple recounting of the facts of John Wesley’s life before and after his Aldersgate experience. This ignores the role of Aldersgate as a “watershed” event in Mr. Wesley’s spiritual journey. By a “watershed” I mean a turning point or dividing line at which a decisive difference can be seen in the “before and after.”

            The facts of Mr. Wesley’s life are simple and amply documented. He was born in England in 1703 and, except for a short sojourn as a missionary in the colony of Georgia and a few months of study with the Moravians in Germany after his Aldersgate experience, lived there until his death in 1791. He was the son of Samuel Wesley, a minister of the Church of England, and Suzanna Annesley Wesley who was the daughter of a Dissenter pastor. He was educated at Christ Church College, Oxford and ordained to the Anglican priesthood at the age of twenty-five. His time in the American colonies began in 1735 and ended in near disaster in 1737 at which time he returned to England a disillusioned man. Wesley is often described in this early period of his life as legalistic, self-righteous and even foolish which traits almost led to him being tarred and feathered before escaping the colonies to return to his home in England. His assessment of his time in the colonies included his conclusion that, “I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God.”[1] Returning to England, Mr. Wesley “seemed worse off than when he arrived – crossed in love, still anguished in spirit, and a failure in his first attempt at a vocation.”[2]  His life’s story up to this point is one of dedicated service to the Church in an effort to find a satisfying relationship with God.

            But that was before Aldersgate. 

  1. Wesley had been impressed with the simple piety of the Moravians during his voyage to the colonies. Their calm faith in the face of impending disaster during a storm at sea was said to have raised in him doubts of his own relationship with God. While in Georgia he became acquainted with the Moravian leader August Spangenberg who inquired of his relationship with Christ for which Mr. Wesley had only the answer of a churchman and not of one with a sure knowledge of Christ.[3] Following his return to England he continued his association with the Moravians. In fact, the meeting he attended on the evening of May 24, 1738 on Aldersgate Street in London was a Moravian meeting. While according to his Journal he went unwillingly, it was during this meeting that Mr. Wesley’s life was changed forever. The experience can best be described by his own words,

                        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 the leader 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 in 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. (emphasis added)

                                                            from The Journal of John Wesley, May 24, 1738[4]

            Though there would be the return of doubts about his spiritual condition at various times in the future, from that point forward John Wesley was a different man with a dramatically different purpose and method to his life. His legalism was replaced by a focus on the work of grace that would radically change his teaching and just as radically alter the course of his life. His preaching now focused on moving the hearts of his listeners, not merely addressing them intellectually. He who had been, and considered himself still to be, a faithful son of the Church of England, because he was denied the use of churches for his preaching, began preaching out of doors due to his “insistence on gospel preaching – wherever, whenever, however”[5], a practice he would continue for the rest of his long ministry. As one biographical sketch has put it, “No sooner had Mr. Wesley experienced the transforming power of grace than he hastened to declare it to all, taking the world for his parish.”[6] He would continue his preaching ministry spanning some fifty-four years, during which he would preach as many as 42,000 sermons, in any setting possible. Not only would his preaching be prodigious but the ground he covered to deliver so many sermons would see him travel some 250,000 miles, mostly on horseback. Along the way he would make it his business to fight for universal education, oppose slavery, open and operate orphanages and homes for the poor, and still find time to organize and produce a body of instructive literature for the growing number of those who followed his teaching. In the same period he produced the governing principles and documents of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the fledgling United States and laid the groundwork for the organization of a Methodist denomination in England.

            More could be said of Mr. Wesley’s labors to organize those who were practicing their faith in the Methodist manner or of his untiring efforts to minister to their needs spiritually and physically. Likewise a great deal could be spoken of his battles to safeguard his followers from those he considered to be teaching doctrines containing error and his incessant work to put into print materials that would instruct and guide them. Suffice it to say that this one who struggled so to find a relationship with Christ that would satisfy his longing for assurance of salvation spared no energy to see that others had every possible opportunity to experience the same. Mr. Wesley lived a simple and austere life marked by incessant and productive activity and much charitable giving. So much charity in fact that when he died he left behind “‘a good library of books, a well-worn clergyman's gown,’ and the Methodist Church.”[7] On his death bed, this man who once despaired of ever truly knowing God would utter as his last words, “The best of all is, God is with us.”

            But that was after Aldersgate.

            As you consider this brief look at the life of John Wesley I want to encourage you to seek for an Aldersgate experience. Who knows, you could be the next one that God uses in such a way that it could be said of you, “There came one sent from God whose name was…”

  

 

         

End Notes

[1] Wesley, John, February 1, 1738 in Works, 18:214 quoted by Noll, Mark A., The Rise of Evangelicalism, Downers Grove, 2003, page 84

[2] Noll, Mark A., The Rise of Evangelicalism, Downers Grove, 2003, page 85

[3] Cairns, Earl E. Christianity Through the Centuries, Grand Rapids, 1977, page 417, footnote 3 and Noll, page 85

[4] Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Retrieved 4/14/2012

[5] Noll, page 102

[6] GoForth.org, taken from the following sources:“John Wesley and His Doctrine” by W. MacDonald; Life of the Rev. John Wesley by Joseph Benson; and Life of John Wesley by John Telford.

[7] Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley, “Personality and Activities”

Bibliography

Cairns, Earle E., Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977

 

Campbell, Ted A.; Gunter, W. Stephen; Jones, Scott J.; Maddox, Randy L.; Miles, Rebekah L., Wesley and the Quadrilateral: Renewing the Conversation.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1997

 

Hempton, David. Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005

 

Richey, Russell E.; Campbell, Dennis M.; Lawrence, William B., United Methodism and American Culture, Volume 5; Marks of Methodism: Theology in Ecclesial Practice. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005

 

Smith, Judith E. Executive Editor. Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, The. Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2008

 

______________________________________________________________________________

Online Sources

Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html

 

Goforthall.org http://www.goforthall.org/articles/jw_bio.html taken from the following sources:“John Wesley and His Doctrine” by W. MacDonald; Life of the Rev. John Wesley by Joseph Benson; and Life of John Wesley by John Telford.

 

Scriptorium, The http://www.scriptoriumdaily.com/2009/05/24/john-wesley-at-aldersgate/

Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley

 

 

 

 

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