Oxford to Aldersgate: John Wesley’s Journey to Faith

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Continued from: A Brand Plucked From the Fire: The Early Life of John Wesley

After assisting at his father’s pastorate, John Wesley returned to Oxford and was immediately recognized as the head of his brother Charles’s campus society.

The so-called “Methodists” met for three hours each evening, usually in John’s room. They began with prayer, then studied the Greek New Testament and other classic literature, listened to John read a selection from a book, and discussed Christian love. They fasted on Wednesday and Friday, received the Lord’s Supper once per week, and had a system of regular self-examination to carefully scrutinize their attitude and conduct. Their religious fervor gained them the nickname “Holy Club.”

The Methodists gave away whatever money they had beyond what was needed to purchase their necessities. John wrote: “I abridged myself of all superfluities, and many that are called necessaries of life.” When John’s salary doubled, he gave away all of the increase. Once, a poorly clothed and half-starved woman came to his room; he was horrified to think of the money he had spent on unnecessary expenses: “Will thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward? Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold?’ Oh, justice! Oh, mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor creature?”

In August 1730, one member of the Holy Club visited a man in jail and convinced the others of the need to teach prisoners and visit the sick. They began doing so for one or two hours each week; Wesley preached at the prison once per month. Soon, the prisoners were learning to read and recite catechism, the Ten Commandments, and Christian prayers.

During this time, George Whitefield heard about the Methodists and came up to Oxford to join them, beginning a lifelong relationship with the Wesleys that would later impact the evangelical revival in America.

Wesley continued to study religion and serve as an itinerant preacher. In 1731, while visiting London, Wesley went to see William Law, who spurred Wesley’s interest in reading the Christian mystics. Wesley later denounced mysticism as “dangerous,” but Law’s impact on his life is noteworthy. In 1734, John traveled more than one thousand miles and learned to read on horseback—a habit which served him well on his long journeys. His strict diet and rigorous schedule caused serious health problems, but these were soon remedied with proper care and exercise.

When the health of his father Samuel began deteriorating, John felt tremendous pressure to take over the work at Epworth, but insisted that it was not his calling; he preferred to preside over the growing Oxford Methodists. Samuel Wesley died in peace on April 25, 1735, with John and Charles by his side; Samuel said to John, “The inward witness, son, the inward witness; this is the proof, the strongest proof, of Christianity.” John had not yet experienced the witness of the Spirit in his own heart.

Meeting the Moravians: Mission to Georgia (1735-1738)

While the Methodists were establishing their society, Britain established a colony in Georgia under the control of Colonel James Oglethorpe to serve as a refuge for emigrants and the poor. Since Oglethorpe was a friend of Samuel Wesley and one of the colony’s trustees worked at Oxford and knew of the Oxford Methodists, the ripe ministry field came to the attention of the Wesley brothers.

In October 1735, John and Charles sailed for Georgia as missionaries for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. John Wesley’s main desire was to work out his own salvation and preach to the Native Americans. Two other Methodists joined them, and the four met in the Wesleys’ cabin to read and pray during the voyage. Twenty-six Moravians were onboard, so John began to learn German in order to converse with them. The four Methodists attended the Moravian services each evening.

When the vessel nearly sank during a severe storm, the Moravians sang calmly while the eighty English passengers trembled and cried out in fear. Even the Moravian women and children were unafraid to die. Wesley, ashamed, asked himself, “How is it thou hast no faith?” and scurried about, pointing out the difference.

Wesley was very religious, but he did not have saving faith or the assurance that comes from being a child of God.

When they arrived in Savannah, Georgia, in February 1736, a local Moravian minister pressed Wesley to be sure that he had a saving knowledge of Christ. Wesley was unable to answer the question, “Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?”

In March, Wesley preached his first sermon at Savanah. In addition to the 518 residents, nearly 200 others were under his pastoral care. His main desire was to preach to the Native Americans, but his opportunities to work with them were limited. Wesley’s influence grew rapidly. He left for a short time to minister in the town of Frederica, but soon returned to Savannah and began teaching and catechizing the children.

While in Georgia, Wesley nearly married a woman named Sophia Hopkey but was convinced that it was not God’s will. He soon realized that God had spared him a great ordeal. Sophia married another and, soon after, publicly disrespected him, causing a debacle in the town. Wesley saw it as a case for church discipline and excluded her from communion. Sophia’s uncle, the chief magistrate, rose to her defense, raising unjustified accusations against John and issuing a warrant for his arrest. Wesley, feeling disillusioned about his treatment, and already disappointed that he was unable to preach to the Native Americans, chose to return to England against the orders of the court. The colony’s trustees later cleared Wesley of all charges and removed Sophia’s uncle from his position as magistrate.

The return voyage was a time of deep soul-searching. After his interactions with the Moravians, Wesley was plagued by fear and doubt, and was now convinced of his unbelief. He longed for true faith and recorded famous words: “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh! who shall convert me?”

A few months later in May 1738, George Whitefield landed in Georgia and testified that Wesley’s mission was not in vain: “What the good Mr. John Wesley has done in America is inexpressible. His name is very precious among the people, and he has laid a foundation that I hope neither men nor devils will ever be able to shake. Oh, that I may follow him as he has followed Christ.” During his time in Georgia, Wesley had also published a Collection of Psalms and Hymns, the first Anglican hymnal published in America.

Back in England: Convinced by Peter Boehler (1738)

After arriving in London after the long journey home from Georgia, John was reunited with his brother Charles who had returned at an earlier time. The Wesleys soon met another Moravian who had just landed from Germany. Peter Boehler had been ordained by Moravian bishop Count von Zinzendorf to work in the Americas and was preparing for his next voyage. Boehler and the Wesleys became friends and traveled to Oxford together.

In a letter to Zinzendorf, Boehler wrote of the Wesleys:

I traveled with the two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, from London to Oxford. The elder, John, is a good natured man; he knew he did not properly believe on the Savior, and was willing to be taught. His brother, with whom you often conversed a year ago, is at present very much distressed in his mind, but does not know how he shall begin to be acquainted with the Savior. Our mode of believing in the Savior is so easy to Englishmen that they cannot reconcile themselves to it; if it were a little more artful, they would much sooner find their way into it.

After Charles nearly died from a severe illness, John became convinced that he lacked true faith and decided that he was unfit to preach. Boehler urged him instead to “preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” The first place that Wesley preached a clear message of salvation by faith was in the same prison at which the Oxford Methodists had started ministering over seven years earlier.

Wesley’s beliefs underwent a radical transformation during this time. He was convinced, after examining the New Testament, that Boehler’s teachings were correct: salvation is instantaneous, not gradual, and happiness and holiness are the fruits of faith. Charles was angry and continued to insist that salvation was gradual; Charles wrote of John, “His obstinacy in favoring the contrary opinion drove me at last out of the room.”

The Aldersgate Experience: Coming to Faith (May 24, 1738)

After a long conversation with Boehler, Charles finally came around. For a time, the Wesleys and the Moravians began gathering in small bands of five or ten to have open religious discussions. When Boehler left for the Americas, both Wesleys were committed to seek a living faith. Charles was the first to find rest for his soul and by simple faith experienced the peace he was looking for.

The Wesleys learned that one does not grow into salvation but that one is saved instantaneously when one trusts in Christ.

John was heavy-hearted until the following Wednesday, May 24, 1738. His journal entry for that day records his conversion:

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 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.

Charles wrote, “Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared, ‘I believe!’ We sang the hymn with great joy, and parted with prayer.” The hymn referenced by Charles was the one he had written the previous day on his own conversion:

Oh, how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which Thou to me hast showed
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God,
Should know, should feel, my sins forgiven,
Blest with this antepast [foretaste] of heaven!

We each must settle the question of whether or not we will trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

 


 

RESOURCES
  1. Andrew Dragos, “John Wesley Biography (Short),” Seedbed.
  2. Charles Wesley, “Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  3. Fred Sanders, Wesley on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2013).
  4. John Telford, “The Life of John Wesley,” Wesley Center Online.
  5. “John Wesley: Methodical pietist,” Christianity Today.
  6. “John Wesley the Methodist: A Plain Account of His Life and Work,” Wesley Center Online.
  7. John Wesley, “The Journals of John Wesley,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  8. Richard Green, “John Wesley – Evangelist,” Wesley Center Online.
  9. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Abingdon Press, 2013).
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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.