Was Wesley ‘Converted’?

John Richardson on John and Martin

The story of John Wesley’s conversion is well-known – how he went as an Anglican clergyman and missionary to preach the gospel to the America Indians, how during a storm on his outward journey he was impressed by the faith of a group of German Christians, how his mission failed such that on his return trip he wrote in his journal, ‘I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?’, and how finally in a London church that same year he heard Luther’s Preface to Romans being read and as he listened, he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’ and thus became a Christian who went on to head the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival.

That is the story, and each element contains elements of truth. But, as the Church of England once more considers union with the Methodist Church, it is worth realizing that the underlying truth about Wesley’s conversion is rather different from the impression given by the various parts of the story. For the factors leading to Wesley’s ‘conversion’ did not focus primarily on salvation, and his experience in that London church laid the foundation for two quite disparate, and yet curiously related, developments, namely Pentecostalism outside the Methodist Church and Liberalism within.

Wesley’s Condition

The issue centres around Wesley’s spiritual condition when he asked in his journal for 24th January 1738 ‘who shall convert me?’ He continues,

Who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of mischief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. [Then] I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore! I think, verily, if the gospel be true, I am safe: for I not only have given, and do give, all my goods to feed the poor; I not only give my body to be burned, drowned, or whatever God shall appoint for me; but I follow after charity (though not as I ought, yet as I can), if haply I may attain it. [...] But in a storm I think, ‘What, if the gospel be not true? [...]’ Oh! who will deliver me from this fear of death?

Despite his later recognition that he was relying far too much on works (he had, in his own words, the faith of a ‘servant’ of God, but not a ‘son’), Wesley is not a Martin Luther, convinced that in spite of his best efforts he is destined for hell. On the contrary, he writes, ‘I think … if the gospel be true, I am safe’. His problem lies in the word ‘if’, for (as Wesley is all too aware) in the face of death his faith trembles. And it was precisely the absence of this fear which most impressed him about the Moravians he met on his outward journey:

Sunday, 25 January 1736: At noon our third storm began. At four it was more violent than before. At seven I went to the Germans. Of their humility they had given a continual proof […]. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterward, ‘Were you not afraid?’ He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’

Thus when Wesley returned to England in 1738 it was certainly as a seeker, but a seeker after deliverance from the power of sin (felt most acutely in his fear of death), not from the consequences of sin in judgement and hell. Wesley also knew that the answer lay with the Germans. Thus his subsequent encounter with Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary and later bishop, was not only timely but welcome.

Fruits of Faith

Boehler rightly identified Wesley’s need to rely entirely on faith in Christ rather than on his own works. However, Wesley wanted something more than the knowledge of deliverance from future judgement, and Boehler was able to offer just that! In his journal for the 24th May 1738, the same entry that speaks about his experience in the church at Aldersgate Street, Wesley wrote,

[W]hen Peter Boehler […] affirmed of true faith in Christ … that it had those two fruits inseparably attending it, ‘dominion over sin, and constant peace from a sense of forgiveness’, I was quite amazed, and looked upon it as a new gospel. If this was so, it was clear I had not faith. But I was not willing to be convinced of this […] Nor could I therefore allow it to be the truth till I found some living witnesses of it […] And accordingly the next day he came again with three others, all of whom testified of their own personal experience that a true, living faith in Christ is inseparable from a sense of pardon for all past, and freedom from all present sins. [Emphasis added]

Boehler offers what Wesley desires – ‘constant peace’. But we should also notice that Wesley describes this as ‘a new gospel’, for it adds to forgiveness power over sin. This encounter had taken place in January earlier that year, but Wesley was now ready for his ‘conversion’.

Wesley’s Conversion

Between entering and leaving the church in Aldersgate Street on the 24th May 1738, something certainly happened to John Wesley concerning his salvation. He subsequently wrote,

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.

Wesley has rightly rejected his reliance on his own works. However, the references to ‘assurance’ and to salvation ‘from the law of sin and death’ have a peculiar significance for him, as is shown by further entries for that and the following day:

After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. […] And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror. […] Yet the enemy injected a fear, ‘If thou dost believe, why is there not a more sensible change?’ I answered (yet not I), ‘That I know not. But, this I know, I have ‘now peace with God.’ And I sin not today, and Jesus my Master has forbidden me to take thought for the morrow.’ [Emphasis added]

Wesley had found what he was looking for, namely an awareness of peace, but more than that, he believed he had found the secret of a constant victory over sin.

Evangelicalism

Thus although the Wesleyan movement subsequently led to an Evangelical revival, Wesley’s own understanding of the gospel departed significantly from what might be called Reformed Evangelicalism. Compare, for example, his own attitude to his fear of death with that of Martin Luther, who wrote:

In order that … faith should not remain untested, my Father comes along and allows me to be thrown into prison or to be drowned in water. Then … faith wavers. Our weakness gives rise to the question, ‘Who knows if it is true?’ (LW 54, 9, emphasis added)

Luther asked the same question as Wesley, but he accepted that the shaking of faith is a deliberate action of a loving heavenly Father. Luther also understood that sin, whilst always sinful, was in this life the constant companion even of the redeemed. Hence he wrote to Philip Melanchthon:

If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. (LW 48, 281)

It would be entirely false to say that Luther excused sin, but he understood that, this side of heaven, sin would always indwell the believer. Therefore the keynote of Christian experience was anfechtung – the trial of faith, exemplified in Christ on the cross. By contrast, the ideal keynote for Wesley was victory – the victory of a perfect love which casts out fear and of a faith which provides the ‘double cure’ for sin, saving from both from its guilt and power.

Preaching

The gospel which Wesley preached was therefore a ‘double’ gospel – the old gospel of salvation from the future consequences of sin, which Wesley knew and believed on his way out to America (even though he did not fully appreciate it), and the new gospel of deliverance from the present power of sin, which Wesley experienced as he listened to Luther being read, even though, ironically, it was a ‘gospel’ which Luther himself would have repudiated. Wesley’s theology thus envisaged two stages in the Christian life: salvation by faith which enabled one to be a servant of God and sanctification by faith which empowered one to be a son of God. This was, of course, simply the old goals of Wesley’s Oxford ‘Holy Club’ given a final means of resolution. The doctrine was subsequently enshrined in Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection, a gradually expanded tract which became a best-seller, in which whilst acknowledging that the ‘perfection’ he advocated was rarely attained, Wesley insisted that it was attainable.

Pentecostalism

At the outset, therefore, Methodism sought to bring people into more than a merely saving faith in Christ. Methodist churches were ‘holiness’ churches, preaching a further experience attained by few but urged on all. An unexpected fruit of this teaching was legalism. If full sanctification proved elusive to the majority, the short-cut route was inevitably a legislated moralism. Yet even saving faith was not easily obtained in the holiness movement. Rather, the sinner was urged to ‘pray through’ to achieving a sense of God’s forgiveness – a process which would typically be accompanied by tears and emotional outbursts both before and after it succeeded. And gospel preaching thus anticipated outward evidences, not simply inward faith.

Understandably, however, such intensity was hard to sustain as congregations matured and aged. The result, therefore, particularly in the United States, was a wave of new denominations, each disparaging the lukewarmness of the parent body and re-emphasizing the old-style fervour. As the congregations of North and East-coast America were perceived to become ‘liberal’, particularly in their enthusiasm for European theology, those of the West and South became more radical. From the American Methodist church came, in due time, the National Holiness Association and eventually bodies such as the Fire Baptized Holiness Church. Thus the ground was prepared for the Pentecostal outbreak which took place at Azusa Street in 1906 to sweep through a ready-made audience.

Liberalism

At the same time as the holiness churches were splitting off from it, however, mainstream Methodism came under the influence of the ‘Social Gospel’ movement begun by Washington Gladden, a Congregationalist, and Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist. Superficially, this would appear to be further evidence of the divergence between the two movements. However, Vinson Synan, a historian of the Pentecostal movement, makes a telling observation:

The social gospel movement actually owed a great deal to the perfectionist thought that also produced the holiness movement. […] In a sense the social gospel movement was a logical outcome of the holiness crusade because both groups shared the assumption that people could be perfected.1

Ironically, the very doctrine which had fuelled the initial growth of Methodism now hastened its departure from orthodoxy. And with its repudiation of its theological roots which had become associated with the more extreme aspects of holiness spirituality, it is perhaps not surprising that Methodism easily embraced the intellectual and social respectability of newfound doctrinal liberalism.

Conclusions

We need not doubt that God worked mightily through John Wesley and Methodism, but we may still affirm that God also worked graciously. Wesley’s theology contained serious flaws which, like many theological flaws, caused only a small deviation from the truth during his own life yet led to an increasing departure from orthodoxy with the passage of time. Eventually they resulted in Methodism embracing Liberalism and giving birth to Pentecostalism. The danger of the former is clear. Liberalism has been the death-knell of mainstream Methodism. The danger of the latter is less clear, yet the history of Quakerism with its descent from radical Christianity into ineffable mysticism contains a sober lesson for modern Charismatics.

Thus as we ponder reunion, we should perhaps ask whether it is only to the extent that it has rejected that which made it distinctively ‘Methodist’ that it would be wise to embrace Methodism into the bosom of the Church of England.

John P Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister to the United Benefice of Henham, Elsenham and Ugley.

  1. The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century, Vinson Synan (Grand Rapids: W B Eerdmans, 1997), 47, emphasis added.

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