John Wesley’s ‘conversion’
LONDON — Wednesday May 24, 1738 – the date that John Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” at a meeting he attended in London’s Aldersgate Street – has always been regarded as an important date in the Methodist calendar.
In 1988 we celebrated what was initially publicised as “The 250th Anniversary of John Wesley’s Conversion”. In fact, the title for that year’s celebrations was quickly changed to include his younger brother Charles, and the wording altered to “The Conversion of the Wesleys”. Rightly so, since whatever John had experienced on the Wednesday, Charles had encountered something similar on the previous Sunday.
However, the word “conversion” has caused problems ever since. Both John and Charles used the word “conversion” without the modern tendency to use quotation marks to indicate some degree of qualification, since they assumed everyone would understand what they meant. Different branches of the church tend to see the term in different senses nowadays. Some see the process in classic evangelical terms – as a relatively sharp transition from salvation by works to salvation by faith. Others, who hold what one might call a “Catholic” view, regard this definition as being too limited in scope.
So what was John Wesley converted from? And what to? Certainly not from an unbeliever into a Christian; neither from a reprobate into a model citizen; nor from an Anglican into a Methodist!
Thirteen years earlier, when he became ordained as deacon in the Church of England, he wrote: “In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words and actions.” Hardly the words of an uncommitted Christian.
Wesley was a decent, respectable Anglican clergyman. Between 1725 and 1738 he was nothing less than a devout, conscientious, hard-working servant of God. In fact, if he wasn’t, then what are we to make of the faith of millions of people today who call themselves Christians? Even John, who made remarkably little reference to his Aldersgate experience in subsequent writings, seemed to feel that he had over-emphasised his lack of faith prior to 1738.
Indeed, both he and Charles tended to write about their own spiritual state in exaggerated terms, and their mother Susanna gently (but firmly) pointed out that, in her considered opinion, it was not that the brothers were devoid of faith before May 1738, but rather their spiritual crisis had enabled them to appreciate the grace of God that was already present in their lives.
Something had been lacking, of course. Dr John Newton neatly summed up John Wesley’s condition by saying that “he had a will of iron, great physical toughness, and one of the best education through scholarships, that the 18th century could give. And because all these varied gifts were bound together by religious zeal, John Wesley had the makings of a first-class – pharisee”.
What Wesley lacked – and what he longed for – was a personal assurance of the forgiving love of God for him. During the meeting at Aldersgate Street, as he afterwards wrote, “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.” He had found peace of mind at last, or – as we would say today, perhaps – “the penny dropped”.
Whatever one’s views of the precise nature of “conversion”, the fact remains that May 24 marked an important theological, as well as a psychological, turning point in Wesley’s life. Being released from the introspection that had characterised his earlier years, he was now able to combine the notion of personal holiness with personal faith. It was as if he now had the best of both worlds. His deep concern for holiness and the importance of sacramental life was now integrated with a fervour and a simplicity of faith in the grace of God.
Like his brother, John had surely been a Christian before 1738, but from henceforth, with peace and joy in his heart, he was a happier one. — Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes, used by permission of the Methodist Publishing House.
The Rev Barrie Tabraham wrote this article for Flame.
THE TURNING POINT
‘Whatever one’s views of the precise nature of “conversion”, the fact remains that May 24 marked an important theological, as well as a psychological, turning point in Wesley’s life.’