(John Wesley, the Methodists and What Happened on May 24, 1738?)
May 1, 2022 | View PDF
John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement back in the 1700s, impacted the world and the church in ways that many people, even Christians, don’t really understand. Most haven’t a clue who John Wesley was, and many Christians have no idea the influence that his teachings, his thoughts, and his writings still have upon the church today. The Methodist movement later became the Methodist church and the Wesleyan churches around the world, but Wesley’s influence was far greater than just the Methodist and Wesleyan denominations. Like no one else before him, Wesley used social work to model what he preached. The message of the Gospel of grace combined with his actions influenced Christ followers around the world to minister to the least, the last, the lost. Wesley gave the world a great gift; he articulated the ways we can experience the power of God’s grace!
Wesley was born June 17, 1703, in Epworth, England. His father, Samuel, was a priest in the Church of England. His mother, Susanna, gave birth to nineteen children, nine of whom died as infants. In 1709, the Wesley’s parsonage caught on fire during the night. The entire family was at home, and they all escaped except for little John, who was trapped on the top floor. This was a three-story house with a thatched roof, and it was quickly engulfed in flames.
Five-year-old John came to the window as his horrified family watched. He was about to be burned alive. In a final desperate act to save the child, the men of the village began climbing one on top of the other to get to him, and he was miraculously saved. His mother, quoting from the Book of Amos, always said that her John was a “brand plucked from the burning” for some special purpose of God. When he was older, he would see this event as a metaphor for being saved from the flames of hell.
Along with his brothers Charles and Samuel, Wesley felt the call to the priesthood, and in 1732, he left home to study at Oxford University. While there, the brothers formed what they called the “Holy Club”. (Incidentally, another member of that Holy Club was George Whitefield, who later became a famous evangelist in both England and the American colonies and was the best friend of Benjamin Franklin.) The members of the Holy Club became lifelong friends. They met every morning at 4:30 for prayer. They fasted, studied the Bible together, visited prisoners, and visited the sick, all while completing their college studies and participating in other extracurricular activities.
Fellow college students noticed how methodical they were about their religious practices and began making fun of them. Remember, this was Oxford University, a typical college environment, where students liked to party just as they do today. These straight-laced guys in the Holy Club would have stuck out like a sore thumb and were probably viewed as religious nerds. Their fellow students jokingly came up with a name for them, calling them “methodists” as a putdown.
John Wesley and his friends took it all in good humor, a sign of spiritually healthy folks, and they started referring to themselves as “Methodists.” For you Methodists out there, that’s how you came to be called a Methodist!
After he graduated from seminary, Wesley received an invitation from General James Oglethorpe to go to the new world and serve as a missionary to the Native Americans on Georgia’s coast. Believing it to be a call from God, he set sail in 1736 on a ship called the Simmonds. Wesley had the head knowledge for the word of God, but despite being called to be a priest, he had not yet accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior in his heart. He knew the message, and he was trying to practice it, but like many people, he was trying to please God through his good works and his right beliefs. It wasn’t working! Wesley realized during the voyage he lacked assurance of salvation. As the ship sailed across the Atlantic, it encountered five storms, one of which was said to be a hurricane. Many of the passengers and crew, Wesley included, feared for their lives. While the waves crashed over the ship and the wind howled, he cowered in the hold, and like almost everyone else on board, he was seasick.
Traveling on the same ship was a group of Moravian Christians who had also been called to serve as missionaries. While Wesley was trembling and afraid, the Moravian Christians were moving around on the deck and in the hold of the ship ministering to the people on board. Wesley was troubled by this. He thought to himself, I’m a pastor. I should be out there helping people, but here I am huddled in the corner, throwing up, trembling and afraid of dying.
When the ship arrived in Savannah, General Oglethorpe went ashore and returned with the leader of the Moravians in the new world, a man named August Spangenberg. Wesley complimented his fellow travelers to Spangenberg and said he wished to be more like them.
This experience at sea bothered Wesley. It rocked his world and turned his relationship with God upside down. He realized he didn’t have assurance of his salvation or of life eternal. He continued to grapple with this as he began his missionary work in Georgia, attempting to minister to the settlers and the Native Americans with these lingering doubts and serious questions about his own relationship with God.
Wesley was a prim and proper British man of relatively small stature (probably about five foot two) whose Holy-Club-at-Oxford way of doing things didn’t work with the Southerners in Georgia. From the start, he couldn’t seem to connect with the rough-hewn settlers or with the Native Americans. The chemistry wasn’t there!
Due to a broken heart (because of a failed relationship with a woman that Wesley loved) and feeling like a failure as a missionary, Wesley decided to return to England.
During his voyage back to England, he wrote in his Journal, “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! Who shall convert me? Who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of mischief?” (47)
Wesley arrived in England depressed, thinking about leaving the ministry, and not knowing what to do.
A few months later, he was invited by some friends to go to a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London. It was May 24, 1738. Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans was the topic of study that evening.
As Wesley joined with others in studying the Book of Romans, God touched his heart, and he finally had his conversion experience. In fact, he wrote these words in his Journal about that night:
In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society on 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 my 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. (56, 57)
John Wesley’s life was transformed from that point forward. He would never be the same. Along with his brother Charles, who was recovered from his illness and who had already had a similar experience, John began to preach on the streets and in the fields, catching people as they headed to and from work. He preached all over the British Isles. In fact, in his lifetime, he rode over 250,000 miles around England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland on horseback. He preached over 40,000 sermons – approximately eight hundred every year – and it is primarily from these sermons that we read and learn about the ways we can experience the power of God’s grace. This was the beginning of the Methodist Movement in England. Eventually, it spread from England to America and then to all the world, but it all started that night on Aldersgate Street when John Wesley came to experience God’s grace. He ultimately led multitudes to a relationship with God through Christ by telling them about God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.