Aldersgate and Pentecost

I asked my Baptist colleagues today if they had any idea what day in the church calendar happened on Monday of this week. They knew Sunday was Pentecost, but even with the clue "24 May, 1738" couldn't work out what event the Monday marked. In fact, Aldersgate Day - the date when John Wesley's heart was "strangely warmed" - doesn't always occur just after Pentecost, but to me it is especially meaningful that it occasionally does so.

Eighteenth-century English cleric John Wesley founded the Methodist movement in Bristol, England, when he took to open-air preaching in a highly successful evangelistic ministry which encouraged people to experience Jesus Christ personally. The movement brought thousands of men and women to Christian faith and spiritual renewal , and eventually became a separate denomination. Methodism as a grassroots Christian discipleship programme with a highly developed social conscience would transform British society, and eventually span the world.

Some of you know the story well. Like his father, John Wesley was an Anglican minister with a gift for persuasive preaching. He studied at Oxford University where he developed a hunger for holiness that drew him and others like George Whitefield to form a systematic and accountable Christian community. They met regularly to study the Bible and serve the needy, and ensured no time was wasted by keeping a methodical accounting of their daily activities. At first they were labeled the Bible Bigots or the Holy Club – but later their methodical approach to study and service led to the name Methodists being the one that stuck.

John had a heart for mission, and in 1735 traveled to America to minister to the 'Indians', But his efforts were unrewarding. He returned to England knowing that something was missing from his faith. He wrote in his diary in 1737 “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh! who shall convert me?” On the ship he had met a group of Moravian Christians whose lively faith impressed him deeply. One of them had shared with him about experiencing salvation, and advised him to ‘keep preaching the faith’ until he had that experience. And so he did, though he struggled with doubt.

One night after a heavy-hearted time of prayer at St Paul’s Church in London, he went to a Bible study meeting in Aldersgate Street. During the meeting – at a quarter to nine - John experienced what is sometimes called his conversion:

“I felt my heart was strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for my salvation.”

He felt assured his sins were forgiven and later he stood and testified to the change in his spirit. From then on, he began preaching an evangelical message to all who would listen. Just like the disciples whose hearts burned on the Emmaus Road, he had at last understood - apprehended - the meaning of the gospel. Just like the apostles at Pentecost, he had been motivated and empowered by the spirit with a new boldness and confidence in the message of salvation.

Traditionally Methodists have called this experience John's conversion, but that doesn't sit well with me. He was a follower of Jesus going back many years, had responded to a call to ordained ministry, and offered himself for missionary service in foreign land. Clearly God was at work in his life, yet he knew there was more of God to have, or more of him for God to have. His physical/emotional/spiritual experience at Aldersgate brought about a more complete knowing, a more profound submission. Although 'conversion' is not an inappropriate term for this transformation, it can imply that he was a faithless pagan before it. I suggest that what he describes in his journal resembles at many points what twentieth-century Christians experienced as 'a/the Baptism of the Spirit'. Being drenched in the Spirit is a good description of that 'penny-dropping' awareness and apprehension that comes when a believer realises that the very same resurrection power that raised Jesus to life is also at work in our daily experience. That's why there is a nice synchronicity when Wesley Day comes at the same time as Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit changed lives in the first century, by convincing disciples that Jesus' presence and power was still readily available to equip and empower them for mission. The same Spirit changed John Wesley’s life. This was, in England and Wales, a time of revival. The open air preacher George Whitefield – yes the same one who had been in the Holy Club at Oxford - was having a huge impact for Christ among the rough coal miners of Bristol. He encouraged his old friend to take over the ministry – though at first John was not comfortable about preaching out doors. Later he wrote

“I had been so tenacious at every point relative to decency and order that I would have thought the saving of a soul almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

But he soon found that ‘field preaching’ was a very effective method. He was a pragmatist and if something worked, he recommended it; one of the principles he later taught was a two-edged policy:
If an approach ought to work but doesn’t, scuttle it - even if you like it!
If your method is effective use it to the hilt - even if you don’t like it!!

Open air campaigning was for Wesley highly effective. From his first out of doors congregation of 3000 in Kingswood Bristol (where we lived in 1989!), he went on to travel 225,000 miles and preach 40,000 sermons. Over 140,000 people – enthusiastic new Christians and spiritually-renewed Anglicans – joined his movement. They discovered a new meaning and purpose - a new love – in the faith communities of Methodism.
These days in New Zealand, Wesley's passion is carried on by two denominations - the New Zealand Methodists and the more recently formed Wesleyan Church. The former seems to place its emphasis on the social justice dimension of Wesley's preaching, and the latter is more concerned with personal spirituality. But both would share that historic apprehension at Aldersgate, that Christ is to be trusted to bring about 'peace with God', and that to follow him is to "love God with all one's heart, soul, mind and strength."

To Chew Over: Was there a moment when you apprehended in a new or deeper way the Holy Spirit birthed conviction that 'Christ alone is to be trusted' for salvation? How was that experience transforming of your daily Christian life?

This day so strangely changed a man,whose heart was warmed by what he heard,
that from that moment all the world would echo to his word.
A man so certain of his cause,so sure of what was wrong and right,
who countered every change or chance that might divert his sight.
A man compelled by God to preach,to take the cause of those condemned,
to love the poor, to plead their right, and never to be stemmed.
Ride on, through all the world, ride on and emulate your founder's deeds,
sing out with all your heart, sing out and meet the people's needs;
As sure and certain of your God,as diligent in praise and prayer,
your main concern: the gospel theme,the world your cause and care.
Andrew Pratt© 2004 Stainer & Bell Ltd.
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