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 Issues | Church History | John Wesley


Great Churchmen (No 7)

John Wesley

by W Leathem

That Night of Nights

A responsible historian has said that May 24th, 1738, is the most important in modern history. (For further reading on the Wesleys conversion see the excellent study, The Conversion of the Wesleys by J.E.Rattenbury.) Perhaps he could have maintained his sense of responsibility and extended his boundaries, even to the date that everybody knows, even if they don't know anything else - 1066 and all that!  However, be that as it may, it does not immediately concern us. Our interest is to discover the significance of that day in May in relation to the man it most concerns, namely John Wesley himself.

Strangely enough there are those with us to-day who deny the meaning and importance which Wesley's immediate followers, and most of his biographers, attach to it. Some would even deny that he attached much importance to it himself; indeed, that he might readily have forgotten it as only one among a thousand impressions, religious and otherwise.  The present importance of the date is due almost entirely to the early Methodists who created the experience to explain the Revival. This attitude is very similar to that taken up by the extreme schools of liberal theology who sharply distinguish between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of dogma,” claiming that the one is a simple historical person, whilst the other is the creation of Paul and the primitive Church. This remarkable conclusion is reached by a setting aside of all evidence which dashes with a pre-conceived theory, and the adroit manoeuvring of the remaining evidence until it fits where it is wanted. This view, that May 24th 1738 is of little significance for the understanding of Wesley, or that its significance is not what Methodist tradition has made it, is the view-point of Roman Catholic writers, and some modern psychologists, who find in Wesley, and particularly in his conversion, what they might term “a good study.”

The Roman Catholic aversion from the commonly-accepted interpretation of May 24th is easily understood when one considers the impossibility of fitting “instantaneous conversion” into the mechanical Catholic conception of grace. Grace is received in Baptism, increased in Confirmation, improved by Masses, whilst the channels are kept dear by regular application of the sacramental system of Penance, Confession, and priestly Absolution. At the hour of death Extreme Unction is the final application of this grace to the soul as preparatory for Purgatory. Above all else it must be remembered that these means of grace are the sole preserve of the Roman Catholic Church. All others are worthless imitations or unauthorized alternatives. Furthermore, the whole Roman idea of grace and its reception is closely associated with the idea of human, and even accumulated, merit. On the other hand the Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith (which denies the saving virtue of good works done before conversion, and which interprets works done after conversion as the fruit of faith and not a co-equal ground of justification) and Wesley's emphasis on the New Birth (as the untrammelled action of the Spirit upon the heart of man) are contrary to the fundamental concept of Roman Catholicism and render inexplicable Wesley's conversion experience to those who accept its premises.

The humanistic psychologist is also at a disadvantage, because he lacks the necessary apparatus to measure the subject of his enquiry. In order to bring it within the scope of his powers he reduces the subject instead of procuring a bigger measuring line! What was said to Southey may be repeated to him: “Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with and the well is deep.”

The root of his failure is his application of the evolutionary hypothesis beyond all reasonable limits. He applies to the mind and spirit of man what may be legitimately and tentatively applied only to physical forms of life and matter.  Moreover he assumes that God is Himself within the evolutionary process. Such ideas are, of course, destructive of the very possibility of understanding the Christian meaning either of revelation or of essential Christian experience. The God who becomes incarnate in Christ and who breaks in upon human life by the Holy Spirit is an intruder in the world of the naturalistic psychologist. If evolution explains all, there is neither place nor need for a religion of incarnation and atonement. The Evangelical explanation of the dark dungeon which “flamed with light”, and of the heart from which the chains of habit and desire were struck off as by an unseen and supernatural power, is wholly beyond his knowledge.

From these inadequate interpretations of Wesley's Evangelical Conversion we, turn to the traditional Protestant explanation, and take a hurried glance at it from the point of view of Methodist tradition, Wesley's own explanation of it, and St. Paul's conversion which so closely resembles it.

The Methodist tradition is unmistakable and unequivocal. The soul of Methodism is its testimony to the experience of the “warmed heart.”  It might be said that Methodism would be hard pushed to justify itself on any other ground than its insistence on the inner witness of the Spirit as understood by Wesley. This is its supreme, if not sole, raison d’être.  This tradition has never been shaken. Nor is it a hoary tradition with the attendant chances of mistakes entering into it, for it is probable that there are Methodist ministers alive to-day who knew those who in turn knew Wesley personally.

Furthermore it was received from John Wesley himself, who declared its significance plainly and frequently, as recorded in the Letters and Journal. Writing to his brother Samuel on October 30th, 1738, he says (The Letters, Vol 1. pp. 262-3.): “With regard to my own character and my doctrine likewise, I shall answer you very plainly. By a Christian I mean one who so believes in Christ as that sin has no more dominion over him; and in this obvious sense I was not a Christian till May, the 24th last. For till then sin had dominion over me, although I fought with it continually; but surely then, from that time to this it hath not, such is the free grace of God in Christ. . . . If you ask me by what means I am made free (though not perfect, neither infallibly sure of my perseverance) I answer, By faith in Christ; by such a degree of faith as I had not till that day. “There are many similar references to this crucial date, all witnessing to the fact that in Wesley's mind it has the key to his life.

There is much interpretative value in St. Paul's conversion.  St. Paul's experience, before, and in, and after, the momentous happening on the Damascus Road, is strikingly similar  to Wesley's. There is the same picture-the deeply religious background, the zealous churchman, the ascetic, the missionary. Then comes the central experience, bringing deliverance from the sense of utter frustration which, had dominated their best efforts hitherto. What follows bears the same correspondence-a glad sense of inner release and an intense urge to share the victory with all mankind. When St. Paul said “I saw a light. . . . I heard a voice,” he is but forestalling Wesley's “I felt my heart strangely warmed . . . an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine.” (See H. Bett’s The Spirit of Methodism (pp 29-31) for a good conjecture as to the exact passage being read at the time from Luther’s Preface to the Romans.)  Furthermore, and this is of special value, St. Paul bore witness to the supreme importance of his conversion as the turning-point of his life. These two experiences stand or fall together.

It seems no exaggeration to say that one can as little understand the Evangelical Revival, apart from that day in May, as understand the Christian Church apart from Easter Day.

It remains to attempt a brief explanation of what Evangelical conversion really means. It must be understood against the background of Wesley's - and St. Paul's - life prior to the event. That life was life at its highest and best if judged on any other plane than that of Christian experience. By Christian experience we mean something quite different from the acceptance of Christian truth as expressed in a formula or of the Christian ethic as a code of conduct.  For Wesley, conversion which was only moral, or even ecclesiastical, had no new message at this juncture of his life. He had tried them and was still unsatisfied and despairing. He spoke of his futile attempts to convert the Indians whilst he needed converting himself. Evangelical conversion is, we repeat, something else and something higher. It is from above whilst everything else is on our own level. It is essentially of the heavenly or supernatural order, whilst all other “conversions” are fundamentally  “of the earth, earthy.”  It is “the pardoning grace of God given only to men who come to Him in self-despair.”  In the last analysis it is a divine gift and not a human attainment. It is the unbought, unmerited, and unspeakable gift of God, indispensable to men be they virtuous or vile, religious or un-godly. It levels all to the plane of self-despair. It lifts all to the level of a new life which is hid with Christ in God. It is in this experience of  “the Life of God in the soul of man” that we must seek the explanation of the life and work of John Wesley.

But we can go back much farther.


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