On May 24, 1738, a discouraged young Anglican priest went to a prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street in London. It was a day just like any other, and he wasn’t particularly excited about attending this particular meeting. As he wrote in his journal:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street…
where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.
It was, he thought, yet another attempt to try to find out what God had planned for his life, and to try to work his way into God’s good graces. This young man had experienced quite a bit of disappointment in his lifetime. His father, who had also been a priest, had been largely unsuccessful, and died in 1735, leaving his son to finish a book he had started on Job. He had escaped to America in 1736, to become a chaplain to the people of the colony of Georgia, but had proved to be a terrible frontier pastor, and had gotten himself entangled in controversy when he refused to serve communion to a woman and her entire family, when the woman in question had fallen in love with another man and married him. He was eventually run out of Georgia under threat of a grand jury indictment, and on the ship back to England had written,
I went to America to save the Indians, but O! who will save my soul?
On board that same ship, he had met some Moravian Christians, whose faith in God in the midst of a terrible storm had impressed him. It was a Moravian meeting to which he went on the night on May 24th.
The reading in question was from Martin Luther’s introduction to Romans, which reads, in part:
Faith is not that human illusion and dream that some people think it is. When they hear and talk a lot about faith and yet see that no moral improvement and no good works result from it, they fall into error and say, “Faith is not enough. You must do works if you want to be virtuous and get to heaven.” The result is that, when they hear the Gospel, they stumble and make for themselves with their own powers a concept in their hearts which says, “I believe.” This concept they hold to be true faith. But since it is a human fabrication and thought and not an experience of the heart, it accomplishes nothing, and there follows no improvement.
Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God (cf. John 1). It kills the old Adam, makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. What a living, creative, active powerful thing is faith! It is impossible that faith ever stop doing good. Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but, before it is asked, it has done them. It is always active. Whoever doesn’t do such works is without faith; he gropes and searches about him for faith and good works but doesn’t know what faith or good works are.
While listening to these words, the young man had a spiritual experience that he describe as a feeling that his heart had been “strangely warmed,” and he wrote:
I felt I did trust in 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.
After this experience, the young priest, now filled with assurance of his salvation in God, ran down the street to another meeting, where his brother, who had felt a similar experience just three days before, was with some of their mutual friends. Bursting through the door, he exclaimed, “I believe!” At this, the men at the meeting hoisted him up on their shoulders and paraded him down the street, perhaps singing the hymn his brother had written about his own conversion experience:
O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great redeemer’s praise!
The glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace.
The young man in this story, of course, was John Wesley, and his brother was Charles.
John Wesley, founder of Methodism
(Not a particularly handsome man, but a godly man nonetheless)
From that sacred moment at Aldersgate, John and Charles Wesley grew a movement, first within the Anglican Church, and then without, which became what is known today at Methodism. Founded upon the idea that God’s grace is sufficient for all of us, and that God continually works within us, calling us to become more loving, more caring, more giving–more like God–the Methodist movement has spread throughout the world. It is a movement that emphasizes helping those who are in need–the least, lost and lonely of the world–all to the glory of God. It is a movement that reveres the Word of God, and interprets the Bible through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. It is a movement that values an educated and trained laity and clergy, and has built or sponsored hundreds of hospitals, schools, and universities (including the one I now work for!). And it all came from the frustrated young man who went to Aldersgate Street out of a sense of obligation to be there, and who left the meeting with a life-changing sense of the surety and steadfastness of God’s grace.
So what can we learn from Aldersgate Day? For one thing, never fool yourself into thinking that God can’t work within you just because you’re not “feeling it.” Wesley emphasized (as in his sermon on “The Duty of Constant Communion”) that God’s work doesn’t depend on how we feel, but on God’s grace at work in us, around us, and through us. This is a great relief to every lay person who’s ever gone to church grudgingly, or every preacher who’s ever given a sermon that s/he thought was a bomb. God works through lazy lay folk and lousy preachers!
Second, Wesley’s Aldersgate experience teaches us that we should never close our minds to something just because it’s not from our tradition, or not our “taste.” As an Anglican, Wesley really didn’t have much use or need for Luther. The English Reformation was very different in character than the German one, so Luther’s influence was not as widely felt there as it was in many other parts of Western Europe. The Moravians were from a part of Europe that Wesley was unfamiliar with, and the way they practiced their faith was much different from his own. If he had wanted, Wesley could have discounted the Moravians, and their pietistic practices. Instead, he chose to immerse himself in their ways, to come along side them and see what they could teach him. In the same way, there are many different types of people in the world today, and we have opportunities to interact with other traditions in ways that Wesley couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams. We do ourselves–and our faith–a disservice if we do not avail ourselves of every opportunity to stretch our thinking or our faith practices beyond what we already know. Without stretching beyond our comfort zones, there is no growth in faith.
Finally, John Wesley’s heart-warming experience reminds us to always be aware of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit. You never know what (or whom) God will use to nudge you to grow in your faith. The Holy Spirit is like a butterfly–if you look hard, search, and try to catch the Spirit, you will more often than not come up empty-handed. But, if you sit still, and listen, and wait patiently, the Spirit will show up and surprise you with the beauty, wonder, and awesomeness of God.
May you find God’s Spirit in your life on this Aldersgate day, and may your heart be “strangely warmed” as you experience the changes God’s grace brings to your life.