Remember Aldersgate

by Charles Ludwig (1918-2002)
May/June 1978
Good News

Having been raised in Epworth, and having preached in the parish church many times for his father, John Wesley was quite certain Romley, the young curate, would be delighted to have him either preach or read the prayers.

John Romley, however, thought otherwise.

Although disappointed not to have the opportunity to stand once again in his father’s pulpit, John Wesley returned for the after-service. Since it was rumored that their former curate and admired missionary to Georgia was going to speak, the building was crowded.

Romley, however, had determined to have nothing to do with John Wesley; and so he preached himself. His subject was “Quench not the Spirit.” Speaking in a dynamic way, he assured his listeners that too much enthusiasm had a tendency to quench the Spirit.

After the benediction, Wesley’s friend, John Taylor, positioned himself in the churchyard and told the people that Wesley would preach that evening at six o’clock. In his Journal, John Wesley remembered the occasion: “Accordingly at six I came, and found such a congregation as I believe Epworth never saw before. I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father’s tombstone, and cried, ‘The kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’”

As the overwhelmed congregation listened to the gowned preacher standing on the flat, table-tomb of his father, they knew something wonderful had happened to him. His voice had a new ring; his manner was more convincing than it had been; and it even seemed that he was enveloped by some invisible authority.

Deeply stirred, the people insisted that he remain with them for a time. Wesley responded by preaching in nearby villages to large clusters eager to hear him. His final service was at Epworth on Sunday, June 13, 1742. Again at six p.m. he mounted his father’s tomb and “continued with them for nearly three hours.”

Documenting the occasion, Wesley wrote: “I am well assured that I did far more good by preaching three days on my father’s tomb, than I did preaching three years in his pulpit.”

What made the difference? His heart-warming experience at Aldersgate!

Unfortunately, John Wesley’s experience at Aldersgate is frequently played down – especially in our generation. There are even biographies of Wesley in which Aldersgate is barely mentioned. This is a tragic mistake, for eventually that experience changed the lives of millions. In addition, it probably saved England from the revolution that was soon to bloody the streets of France.

To understand Aldersgate, we must realize that John Wesley left Georgia a discouraged man. Much of this discouragement centered around his rather innocent courtship of Sophy Hopkey. Sophy was somewhat fickle; and thus, although John had considered proposing to her, she married William Williamson before he got around to it!

Thoroughly shaken, Wesley refused to serve Sophy Communion. (He felt justified in this because her marriage banns [public announcement of a forthcoming marriage] had not been read before the wedding as required by law.) Williamson retaliated by suing him for “one thousand pounds sterling.” In despair, Wesley reread the Book of Job – and made out his will!

Soon he was indicted on several counts. The indictments were unbelievably trivial. The most serious were that he had “forced” conversation on Sophy; and that he had barred her from the Lord’s Supper. After appearing in court six or seven times without a verdict, Wesley decided to return to England.

In his Journal he wrote: “… the tide then serving, I shook the dust off my feet and left Georgia, after having preached the gospel there (with much weakness and indeed many infirmities) not as I ought, but as I was able, one year and nine months.”

His ministry in Georgia, however, was not the complete failure he assumed. While there, he published America’s first hymnal and established what has been credited as “America’s first Sunday school.” Nevertheless, he was so disheartened he considered it a complete fiasco. Indeed, he felt so spiritually low he recorded his innermost thoughts in a secret code of his own invention. This code was not broken until 1909!

Upon landing in England on February 1, 1738, he hoped his troubles were over. Instead, he was confronted with a new line of disappointments. The first disappointment was that his old friend, George Whitefield, had sailed for Georgia only the day before. After that, a series of doors were slammed in his face. These are recorded in his Journal. They are to be found among those recorded in May:

Sun. 7 – I preached at St. Lawrence’s in the morning, and afterwards at St. Katherine Cree’s church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both, and was therefore the less surprised at being informed I was not to preach any more in either of these churches.

Sun. 14 – I preached in the morning at St. Ann’s, Aldersgate, and in the afternoon at Savoy chapel. … I was quickly apprised that at St. Ann’s likewise I am to preach no more.

Fri. 19 – I preached at St. John’s, Wapping, at three, and at St. Benet’s, Paul’s Warf, in the evening. At these churches likewise I am to preach no more.

At this point we must remember that Wesley had been deeply impressed with a band of Moravians on his way to Georgia. During a terrible storm when it seemed the ship would sink, these earnest German Christians remained perfectly calm. Indeed, they sang during the whole ordeal. When the storm subsided, he approached one of them. “Were you not afraid?” he asked.

“Thank God, no,” returned the Moravian.

“But were not your women and children afraid?”

Again the answer was, “No.”

Several months later, while working in Georgia, Wesley sought advice from Pastor Spangenberg of the Moravians. With utter frankness, Spangenberg said, “My brother, have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?”

Wesley hesitated. He had no answer.

“Do you know Jesus Christ?” persisted the German.

“I know He is the Savior of the world.”

“True, but do you know He has saved you?”

“I hope He has died to save me.”

“Do you know yourself?” pressed Spangenberg.

“I do,” replied Wesley. But as he later recorded the conversation in his Journal, he added, “But I fear they were vain words.”

Following this conversation, Wesley pondered over what had been said. Like a thorn, the questions worked deeper and deeper into his heart. He could not get rid of them; and while on the way back to England he kept wondering if he was really saved. Then a week after his landing in England he met Peter Bohler – another Moravian!

John and Peter became warm friends. Being scholars, they solved their language barrier by conversing in Latin. When John learned that Peter and his Moravian companions had no place to stay, he secured lodging for them near John Hutton’s place where he himself was staying. This meant the two of them had long discussions about Christianity.

One of the things that disturbed Wesley was that he felt he lacked sufficient faith. Indeed, he was so concerned about this subject he asked Bohler if he should not quit preaching. To this he replied, “By no means.”

“But what can I preach?” asked Wesley.

“Preach faith until you have it,” replied Bohler; “and then because you have it, you will preach faith.”

It sounded simple. But would it work? For a long time he had been convinced that salvation is gained by receiving communion and by doing good works. This being so, he did not believe in deathbed conversions, for how could a person do good works on his deathbed? Bohler having urged him to call on a condemned criminal named Clifford, Wesley decided to experiment. Entering the doomed man’s cell, he boldly preached salvation with a clear emphasis on faith.

About three weeks later, Wesley went with a friend to visit a condemned man in the Castle prison. (His identity is unknown.) After praying with him, “he rose up and eagerly said, ‘I am ready to die. I know Olrist has taken away my sins. …’”

Wesley was both pleased and startled by this response. This is because he was concerned whether or not instant conversion was really possible. Such an idea seemed to him to be most revolutionary.

Convinced by the authority of the Word, he made a study of the problem: “I searched the Scriptures again touching this very thing, particularly the Acts of the Apostles: but to my utter astonishment, found scarce any instances there of other than instantaneous conversions; scarce any so slow of that of St. Paul, who was three days in the pangs of the new birth. I had but one retreat left; namely, ‘Thus, I grant, God wrought in the first ages of Christianity; but the times are changed.’”

The conversion of this convict seemed certain, even though it was instantaneous. Nevertheless, Wesley’s extremely logical brain wanted to be absolutely convinced that a person could be converted within a moment of time. With this thought possessing him, he continued to research his life.

Wesley’s days snail-paced along as he considered his past, sought truth, and considered his seemingly doubtful future. On Wednesday, May 24, he awakened at 5 a.m. and reached for his Greek New Testament. Somehow his eyes were drawn to 2 Peter 1:4, “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.” Later, as he prepared to leave, he again felt impressed to open his New Testament. This time, he read, “Thou art not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

That afternoon he was invited by a friend to attend a service in nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral. Curiously, the anthem was Psalm 130. Backgrounded by the music of Henry Purcell, former organist at Westminster Abbey, the words were: “Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. O let Thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If Thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with Thee; therefore shalt thou be feared. O Israel, trust in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his sins.”

Wesley listened in amazement, for that anthem fitted his need as closely as a glove fits a hand. Was God speaking to him? To Wesley it immediately became apparent that God was seeking to fill a need in his life.

Later that same day, Wesley was invited to a “society in Aldersgate Street.” Since he was staying with the John Huttons, the meeting was not far away. Still, he was reluctant to go. Perhaps he was tired from the long service at St. Paul’s. But one way or another, he was persuaded to go.

Aldersgate is one of London’s older streets. It was named after a gate in the northern wall. No one is certain of the precise address where this meeting was held, but a heavily-researched guess is that it was really at Nettleton Court which was “a narrow byway opening from the east side of Aldersgate.”

It is quite probable that Wesley was invited to the meeting by James Hutton, son of John Hutton. While at this meeting someone – perhaps William Holland – began to read from the preface to Luther’s Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans. John Wesley listened with great concern, for Luther’s words began to bring some puzzling aspects of the Word into focus.

This preface is thought to have been translated by W. W. (William Wilkinson?) and first published in 1594. Here are some passages from that translation which probably seized Wesley’s attention:

  • But true faith is the work of God whereby we are regenerate and born anew by his Spirit. …
  • Faith therefore is a constant truth and a sure confidence of the mercy of God toward us which is lively, and worketh mightily in our hearts ….
  • Neither doth he that hath this faith care greatly whether good works be commanded or not. For though there were no law at all, yet by this lively impulsation working in his heart, he is of his own accord forced and carried to work true and Godly Christian works.

Deeply moved, Wesley noted in his Journal: “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 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.”

How did Wesley respond to this experience? He wrote: “I began to pray with all my might for those who had … despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to  all there what I now first felt in my heart.”

Yes, John Wesley, graduate of Oxford, Fellow of Lincoln College, missionary to Georgia, distinguished writer, and winner of souls, had been converted! Moreover, he himself frequently testified to that fact in very definite terms.

Charles Ludwig (1918-2002) was the author of more than 50 books, including Francis Asbury: God’s Circuit Rider (1984).



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