Thunderstruck: John Wesley and the Ministry of Deliverance —
By Peter J. Bellini —
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12, KJV)
John Wesley not only believed demons exist and encountered them as well, but he also practiced deliverance in his ministry through what he would call “ordinary means.” The father of Methodism employed the same ordinary-extraordinary distinction regarding the work of the Spirit to the practice of deliverance and exorcism.
In his “Letter to the Lord Bishop of Gloucester,” Wesley lists “casting out devils” as one of the chief extraordinary or spiritual gifts. Casting out demons by “extraordinary means” involved the gift of faith. Elsewhere, Wesley separated ordinary, saving faith from the gift of extraordinary faith that works miracles (“Letter to the Rev. Dr. Conyers Middleton”). In his comment on Matthew 12:20, Wesley called this mountain-moving faith “a supernatural persuasion given a man, that God will work thus by him at that hour” (Notes on the New Testament). Consequently, by extraordinary faith, demons may be expelled directly.
Although he did not lay claim to this extraordinary gift, Wesley was convinced that ministers could also expel demons by ordinary means, such as hearing the Word, repentance, prayer, and worship. Wesley would employ these ordinary means in his deliverance ministry.
In his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” Wesley identified two of the ordinary means by which all ministers of Christ may cast out devils: hearing the Word and repentance. “By the power of God attending his word, he brings these sinners to repentance; an entire inward as well as outward change from evil to all good. And this is, in a sound sense, to cast out devils out of the souls wherein they had hitherto dwelt” (Notes on the New Testament, Matthew 12:20).
Striking demonic manifestations would accompany Wesley’s deliverance ministry. Frequently, people under conviction were “thunderstruck” and dropped to the ground in spiritual combat by the power of the Spirit. “Thunderstruck” refers to God’s ‘thunder and lightning’ judging sin and Satan. These encounters were attended by all sorts of peculiar demonic manifestations, such as howling, groaning, roaring, convulsing, speaking in strange voices, and other eerie expressions. However, the result in most cases was repentance, deliverance, and peace with God.
In an April 17, 1739, journal entry, Wesley was preaching from Acts chapter 4, when he asked the Lord to “confirm” his Word. At that very moment, an individual cried out in “the agonies of death.” Wesley and the others present continued fervently in prayer. Two others then joined in, “roaring for the disquietness of their heart.” Not long after, all three found rest. The latter two broke out in praise, and the former was “overwhelmed with joy and love, knowing that God had healed his backslidings.”
While Wesley was preaching at Newgate, several people “dropped on every side as thunderstruck. One of them cried aloud. We besought God in her behalf, and he turned her heaviness into joy. A second being in the same agony, we called upon God for her also; and he spoke peace into her soul. In the evening I was again pressed in spirit to declare, that ‘Christ gave himself a ransom for all.’ And almost before we called upon him to set to his seal, he answered. One was so wounded by the sword of the Spirit, that you would have imagined she could not live a moment. But immediately his abundant kindness was showed, and she sang of his righteousness.”
Thunderstruck! Wesley perceived that the Spirit of God, human will, and demonic powers were all active and engaged during these conflicts. He understood these occurrences as primarily a work of the Holy Spirit, battling against the enemy to claim the person’s soul. Through the preached word, the sword of the Spirit exposes and penetrates the shackled heart. The blow to the stronghold of darkness causes the persons to drop to the ground, or as Wesley frequently described it, they were “thunderstruck,” which is quite a graphic description for an even-tempered man not prone to hyperbole. The battered enemy refuses to release the soul from its clutches. After much convulsing (demonic) and supplicating, the individual finds repentance and relief. Wesley identified these struggles as the “chief times at which Satan is cast out.” With that clear, succinct statement, Wesley acknowledges what is occurring is actually deliverance.
Wesley also often used an image of the sword of the Spirit ‘wounding and healing’ the sinner. One was “struck through, as with a sword, and fell trembling to the ground” (Journal, July 19, 1759). As Wesley would preach, “God was present, both to wound and to heal” (Journal, July 30, 1739). Wound sin and Satan! Heal the soul! The imagery is graphic and violent but appropriate for a battle account.
In his letter to the Bishop of Gloucester, Wesley quotes the Bishop, who is quoting Wesley recounting an instance of a “mass deliverance” during Wesley’s preaching. ‘Mass deliverance’ was a phenomenon that frequently occurred during Wesley’s field preaching: “those who had lately cried out aloud during the preaching. I found this had come upon every one of them in a moment, without any previous notice. In that moment they dropped down, lost all their strength, and were seized with a violent pain. Some said they felt as if a sword were running through them; others, as if their whole body was tearing to pieces. These symptoms I can no more impute to any natural cause, than to the Spirit of God. I make no doubt it was Satan tearing them as they were coming to Christ.”
Wesley speaks directly: “Those outward symptoms which I had met with before, bodily agitations in particular, I did not ascribe to the Spirit of God, but to the natural union of soul and body. And those symptoms which I now ascribe to the devil, I never ascribed to any other cause.”
Wesley’s commentary on the violent dynamics of being thunderstruck suggests that the Spirit of God works conviction through the preached word. The sword of the Spirit pierces the heart and strikes the devil. The person attempts to turn to Christ in repentance. The devil violently digs his clutches into the heart of the person, desperately attempting to maintain his stronghold. Since the body is connected to the soul, in Wesley’s view, there are collateral effects in the body. The person shrieks in pain, cries out, loses balance, and drops to the ground while shuddering, until eventually they are delivered.
While Wesley witnessed deliverance through preaching and repentance, he also witnessed deliverance through other ordinary means of grace, such as prayer and worship. In a journal entry for October 1, 1763, Wesley records a powerful four-and-a-half-hour deliverance session that ended with a woman being set free through corporate prayer and singing. For years, the woman was haunted by a demon that tormented and tempted her to kill her father and herself. She unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide on several occasions. She would often throw raging, violent fits until her brother had her fitted for a “strait waistcoat” that meticulously bound her limbs together and to her bed. Nonetheless, with uncanny strength, she often broke free effortlessly with a mere twisting of her limbs. Her doctor concluded that her condition was “partly natural, partly diabolical.”
One day Wesley came to visit her. He interviewed the woman. She claimed to be possessed of the devil and did not want prayer. Wesley prayed anyway. She convulsed and began to scream in agony, swearing, cursing, and blaspheming God. Wesley did not stop praying until the convulsion and screaming ceased. Two days later, he followed up. Although more lucid and able to pray, the woman still insisted that the devil was going to kill her. Wesley exhorted her to have faith and continued to intercede.
Later, Wesley led a group from 10:30 in the evening until 3:00 in the morning to pray for her deliverance. She was once again restrained and strapped to the bed. She began to roar, convulse, and “bark like a dog.” Wesley painstakingly described her demonic manifestations. Her face was grossly distorted. Her mouth stretched from one side of her face to the other, and her eyes were crossed and bulging out of the sockets. Her convulsing throat and body were swollen as if she would burst. The intercession went on into the morning. Several individuals left, unable to sustain the exhausting battle. Along with the straps of the waistcoat, four men sought to hold the woman down with all their strength (reminiscent of the Gadarene man).
The more that they prayed, the more violent she became. Suddenly, she had a vision of the tormenting demon and began to cry out to God. Then, the group felt led to worship and sing. The Spirit fell mightily. She continued to cry out for deliverance and the power to believe. Immediately, she became quiet. Wesley invited her to sing a hymn with the words,
“O Sun of Righteousness, arise With healing in the wing/ To my diseased, my fainting soul Life and salvation bring.”
At 2:30 a.m., the demon said he would kill the woman, but “instead of a tormentor, he sent a comforter. Jesus appeared to her soul and rebuked the enemy … and she mightily rejoiced in the God of her salvation,” Wesley exclaimed!
She was fully delivered, set free, and saved through the power of intercession and song. Praise God!
Peter J. Bellini is Professor of Church Renewal and Evangelization in the Heisel Chair at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of several books, including, Thunderstruck! The Deliverance Ministry of John Wesley Today. This adaptation is taken from that book by permission. It is available through Amazon. Photo: John Wesley statue outside Wesley Church in Melbourne, Australia. It was sculpted by the British sculptor Paul Raphael Montford in 1935. Photo: public domain.