Every United Methodist church is being challenged to become a “vital congregation.” For many, this is like pushing a snowball uphill as their strength is threatened by the ravages of aging membership and a sad track record in what our Book of Discipline defines as the mission of the local church—making disciples.
As we engage in this task, let us start by looking more deeply into the “quarry from which we were dug” (Isaiah 51:1). That “quarry” invariably brings us to Aldersgate. Your response probably is, “Here we go again.” The truth is that this is an old mine shaft worth reopening because “There’s gold in them thar hills.”
Aldersgate is uniquely Wesleyan. We see the word in many places in every generation of “the people called Methodists” and our heritage cousins. More than our filial and spiritual ties with Wesley’s “strangely warmed heart” on Aldersgate Street, May 24, 1738, we need to reconsider Aldersgate as a key to the revitalization of our churches and the renewal of our own experience of what Paul repeatedly called being “in Christ.”
The first part of our inquiry is to get the history straight, to separate fact from lore. The second part is to explore, “What is that to me?”
Dr. Roberta Bondi, professor emeritus of church history at Candler School of Theology, provides this interesting insight into Aldersgate: “United Methodists have a problem with human complexity. We canonize the ‘simple shepherds,’ the ‘innocent Mary,’ our youth camp or revival experiences, the older saints in our family or church who (apparently) embodied a perfect trust in God. We fantasize about people who pray with so much trust that God will grant their requests. The flip side of this is our own guilt that we ought to have lives and hearts free of ambiguities. We ought not to have family conflicts, trouble with children, divorces, difficulties with parents, job losses, money issues, even illnesses.”
In our sermons we often ignore the reality of our own journey as preachers and project images of happiness, innocence, success and utmost church loyalty. Dr. Bondi continues, “Real ambiguities in our lives embarrass us in front of each other and shame us so much that many people stay away from our churches. . . .” We can be helped and we can help others in their spiritual journey if we look at Aldersgate more through Wesley’s own writings than though those who insist on doctrinal stereotyping.
How many of us feel guilty because we have not had an experience like the Aldersgate described by others? Most of those references imply, if not insist, that when Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed,” he was brought to a new and permanent plateau of inner peace, effervescent joy and unquestioning faith in Jesus as his savior and Lord. That might “preach well,” but it is not accurate if we are to believe Wesley’s own diary and journal. We must read authors who have studied those writings and not simply made Wesley a larger-than-life icon.
First, let us properly place Aldersgate in the chronology of Wesley’s life. It was the climax of three years during which Wesley was almost an “understudy” for the Moravians. From his first impressions of their strong piety on board the ship to Georgia in 1735, Wesley sought the deep sense of inner peace he so admired in them. He defined it as “the image of God fresh stamped on the heart; the entire renewal of the mind in every temper and thought. . . .”
And yet, while Moravians would not tolerate the terms “weak faith” and “strong faith,” Wesley was a student of the Enlightenment, known as the “age of reason.” He could not allow his heart to betray his head. Wesley’s analytical observations convinced him that “while grace reigned, sin remained.” Aldersgate was not the end of any doubt and fear. Wesley’s two sermons on “The Witness of the Spirit” provide the key to a Methodist understanding of salvation, but Wesley believed that “assurance . . . is given to some in a smaller, to others in a larger degree.” Assurance was, to him, a daily trust in God’s love and a confident conviction of pardon from one’s sin. Also, Arminian that he was, he always warned of the possibility of backsliding, or “falling from grace.”
The aftermath of Aldersgate was not a spiritual Camelot. His older brother, Samuel Jr., never accepted the Methodist movement. In July 1740, after two tumultuous years, Wesley broke for the final time with the Moravians. He and his brother in faith, George Whitefield, parted theological paths when Whitefield became a Calvinist. And John’s relationship with his beloved brother was strained to the breaking point when Charles—opposed to John being wed—persuaded Grace Murray to jilt him and marry another man. John Pollock, a Wesley biographer, opined of John’s relationship with Charles, “their trust in each other could no longer be absolute.”
If we are to experience renewal in local churches, we cannot receive a new baptism of spirit unless we, like our founder, admit our own struggles. Acknowledging these ruptured relationships in Wesley’s life makes us more willing to work through the conflicts in our own.
In writing of his own faith post-Aldersgate, Wesley was much more honest than thousands of preachers and authors have been regarding their “victory in Jesus.” Yes, he continued to “preach faith,” but on Oct. 16, 1738, he wrote in his diary: “I still hanker after creature happiness. . . . I have more pleasure in eating and drink, and in the company of those I love, than I have in God. I have a relish for earthly happiness. I savour the things of men, not the things of God. . . . I see neither myself nor happiness, nor holiness, but by a natural light, acquired in a natural way by conversing, reading, or meditation. I have not spiritual light. I have not the supernatural light. I am not taught of God.”
Have you read those words of Wesley’s before?
I am not belittling the man whose words and works I read almost daily, and have for half a century. I pass them to you here because our pews and pulpits are filled with Christians who have never dreamed that John Wesley shared some of their own struggles.
We know of the powerful way in which God used Wesley. We know of the marvelous beginnings of the Methodist movement in England and the phenomenal growth and influence of Methodism in America. If we can also understand the “clay feet” of Wesley and the early Methodists, we might take heart. We might be encouraged, empowered and enlivened. Therefore, a major reason for reconsidering Aldersgate here is to tap this resource in our own spiritual journey.
Richard Heitzenrater, probably the world’s pre-eminent authority on Wesley’s writings, raises this question: “Given Wesley’s philosophical tendencies, what was he looking for as the evidence that he was really a Christian?” This leads Dr. Heitzenrater to some additional questions (slightly abbreviated here):
1) How is “Christian” to be defined?
2) How does one become a Christian (this entails weighing essentials such as grace, faith, good works and the work of the Holy Spirit)?
3) How does one know that he or she is a Christian? What are the grounds of certainty? What is the internal and external evidence that can verify our being a Christian?
Dr. Heitzenrater is convinced that, “In all these areas, Wesley’s views changed over the years. We cannot fully understand Aldersgate without recognizing where Wesley stood on each of these issues at that time in the light of how he got to that point and where he went from there.”
In the 1960s Albert Outler, the pioneer scholar in rediscovering Wesley, noted that the Aldersgate story, as such, drops out of Wesley’s writings after 1740. According to Dr. Heitzenrater, Wesley “did not hearken back to Aldersgate as the model experience to be universalized. Rather, his subsequent attempts to explain that evening in the context of his continuing spiritual pilgrimage . . . eventually helped shape his own mature understanding and explanation of the Scripture way of salvation.”
In the next several columns, my hope is to move beyond the standard interpretation of Aldersgate and connect it firmly to the journeys we ourselves describe as we seek to bring “pre-churched” and “ex-churched” children of God to a vibrant faith in Christ. If we look at Aldersgate through Wesley’s eyes of “experimental divinity” rather than building it into an almost unattainable seventh-heaven grace experience, then—perhaps through small-group studies—we will begin a personal pilgrimage, or a transformational journey to congregational vitality. Stay tuned!
Dr. Haynes, a retired UM clergyman, is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.