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Sunday 24 May 2020: Wesley Day


Isaiah 12:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20

By Michael Hopkins

United Reformed Church Minister serving a group of Methodist and United Reformed Churches around Farnham, Surrey; Clerk of the United Reformed Church General Assembly

Context: a mainstream Free Church service where the theme is the commemoration of the Wesleys

Aim: to encourage Christians on their faith journey

24 May is as close as you get to a holy day in Methodism, because 24 May 1738 was the day on which John Wesley’s heart was ‘strangely warmed.’ He was at a house in Aldersgate Street that evening, and so 24 May is celebrated throughout Methodism as Aldersgate Sunday.

It’s significant that 24 May does not commemorate a birth or a death, but a spiritual experience. An anxious young clergyman called John Wesley had recently returned from a two-year appointment as missionary in the American colony of Georgia. This had ended as an embarrassing failure and caused John to question his vocation as a minister, and indeed whether he was truly a Christian at all.

That afternoon John attended evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, where he heard the anthem: ‘Out of the depths have I cried unto thee.’ This is how he describes what happened next:

‘In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s “Epistle to the Romans”. 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.’

When he told all of this to his brother Charles, he discovered that just three days previously, on Pentecost Sunday, Charles had had a very similar experience, and had written a hymn to describe it: ‘Where shall be wandering soul begin?’

John Wesley was a man of immense spiritual and mental energies, but up to now these had been mostly directed upon himself, brooding upon the state of his soul and trying to improve it. Now these energies were released, and directed outward to others, who stood in need of the same liberation he had himself received. No longer was personal salvation for himself his all-absorbing aim. In fact, he virtually forgot it in his enterprise to bring salvation to others.

Over the next year, Wesley’s societies in Bristol and London were joined by about 300 people in each place. These new Methodist societies, as they came to be called, welcomed all who wished to come. As Wesley put it,

‘There is only one condition required in those who desire admission into this society – a desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins.’

For John Wesley the growth of the societies was evidence that a providential hand was behind this train of events. He put it plainly in a letter to brother Charles:

‘I have both an ordinary call and an extraordinary call. My ordinary call is my ordination by the bishop; Take thou authority to preach the word of God. My extraordinary call is witnessed by the works that God doeth by my ministry, which prove he is of a truth in the exercise of my office.’

That heart-warming experience, call it a conversion experience if you will, of 24 May 1738 set in train a course of events which were to change the world forever. Aldersgate has become a name familiar in lands totally unknown to Wesley. But the significance of Aldersgate goes far beyond those churches which have inherited the name of Methodist. All denominations are familiar with the hymns of Charles Wesley, some of the finest and most powerful of which were written shortly after the brothers’ conversions. A year later, on the anniversary of his conversion, Charles Wesley was still writing about it when he penned ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing.’ More broadly, Wesley’s emphasis on God’s desire for the salvation of all people arguably shifted the centre of English theology, which up to that point had been much more concerned with personal salvation.

So, the final words go to Wesley, in a response to his critics, after they had accused the societies he led of heresy and dissent, and in which we hear the voice of the one whose heart was strangely warmed:

‘A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him; one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out. “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever”.’

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