Re-post: On Wesley’s Journey to True faith

stormy-seaI’ve been reading again about John Wesley – 5 feet 3 inches tall, 126 pounds, Oxford University Greek instructor, failed missionary to the New World, and father of Methodism. I’ve decided he deserves more attention than his spiritual children sometimes give him.

From his early 20s onward he was a man of what appeared to be great piety. This stood out in contrast to the widespread godlessness of his generation. He organized his days around times of prayer; along with companions he served the sick and the poor; he attempted to manage his time as a spiritual trust; and he even made the perilous journey to America, as he reports in his journal, to work out his own salvation. However, on the latter point, even the piety did not conceal his lack of evangelical faith.

His passage from England to Georgia aboard the Simmonds revealed inner uncertainties about his salvation. Even though he and three traveling companions carried out with great diligence religious duties daily aboard ship — conducting worship, teaching the children, giving Christian counsel — his journal shows that several times during a series of bad storms he felt afraid to die.

He became aware of this by the example of 26 Moravians also on board. These were devout Christians from a community called Hernhuth in Germany. On one occasion they had just begun a service of worship aboard ship when a storm broke over the vessel. The 26 German Moravians continued singing while many of the 80 or so English passengers screamed in terror.

This fortitude in the presence of mortal danger did not escape John Wesley’s attention and he inquired of their leader: Were his people not afraid to die? He was assured they were not. Were the women and children not afraid, he asked further? Again, he was told they were not.

When the ship arrived at Savannah, Georgia, Wesley approached the Moravian pastor, a Mr. Spangenberg, and engaged him in conversation. He asked him if he would tell him what he found wrong in him — like an accountability partner. Here was a further hint not so much of deep humility as of self-preoccupation.

The pastor responded, “I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?

Spangenberg noticed that Wesley, this Oxford-trained clergyman, seemed perplexed. So he asked further, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”

Wesley paused and then answered, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.” To which Spangenberg replied, “True. But do you know he has saved you?” Wesley responded, “I hope he has died to save me.” Moments later Wesley tried to make his answer more convincing but of that effort he writes in his journal, “I fear they were vain words.”

In spite of his great learning, his apparent piety, and his willingness to go abroad on Christian mission, something was missing. He lacked that assurance of salvation which the Moravians had and which Spangenberg knew was a key witness to a genuine faith.

Assurance was something Wesley could not talk himself into. Nor could his closest associates have convinced him. This inner assurance could not be reasoned or argued into existence. It was a certainty to be given by the Spirit of God to his own inner being – his own spirit — in response to sincere repentance plus the full trust of himself to the saving mercies of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14).

That conversation with Pastor Spangenberg took place on February 7, 1736. Not until May 24, 1738 did John Wesley fully understand and completely surrender to the truth that salvation is by faith alone – the renunciation of one’s sins and the full transfer of one’s trust from oneself to Jesus Christ. And when he exercised that faith the Spirit gave him the inner witness of his salvation and his ministry took on a new spiritual quality, sanctioned by God’s power in unusual ways.

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Image info: Stormy Sea at Night, 1849, Ivan Aivazovsky

A Little Love Story

Long before his life-transforming Christian conversion on May 21, 1738, Charles Wesley, the hymn writer of Methodism, had resolved not to marry. His brother John and other members of the holy club at Oxford shared the same resolution. He began to reconsider his resolution as mid-life approached.

At 39 years of age, while preaching in South Wales, a certain Marmaduke Gwynne, a convert under Methodist preaching, came to see him. He took Charles to his estate — named Garth. At the Gwynne mansion there were nine children and 20 servants. During six days of preaching in the area, Charles felt drawn back to Garth several times.

He was attracted to Sarah (Miss Sally) Gwynne. She was 21 and he, was nearly 40. Could anything come of this attraction?

After six days he left Wales for Ireland to guide a rapidly growing Methodist movement in the region of Dublin. For six months, he preached there, sometimes several times a day. He and the new converts were repeatedly attacked by mobs that showed no limit to their fury. They threw stones, ransacked Methodist homes, even wounded or killed. Amidst it all he was consoled and strengthened by letters from Sally.

Then, it was a rugged trip back to Garth by ship, ferry, and a 120 mile ride on horseback facing into a cold, driving rain. Exhausted from the efforts in Ireland plus the journey, he was sick when he arrived, but he was nursed back to health and preached and served the sacrament of communion at Garth.

He began to think of marriage, but several matters had to be attended to. His foremost question: Sally was raised in a devout family, and had heard an outstanding Methodist evangelist, Howell Harris, preach, but had she personally experienced redeeming grace? He would not compromise on this question; a superficial answer would not do; but in due time his question was answered to his satisfaction.

Sally’s mother was favorable to Charles as a husband for Sally but asked what assurance could he give that he — an itinerant preacher without a settled income — could support her? Charles consulted his publisher. He and his brother talked with a banker. It was established that royalties from his books would be more than enough to provide the 100 pounds a year Mrs. Gwynne required. When brother, John gave written assurance of this fact, she approved.

On April 9, 1749, Charles and Sally were married at Garth. It was a day filled with sunshine and joy. He wrote that his brother seemed the happiest of all present.

Was it a great love? In her mid-twenties Sally’s beauty was scarred horribly by life-threatening smallpox. This in no way diminished Charles’s love for her. She went with him on his preaching circuits and the Methodist people loved her dearly. Long into the marriage, his tender notes might begin: “My ever dearest Sally.”

They had eight children but only three of them survived childhood, two boys, Charles and Samuel, and one girl, Sarah (also Sally). The two sons were child prodigies as musicians and both became well known organists. Altogether the parents, Charles and Sally, had 39 years together until his death in 1788.

In the Wesley family there had been several matrimonial disappointments. Charles’s brilliant and vivacious sister, Hetty, became pregnant out of wedlock. Her father’s unforgiving spirit, bad judgment, and extended punishment further scarred her life. Even older brother John entered into a marriage that brought misery.

But these disappointments elsewhere in the family notwithstanding, the enduring bond between a traveling preacher with limited means and a woman born of wealth and privilege — with a difference of 19 years in age — registered by all accounts as a great love!

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The Boy John Wesley at Charterhouse

While studying the pastoral letters, I & II Timothy for a series of lectures, I made what struck me as a rich discovery. I saw that all the requirements considered in these scriptures for effective pastoral ministry fit under two heads – godliness and competence.

My mind jumps here to John Wesley, of whom I’ve been reading and writing in recent weeks. I began to review what prepared him to lead with such competence in the widespread ministry into which he was thrust later in his life.

Consider first his education. It can be divided into three phases. There was the five years of excellent tutelage he got under the watchful eye of his mother. Then there were six years at Charterhouse. Finally there were about five years at Oxford University. The least pleasant of the three sources of his education may be one key to his future competence and capability.

At 10 years of age Wesley was enrolled at Charterhouse, a well-regarded school for boys in London. One hundred years earlier, a man of great wealth established the school with the intent that select boys enrolled should get the best possible education there in preparation for university.

There was no money in the Wesley household to pay the tuition for such instruction but Samuel Wesley, John’s father, managed to win the agreement of the Duke of Buckingham to nominate his son as a select choice. So, before he was 11, he left the well-regulated and prayerful environment of the Epworth rectory to enter the tumult of a well-recognized public school. W. H. Fitchett writes that “The Charterhouse of that day was a school with great traditions and a decent standard of scholarship.” But it did not cater to the upper levels of society so the names of the famous do not appear among its graduates.

At Charterhouse the boy, John, was quick to learn and tireless in his pursuits. The details are not full but he was regarded as a strong student.

However there was one feature of this institution which leaves modern students of its history perplexed. The practice of “fagging,” a fancy name for high-handed robbing, was in full force. That is, when the rations were given out at the cook house, the older and stronger boys would be on hand to take the meaty portions from the smaller boys. It was a daily experience and for those years JohnWesley practically lived on bread.

Fitchette writes: “A boy trained in the severities of Epworth parsonage, however, could asily survive even the raided meals of the Charterhouse School.” But what were the officials of this great school thinking in letting this robbery go on? It is hinted that such treatment developed humility or self-restraint. More likely it developed a toughness of character, where one was left to make do with what was available and to fend for himself without guardians hovering around.

Wesley himself mentions another potential benefit with which we might at least in part disagree: When his father sent him to Charterhouse he gave him instructions to run around the school’s large playing field or garden three times each morning. In other words, stay strong and active. Wesley obeyed and later wrote that together this exercise and limited diet contributed to his sturdy constitution as an adult.

Many years later, when John Wesley was deeply involved as leader of the Methodist movement he experienced all sorts of adversity. He faced mobs, endured storms, travelled tirelessly, wrote copiously in defense of his message and for the instruction of new converts, and often preached as many as three times a day. His own opinion was that the ruggedness and deprivations of his early years — including Charterhouse — had made him competent for such a demanding life.

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A Ghost in the Parsonage

The Epworth parsonage must have been a lively place when 10 children occupied its spaces. There were seven spirited daughters, three sons, a mother and father and a maid to care for the younger children.

But for five months between December 1716 and April 1717 the occupants increased in number by the visitation of a ghost — a poltergeist. Call this a “preternatural” increase. This presence was invisible but, with each visitation, noisy in a number of ways.

Beginning between nine and ten o’clock at night when the girls were about to retire, there would be thumps under the floor, raps on the walls, the rattle of chains, the smashing of glass, and the sound of coins clattering to the floor.

The hardiness and composure of Samuel and Susanna in the face of these baffling phenomena was quite amazing. W. H. Fitchett reports, in his book, Wesley and His Century, that during one of the visitations Mrs. Wesley “walked hand-in-hand with her husband, at midnight downstairs to the room whence the noises came.” Even though hand-in-hand, that was probably not a romantic walk. She later wrote that “a large pot of money seemed to be poured out at my waist and run jingling down my nightgown to my feet.”

The daughters must have used nervous humor to brace one another as they became tolerant of these preternatural demonstrations, because they named the poltergeist, “Old Jeffrey” and the name stuck.

But we can be sure that the manifestations and the family’s responses were more than merely the results of overheated imaginations. When the thumps sounded and doors slammed and in one case a bed was raised, even the children who were already asleep and did not hear the sounds were agitated and trembled in their sleep.

The father, Samuel, appeared uncommonly brave about what was going on. Again, Fitchett reports that he “pursued the noise into almost every room in the house, chased it into the garden; tried to open a conversation with the ghost, even engaged the services of a mastiff (huge dog) to put it down. But when the ghost began to discourse the dog tried ignobly to get under the bed in sheer terror.”

On another occasion, in one particular room the poltergeist was knocking violently. Samuel Wesley tried to address it but without results. Then he said to his daughter, Nancy, “These spirits love darkness. Put out the candle and perhaps it will speak.” She did as he requested but the only response was continued knocking.

Mrs. Wesley, on the other, hand appealed to this annoying, invisible presence not to disturb her between five and six in the morning because that was her quiet hour and she wanted all noise suspended during that time. “Old Jeffrey” respected her wishes. In fact, regardless of whatever else one can say, this ghost did not show signs of hostility and on occasion did show signs of respect.

It may be argued today that the story took on hype and color and became increasingly sensationalized as it is passed from generation to generation. This cannot be true because all members of the family wrote their accounts at the time and John collected them. Each account has an age-related perspective but the story’s core is solid and has to be addressed as the account of a serious but mysterious phenomenon.

Commentators vary in their opinions of what was really going on. Some, of a more skeptical bent, attributed the goings-on to the trickery of one of the girls, probably Hetty. Others thought it the skilful tomfoolery of town enemies. Many chalk it up to the devil. Though the devil is tricky and cunning he is never as nice as this visitant. Whatever we do with it, the word “preternatural” best describes it. That is, the phenomena are not supernatural but do go beyond the natural as we experience it every day. There it rests in mystery.

Although John Wesley was 13 at the time and away to school at Charterhouse, he collected the family’s written reports and listened attentively to other reports of ghostly visitations. In his mature years, Wesley retained a respect for this family experience and from the descriptions his siblings and parents had written he created an article which he published in his magazine, The Arminian.

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Susanna Wesley, Educator

You might say that Susanna Wesley was an innovative educator when it came to the homeschooling of the 10 of her 19 children who survived infancy.

And she had the background for the task. She was the youngest of the learned Samuel Annesley’s 25 children. Before she was out of her teens she knew Greek, Latin, and French and was proficient in theology and philosophy.

She was married to Samuel Wesley when she was 20 and he 27. As children began to come along, she designated one room of the parsonage as the school room. In that room there was to be no loud talking, and no coming and going except for good cause. For Susanna and her brood, formal learning was scheduled to last six hours a day during weekdays and it was to be serious business.

“The day before a child’s education was to begin,” Susanna wrote to her son John years later, “the house was set in order, everyone’s work appointed them (sic), and a charge given that none except the child involved should come into the room from nine till twelve and from two till five.” These were the inviolate school hours.

Formal learning was to begin the day after each child’s fifth birthday. Each was then given one day to learn the alphabet. Susanna reports that two children, Molly and Nancy, took a day and a half before they knew the letters perfectly. In this she implies that they were slow, but she later revised this view when she saw how very slowly in comparison other children outside her family learned the alphabet.

She would have followed her start-at-age-five rule with Kezzy also but she complains in her letter to John that her husband overruled her and insisted Kezzy be started earlier. She reports that Kezzy was “more years learning, than any of the rest had been months.”

As soon as the children had learned the letters, they began in the first chapter of Genesis by spelling and reading a line, then a verse, then two verses, and so on. They never left a lesson until they could do it perfectly. Susanna writes: “…it is almost incredible, what a child may be taught in a quarter of a year, by a vigorous application, if (the child) have but a tolerable capacity, and good health.”

This kind of regimentation might make a modern educator groan in protest. And Susanna Wesley’s pedagogy might not work equally with a sampling of 20 or so children today. After all, the Wesley children were extraordinarily bright. As well, it is worth noting that she was teaching them to read one at a time, not as a group as we tend to do in today’s classrooms. In any event, in an age when illiteracy was high among men, and even higher among women, and close to universal in Epworth, Susanna’s method is validated by the fact that her little flock all learned to read well and this gift was given them for a lifetime of usefulness and pleasure.

If this little slice-of-life makes Susanna Wesley seem like a severe parent and a Marine sergeant all rolled into one person, consider one other aspect of her pedagogy. She wrote to her husband, Samuel, during one of his long absences in London, giving the following glimpse into her mentoring practices.

“I take such a proportion of time as I can best spare every night to discuss with each child, by itself, on something that relates to its principal concerns. On Monday I talk with Molly; on Tuesday with Hetty; Wednesday with Nancy; Thursday with Jackie (John); Friday with Patty; Saturday with Charles; and with Emily and Sukey on Sunday.”

Think of the emotional or intellectual enrichment that could be added to many an emotionally impoverished or neglected child today by a one hour face-to-face with a parent genuinely interested in sharing the child’s agenda for that hour. It would be far more enriching than the time so commonly devoted these days to cell phones, the internet, and television.

Who today can deny the wisdom of a Christian mother who, on the one hand, insists that her children master the objective symbols of learning like words and numbers and facts while, on the other hand, encouraging the exploration of personal experiences during visits between parent and child when the child sets the subject agenda?

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The Fire in the Parsonage

At six years of age, John Wesley came precariously near to losing his life in a raging parsonage fire.

Epworth rectory was an old house — how old nobody knows. One record dated 1607 shows that it had already existed nearly a century before the Wesley family occupied it near the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. The 1607 record describes it as a three story house constructed of ancient timbers, lath and plaster, plus a thatched roof. It was dusty and dry and seven years earlier, in 1702 (the year before John Wesley’s birth) that same parsonage had been damaged by a mysterious fire, but had been saved and repaired.

Then came the raging fire of August 24, 1709. It could well have wiped out the whole family. It began near midnight. Susanna was ill and she and Samuel were sleeping in separate rooms. She had two boys with her. Samuel hearing the cry of “fire” in the streets, ran to Susanna’s room but the door was locked and he could not break in. Fortunately all the commotion awakened her and she and the two boys hurriedly walked through the flames on the front stairs. She received only scorched hand and face. Samuel then raced to the nursery where the younger children were in the care of a maid and hurried them out through the back part of the house. But, once he was out he realized that “Jackie” (son John) was missing.

Just then John’s face appeared at the upstairs window of the room where he had been sleeping. He had been awakened by the fire that was already playing along the ceiling of his room. There was no time for the crowd to get a ladder, and Samuel was sure his son would die, so he knelt and commended him to God.

But a strong man in the crowd stood against the wall beneath the window and another man was hoisted onto his shoulders, bringing him near enough to the height of the upstairs window to reach John.

The appearance of the man frightened John and he disappeared from the window to try the door of his room. It was already in flames. He returned to the window and fell into the arms of the man. At that very moment, the roof collapsed and the burning thatch dropped into the room. John was saved — but just in time.

The cause of the fire was never established but there were suspicions. Someone blamed it on Samuel’s carelessness. There were hints of arson. The ruffians of the town of Epworth had often threatened destructive actions against the rector and his family. And these were more than mere threats. Samuel’s cows had been stabbed, his dog lost a leg, and the children, while at play in the yard, had been threatened menacingly by men who came by.

John’s amazing rescue registered deeply with the parents. All the children had been saved, but Susanna was particularly grateful for the mercy shown to son John. Two years later, May 17, 1711, she wrote a prayer saying she intended “to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child that thou hast so mercifully provided for, than ever I have been, that I may do my endeavors to instill into his mind the disciplines of thy true religion and virtue.”

In his adulthood, John Wesley himself saw the great deliverance as an expression of God’s providence — his governance of the affairs of all mankind — and was convinced that he had been spared for a special reason. This event had a profound effect upon
the shaping of his ministry.

In 1737, at 34 years of age, he began to ascribe to the event the biblical expression, “a brand plucked from the burning” (Zech. 3:2). A modern version says: “Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire? (NIV) In other words, he was saved from a fiery death by the Divine Hand so that he could carry out a special ministry at God’s behest.

We all have had such providences — perhaps not so dramatic but equally real and lifeshaping. And we should reflect on them as evidences of God’s immeasurable mercies toward us to some purpose!

In the light of these mercies, dare we take lightly the call of Christ to personal salvation and then to lives of committed service?

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The Mother of Methodism

Susanna WesleySusanna Wesley is sometimes referred to as the Mother of Methodism. She played no active part in the movement but raised the sons, John and Charles, who led it. She was an unusually intelligent, gifted, and attractive woman. There is ample historical evidence to bear this out. While still in her teens she knew Latin, Greek and French. As a youth she had steeped herself in theology. She was also a deeply involved mother. She stands high among the women of the Eighteenth Century.

She gave birth to 19 children in 21 years, although only ten of them lived to adulthood, seven girls and three boys. Along with her husband, she raised this family in an impoverished parish in the county of Lincolnshire, on the eastern side of the England north of London. It was the Fen Country, an area that had to be repeatedly drained because it was surrounded on three sides by rivers that periodically flooded. Most people of the area were rude and illiterate and did not take well to “intruders.” Some of them were vicious in their attacks on the Wesley household, both verbally and physically. This was the environment in which the Wesley children were raised.

Susanna’s husband, Samuel, was brilliant, a serious scholar and a faithful vicar, but a man who was not skilled in avoiding conflict. Nor did he handle the family’s sparse income well. And he did not seem to have strong child rearing instincts. She herself confessed to son John that, “’tis an unhappiness peculiar to our family that your father and I seldom think alike.”

So what were Susanna’s rules for raising the ten children who lived? John asked her for them and she complied in a long letter. Years later, July 24, 1732, he incorporated the letter into his journal. Her rules are detailed and fascinating.

For example, in raising children she notes that “the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper.” (Two centuries later James Dobson qualified the idea by saying children’s wills must be conquered without wounding their spirits.) Her rationale for this first principle? She writes, “religion is nothing else than doing the will of God, and not our own” and explains that “As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children insures their after-wretchedness and irreligion.” That is why she was determined at the outset to insist on obedience as a first principle.

She also explains that she taught the children to be courteous in speech, to cry softly, and, at the same time, she enforced the rule that they would never get anything they cried for. She taught them to pray, and to distinguish the Sabbath from other days. (Remember that she came from devout Puritan stock). She explains that she created her own schoolroom in which the children were taught to read. She insisted that “no girl be taught to work (sewing, scrubbing, etc.) till she can read very well.” Illiteracy was widespread in the community but not in the rectory. Later the girls were taught to work with the same application and thoroughness.

Some students of the Eighteenth Century complain that children were treated as though they were no more than little adults. There may be some truth to that. Thus, they argue that Susanna’s rules are unacceptable for us today. But that is not always the response of those in our day who become acquainted with them.

Some years ago I was invited to be the speaker at a Baptist Parent-Teacher meeting. I decided I would introduce the audience to Susanna Wesley’s rules for child rearing, so I made copies as handouts. Even so, I was apprehensive that modern parents might react negatively because present ideas and practices for child-rearing are much more permissive. So I decided that I would distribute the Wesley rules, use them as the basis for my talk, and then gather them up afterwards.

The parents, mostly mothers, were fascinated and would not hear of it. They were avid about keeping their copies. My apprehension dissolved. It was as though Susanna’s words spoke to a felt need in the midst of today’s uncertainties about child-rearing.

Good child rearing practices are not a guarantee that children will make the wisest of decisions when they reach adulthood. And environment does have a bearing on how children come to their maturity. There were disappointments in the Wesley family especially among the girls. But these cannot diminish the mark Susanna Wesley left on the world through her devout and careful child-rearing practices. Her three clergymen sons, Samuel, John, and Charles, bear witness.

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