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

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What I Saw This Week in Coldwater, Michigan

SMCOn Thursday of this week our daughter, Carolyn, drove me 368 miles from the suburbs of Toronto to Coldwater, Michigan. We went to attend an ordination service during a session of the Southern Michigan Annual Conference of the Free Methodist Church-USA.

Eric Rose, a young minister who was to be ordained along with five others, invited us to come as his guest.

Eric had been in touch with me a number of times about different aspects of pastoral ministry, and we had become friends. I knew he was anticipating his ordination joyfully.

The ordaining body was an annual conference. This is a grouping of regional churches that work together under an elected superintendent. Annual conferences meet yearly to review achievements, establish shared accountability, and care for the staffing of the churches.

We arrived at the place of meeting. We discovered there an orderly gathering of ministers and lay delegates in equal numbers. The annual conference was hard at work hearing the reviews of one year’s ministries and anticipating challenges for the year ahead.

We saw instantly that the mood was bright. There were moments of laughter, but at the same time there was evidence of serious work being done.

Annual Conferences are a trademark of Methodism. They trace back to 1744. How did they come into being?

Recall that in 1738 both John Wesley and brother Charles were graduates of prestigious Oxford University and ordained ministers of the Church of England. After periods of spiritual uncertainty and distress they both experienced remarkable evangelical conversions in May of that year.

These conversions seemed to unleash a renewing movement of God’s Holy Spirit across the British Isles. This is referred to as the Methodist or Wesleyan Revival.

After 1738, six years of Spirit-anointed preaching by John and Charles and others had raised up great numbers of new converts. In this mighty movement of the Holy Spirit the revival had awakened the spiritually impoverished, the enslaved, and often the church’s castoffs. As well, many were converted from what today might be called people of the middle class for whom the established church had failed to deliver the bread of life.

John Wesley was the natural leader of this movement. He was faced with the problem of how to bring ordered living to the thousands of the spiritually awakened. Wesley’s administrative gifts brought forth the idea of an “annual conference.”

The first annual conference of 1744 had ten members – John and Charles, four other ordained clergymen, and four lay preachers, not ordained but authorized by John Wesley and his colleagues to preach the gospel.

On the day before the first annual conference convened there was a preaching service, a love feast, and the serving of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to the whole of the London society of Methodists, which by that time numbered between two and three thousand.

The agenda for the day of the conference was limited to addressing three questions: what to teach; how to teach; and how to regulate doctrine, discipline and practice. This first annual conference was conducted in deep humility. Wesley and these good men agreed that every question raised was to be freely and openly debated, so “that every person may speak freely what is in his heart.”

This first annual conference in 1744 became a template for Methodism. More than 250 years later almost anywhere Methodism exists regional work is administered through annual conferences (though names may vary).

When I saw my friend Eric standing with five other ordinands before the congregation in Coldwater, Michigan, and all six responding affirmatively to the questions for ordination, I was reminded that annual conferences around the world continue to be the body responsible for the conduct of this holy service of ordination.

I myself have administered ordination vows at annual conferences in such locations as Canada, the United States, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brazil, Haiti, and others.

My visit in Coldwater was deeply satisfying. Thanks be to God that the spiritual roots of today’s church sink deep into the soil of Christian history. Fundamentals do not change. And special thanks to God for the declared dedication of six newly-ordained ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Do Christians Today Really Live in Two Worlds?

GinLane

Gin Lane, a print issued in 1751 by English artist William Hogarth — depicting the misery caused by widespread consumption of gin among England’s poor.

In the fifties of the last century the late Mary Alice Tenney, head of the English Department of Greenville College, wrote a little book called, Living in Two Worlds: How a Christian Does It.

It was really made up of elements from her doctoral work on John Wesley and the Methodist Revival in Eighteenth Century England, and was written to appeal to lay readers. In an introductory note she writes, “This book is written first of all to people who want to be really Christian.”

In North America, we readily acknowledge that our culture has been in a moral decline over the last sixty or so years. Yet Dr. Tenney explains that the state of affairs in England was gravely worse at the time of the Methodist Revival.

Life there was almost unimaginably coarse and dehumanized. Here are some of my gleanings from her book:

“As for family life in England, divorce, of course, could not be obtained. But a double standard of morality wrecked full as many homes as divorce would have. Prostitution was an accepted, and even protected, institution among all classes, a subject of humor in the literature and art of the intellectuals and the aristocratic, and a heavy contributor to the beastliness of the lower classes.”

“Hanging was the punishment for 160 different sorts of offenses. Many a day saw ten or fifteen hangings – spectacles attended by mobs of sensation–mad men and women. Grandstand seats were provided; hawkers peddled broadsheets recording Dying Speeches. Gin was sold at stands; pickpockets and prostitutes circulated freely.”

Dr. Tenney’s book subsequently focuses on the lifestyle practices of the early Methodists, so she says little about Wesley’s theology. I dub in here a thought about that: Wesley’s preaching was in line with the English Reformation – Justification by Faith Alone; The Witness of the Spirit; Good Works flowing from faith and as evidence of that faith; Salvation by Grace through Faith; etc.

To Wesley and his converts, the unseen world was real.

Dr. Tenney writes:

“The surest evidence that God is what the Bible claims him to be, the One and only God, the All-Wise, the All-Powerful and the All-Loving, is the moral transformation which he works in a sinner. The revolution that occurs in a human being who believes God so fully as to give Him complete control over his life constitutes a supernatural event. Christianity is the only religion which carries with it any such moral empowerment. It performs the miracles promised by the Bible.”

Dr. Tenney pinpoints the a major aspects of Wesley’s life and teaching that we would be wise to adopt in this present materialistic world of ours:

“Four attainments clearly distinguish the early Methodists from the modern professing Christian. First he seems to have found the secret of soul serenity. Second, he gave convincing witness to his business and social world. Thirdly, he contributed amazing amounts to the work of his church. Fourthly, he lived a life of such appealing simplicity that the concept of ‘plain living and high thinking’ finally penetrated the thought of the whole nation.”

Methodism was a Heaven-sent awakening. It was God’s doing. John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and others were only God’s instruments, making themselves available to him. Would anyone question that it is time for another such awakening on this continent to bring both moral sanity and joy back to many lives?

It could start with us who are already Christ followers: more daily attention to the Book; greater time commitment and intensity for that daily prayer time; rebuilt family altars; increased devotion to the ministries of the church; cleared up unfinished business with family or fellow believers; partnership with other  believers concerned for renewal.

Of course renewal is God’s work. It always begins with Him. But there is an interesting challenge in the Scriptures which is repeated often and speaks to us of our part: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13)

 

When Unsatisfactory Marriages Are Made in Good Families

Susanna and Samuel Wesley

Samuel and Susanna Wesley attempted to shape their children in deep Christian learning and devotion. You would think that each would grow up to marry well and establish their own devout Christian families. It didn’t work out that way.

Of the three boys, Samuel, the first-born, had a warm, nurturing marriage, and so did Charles, one of the youngest of the 10 Wesley children who lived. John was not so blessed. Later in life he married a widow named Mary Vazeille. She was 41 and he 48. He writes that until then he did not think marriage was advisable, given the work he was called to do. But his views changed and when he married, his early notes to Mary are warm and tender.

However these notes began to reveal an unforeseen state of affairs.

Historian Henry Rack reports that “For over twenty years Wesley’s letters to his wife show (in her) a depressing, at times touching, picture of pathological jealousy, suspicion and uncontrollable rage, and (in him) patient attempts at reasoning, expostulation, claims of husbandly authority, answers to slanders, and various ultimatums as the price of reconciliation….” Perhaps his many travels were hard for her to deal with, and there is evidence that she did not fit well into the Methodist connection. But these do not explain her often raging and physically abusive conduct.

Of the seven spirited and brilliant daughters of Samuel and Susanna, five had marriages that were unsatisfactory, and at least two were disastrous.

History reports that Hetty, in a rash moment, ran off with a man and after being away for some time returned home pregnant. When her father found out her condition, he was enraged and unreconcilable. Hetty, half contrite and half desperate, volunteered to marry any man her parents chose. This was to cover or in some way redeem her indiscretion.

Her father unwisely approved her union with a drunken and illiterate plumber, a Mr. Wright, though her father would not marry them. Four months later the child was born but did not survive. Her other children also did not live. Her life was an ever-deepening tragedy.

Rack covers the family details quite fully but notes that in spite of family troubles, in the children’s early years “Epworth Rectory was not a scene of unrelieved gloom. The children carried on a lively correspondence and shared the affairs of the heart.” And when son John was at home his diary reveals a thriving social life.

There were moderating circumstances contributing to the disappointing outcomes: grinding poverty for the family, a deprived social environment, a scarcity of eligible mates for refined young women, and a father who was rated a serious and competent rector of the church but one who lacked judgment for the regulation of home and family.

In spite of Mother Susanna’s remarkable homeschooling and deep Christian piety, it was less than a model home or community environment. But then, as now, children are to be held responsible themselves for matrimonial decisions they make.

In spite of all this, from this home came John Wesley, in essence the founder of Methodism, and Charles Wesley, the incomparable hymn writer whose hymns still brighten congregational singing around the world more than two centuries after his death.

In amazement and perplexity, we can only say, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”

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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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