The Road to Aldersgate

In this episode, we follow John Wesley during the time between his return to England in February of 1738, up to the moments before his Aldersgate conversion experience on Mary 24, 1738. We also look into Charles's own experience and the influence of Peter Böhler on both Wesley brothers.

Episode 47

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: The Road to Aldersgate.

When John Wesley landed back in England in early 1738, he didn’t know what to do next. He was still a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, and an ordained Priest in the Church of England, so he was not without prospects. One path that he could have taken would have been to return to Oxford in order to continue to lead the Oxford Methodists. As it stood, many of his confrères from the early days of the movement had moved away during his sojourn to Georgia. As we discussed in Episode 39, it had been hard for John to leave Oxford the first time. Yet now, Oxford had little pull on him. Once he landed at Deal on February 1, 1738, John went directly to London.

Charles had written John a letter in early January that may have influenced John. Charles begins by saying, “from my soul I congratulate you upon your late glorious treatment…if you have the testimony of good conscience, your sufferings are interpretatively his, and human wisdom can never dispute you of it…these are the trials that must fit you for the heathen; and you shall suffer greater things than these!”1

Charles then relates John’s challenges in Georgia to the persecution of Athanasius by the Arians in the early church. Charles finishes his letter by lifting up George Whitefield and James Hutton. We will get to Whitefield in the future in more detail. James Hutton, though, is a person of supreme importance for this period of Wesley’s life.

Hutton also wrote John during that time, telling him that he had opened a shop, but not one that sold plays, an important distinction for these young, religious men. The theater was the supreme mark of worldliness. Hutton also told John how London and Oxford Methodists were coming often to stay with him, to sing songs, and to disturb the neighbors with their piety. (Disturbing the neighbors was not a goal, but a result of their actions)

In London, John chose to stay with James Hutton and his family. It is there, on February 7, 1738, that John first meets Peter Böhler. More than anyone else during this period, it is Böhler who shapes and prepares John for what is to come.

Peter Böhler was born in Frankfurt on December 31, 1712. He was the fourth son of a brewer, but clever enough to make it to the University of Jena. At first, he studied Medicine, but soon he was taken up with theology and came under the influence of Zinzendorf. Zinzendorf took the young man under his wing.

In December of 1737, Zinzendorf used his first official act as Bishop of the Moravian Church to ordain Böhler in order to send him to America as a missionary. In early 1738, Peter was in London on his way to the New World. John was in London having returned from the New World but not knowing where to go next. Peter was filled with promise and purpose and hope. John wasn’t filled with doubt, but he lacked the vocational clarity of Böhler and he struggled spiritually with what to do next.

Soon, John and Peter took a trip to Oxford together. Wesley and Böhler spent much of the time in intense debate in Latin. John writes in the journal:

all this time I conversed much with Peter Böhler, but I understood him not; and least of all when he said…my brother, my brother, that philosophy of yours must be purged away.2

Böhler did not mean for Wesley to stop thinking, but, as V.H.H. Green writes, “Böhler meant Wesley to repudiate natural theology, and any idea of God which was derived from human reason rather than by revelation through Jesus Christ.”3 Böhler also told John to “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

A few days later, John returned to London. He visited with the Georgia Trustees. He preached a few times. He went to visit his mother.

In late February, he learned that Charles was sick with pleurisy, which could have been a bad cold or pneumonia. The Wesleys thought that Charles could easily die from this sickness. So John quickly returned to Oxford. On the way, he wrote down some new rules for himself.

  1. To use absolute openness and unreserve, with all I should converse with.
  2. To labour after continual seriousness, not willingly indulging myself in any the least levity of behaviour, or in laughter,— no, not for a moment.
  3. To speak no word which does not tend to the glory of God ; in particular, not to talk of worldly things. Others may, nay must. But what is that to thee ? And
  4. To take no pleasure which does not tend to the glory of God ; thanking God every moment for all I do take, and therefore rejecting every sort and degree of it, which I feel I cannot so thank him in and for.4

Thankfully to all involved, Charles recovered quickly, but an unexpected blessing was that John found Peter Böhler at Charles’s side and they continued their conversations.

When Peter returned to London, he helped to organize the Fetter Lane Society with John Hutton and John Wesley. The group had two organizing principles: 1. That they will meet together once in a week to confess their faults one to another and to pray for one another that they may be healed. 2. That any others, of whose sincerity they are well assured, may, if they desire it, meet with them for that purpose. Fetter Lane would continue to be influential on John and Charles even after Aldersgate.

Peter Böhler went to America on May 4.

He left a moving letter for John

I love you greatly, and think much of you in my journey, wishing and praying that the tender mercies of Jesus Christ the crucified…may be manifested to your soul : that you may taste and then see, how exceedingly the Son of God has loved you, and loves you still; and that so you may continually trust in him, and feel his life in yourself. Beware of the sin of unbelief; and if you have not conquered it yet, see that you conquer it this very day, through the blood of Jesus Christ. Delay not, I beseech you, to believe in your Jesus Christ ; but so put him in mind of his promises to poor sinners, that he may not be able to refrain from doing for you, what he hath done for so many others.

Böhler’s influence continued to pop up in John’s journal and letters. John’s theology was changing. He was preaching more of salvation by faith and more on the centrality of justification. He was not always well received in this.

On May 7, John writes that he

preached at St. Lawrence's in the morning ; and afterward at St. Katherine Cree's church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both ; and was, therefore, the less surprised at being informed, I was not to preach any more in either of those churches.

On May 9, he writes that

I preached at Great St. Helen's, to a very numerous congregation on, " He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” My heart was now so enlarged, to declare the love of God, to all that were oppressed by the devil, that I did not wonder in the least, when I was afterward told, " Sir, you must preach here no more."

On May 14, he preached at St. Ann’s on Aldersgate street. He writes he preached “free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprized, that at St Ann's, likewise, I am to preach no more.”

John also wrote to William Law at this time, the English theologian who had written A Practicale Treatise upon Christian Perfection. Law had influenced him before the Georgia excursion. As much as anything, this letter, on May 14, points to John’s pre-Aldersgate theological understanding:

For two years (more especially) I have been preaching after the model of your two practical treatises; and all that heard allowed, that the law is great, wonderful, and holy. But no sooner did they attempt to follow it than they found that it is too high for man, and that by doing the work of this law should no flesh living be justified ...

Under this heavy yoke I might have groaned till death had not an holy man to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once: ‘Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus with all thy heart, and nothing shall be impossible to thee. This faith, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find. Strip thyself naked of thy own works, and thy own righteousness and fly to him ...’ Now, sir, suffer me to ask, How you will answer it to our common Lord, that you never gave me this advice? ... Why did I scarce ever hear you name the name of Christ? Never, so as to ground anything upon faith in this blood? ... I know I had no faith. Unless the faith of a devil, the faith of a Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow which lives in the head, not in the heart. But what is this to the living faith in the blood of Jesus? The faith that cleanseth from all sin ...

I beseech you, sir, by mercies of God, to consider deeply and impartially whether the true reason of your never pressing this upon me was not this, that you had it not yourself?5

Law replied quickly, defending himself, and then Wesley quickly responded concerning whether Law thought Wesley had true faith:

(1) You did not tell me plainly I had it not. (2) You never once advised me to seek or pray for it. (3) You have me advices proper only for one who had it already, and (4) advices which led me farther from it the closer I adhered to them. (5) You recommended books to me which had no tendency to plant this faith, but a direct one to destroy good works.6

Through all this time, Charles was going through an equally challenging spiritual crisis. Böhler has a striking effect on him, as well, pushing away his own former near-Pelagian ideas of faithfulness.

After Böhler left, Charles was going to move in with John Hutton. It was at that point, the English Moravian John Bray came into Charles’s life. Charles writes: I was going to remove to old Mr. Hutton’s, when God sent Mr. Bray to me, a poor ignorant mechanic, who knows nothing but Christ; yet knowing him, knows and discerns all things.”7 Charles continues in his journal:

Mr. Bray is now to supply Böhler’s place. We prayed together for faith. I was quite overpowered and melted into tears, and hereby induced to think it was God’s will that I should go to his house, and not Mr. Hutton’s. He was of the same judgment.8

Charles’s journal reveals continuous visitors and spiritual searchings. On May 16, he was given a copy of Luther’s commentary on Galatians. Charles wrote about the impact of Luther: “from this time I endeavored to ground as many of our friends as came in this fundamental truth, salvation by faith alone, not an idle, dead faith, but a faith which works by love, and is necessarily productive of all good works and all holiness.”9

On Whitsunday of that year, Charles had what he termed his conversion experience. He wrote in his journal that he felt “a strange palpitation of heart.” He began to write his conversion him, though which one specifically is uncertain. Charles’ biography, John Tyson, speculates that it was either “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin?”

Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
a brand plucked from eternal fire,
how shall I equal triumphs raise,
or sing my great deliverer’s praise?

or “And can it be, that I should gain.”

And can it be that I should gain
An int'rest in the Savior's blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

Whichever it was, the change and assurance was swift.

John visited Charles on May 22, in the midst of this rapturous season for his brother. John was not quite there and Charles prayed for John.

Charles’s conversion was not a finished thing. In the summer, he had doubts, but nothing to send him into the spiral of despair that had infected him and his brother. And yet, visiting Charles changed something for John.

The next week of May would prove pivotal for John Wesley, as well as the Protestant movement around the world. He wrote in his Journal for that week: “Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I had continual sorrow and heaviness in my heart.”10 John wrote a letter to a friend describing his spiritual state at this time:

” O why is it, that so great, so wise, so holy a God will use such an instrument as me! Lord, ' let the dead bury their dead!' But wilt thou send the dead to raise the dead? Yea, thou sendest whom thou wilt send, and showest mercy by whom thou wilt show mercy…Oh let no one deceive us by vain words, as if we had already attained this faith! (that is, the proper Christian faith.) By its fruits we shall know. Do we already feel 'peace with God,' and 'joy in the Holy Ghost?' Does 'his Spirit bear witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God?’ Alas, with mine, he does not. Nor, I fear, with yours. O thou Saviour of men, save us from trusting in any thing but thee ! Draw us after thee ! Let us be emptied of ourselves, and then fill us with all peace and joy in believing ; and let nothing separate us from thy love, in time or in eternity."

What happened on Wednesday May 24, 1738? What changed for John Wesley? What didn’t change on Aldersgate Street? Next time on the History of Methodism.

  1. WW 25:525. ↩︎
  2. WW 18:226. ↩︎
  3. Green, 55. ↩︎
  4. WW 18:227-228. ↩︎
  5. WW 25:540-541. ↩︎
  6. WW 25:547. ↩︎
  7. Tyson, 44. ↩︎
  8. Tyson, 44. ↩︎
  9. Tyson, 45. ↩︎
  10. WW 18:241. ↩︎


V.H.H. Green, John Wesley (1964)

John R. Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).