Apostle to England

April 2, 2007

The sixth of a series from Paul’s time to today via the Moravian church, in preparation for the Festival of the Nations in Herrnhut, May 25-28, 2007
‚ÄòThe winds roared round about us, and whistled as distinctly as if it had been a human voice. The ship not only rocked to and fro with the utmost violence, but shook and jarred with so unequal, grating, a motion, that one could not but with great difficulty keep one’s hold of anything, nor stand a moment without it. Every ten minutes came a shock against the stern or side of the ship, which one would think should dash the planks to pieces.‚Äô
So wrote John Wesley in his journal January 25, 1736. He was describing the violent mid-Atlantic storm which almost sank the ship carrying him and his brother Charles to the new colony of Georgia in America.
Neither John nor Charles lacked religious zeal. At Oxford University, studying for the Anglican priesthood, they had started a Bible club with fellow-student George Whitefield. Others disparagingly called them the ‚ÄòHoly Club‚Äô, ‚ÄòBible moths’, ‘Enthusiasts’, and other derogatory names. But the name that stuck was ‘Methodists’, because they followed a disciplined, liturgical and methodical lifestyle, doing good works.
Yet on this voyage John saw what he did lack.
Among the 150 passengers caught in that storm on board the Simmonds were twenty-four Moravian missionaries. Four years after the first two missionaries had set out from Herrnhut, they too were being sent out to reinforce a new Moravian settlement in Georgia. On the ship, the missionaries had greatly impressed Wesley by their humility, servanthood and readiness to do tasks refused by the English passengers.
Vain words
Seeking comfort in the wild of the storm, Wesley had joined the Moravians for prayers. ‘In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began,’ so his journal reads, ‘the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterward, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”’
Later Wesley wrote: ‚ÄòI went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who shall convert me? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well … when no danger is near. But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, ‚Äúto die is gain.‚Äù‚Äô
This encounter was the first of a series with Moravians, which would lead to what has been called one of the most significant conversions in history.
On landing, Wesley met the leader of the Moravian settlement in Georgia, Augustus Spangenberg. “My brother,” said Spangenberg, “I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with you that you are a child of God?” Wesley evaded the question. “Do you know Jesus Christ?” asked Spangenberg. “I know,” replied Wesley, “that He is the Saviour of the world.” “Do you know that He has saved you?” persisted Spangenberg. “I hope He has died to save me,” Wesley fended. “Do you know yourself?” “I do,” replied Wesley. But he confessed in his journal: “I fear they were vain words.”
Later, back in London, Wesley met yet another Moravian travelling to Georgia, Peter Boehler. Unimpressed by Wesley’s religiosity, the 26-year-old Boehler said: “My brother, my brother, that philosophy of yours must be purged away.” When John Wesley complained, “Ah, how can I preach the faith which I have not got?” Boehler answered: “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach it.”
Just a few weeks later, an unwilling Wesley made his way to Aldersgate St to attend a Moravian Bible study. As someone read from Luther’s preface to Romans, Wesley experienced his ‘heart being strangely warmed’. This was the moment, he believed, when had received saving faith. Now he knew that Christ had indeed died for his sins, he wrote in his journal, that Jesus was indeed his personal saviour.
Anxious to learn more about Moravian spirituality, he set out with companions for Herrnhut‚Äìand was not disappointed. ‚ÄòThe spirit of the brethren is above our highest expectation,‚Äô he wrote back to Charles. ‚ÄôYoung and old, they breathe nothing but faith and love, at all times and in all places.‚Äô After leaving what he called ‚Äòthis happy place’, he wrote: ‚ÄòI would gladly have spent my life here… O, when shall this Christianity cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea?’
New Years Eve, 1738-9, saw the Wesleys, Whitefield and several old Oxford Methodist friends joining sixty Moravians at the Fetter Lane Society, to pray in the new year. ‘About three in the morning,’ wrote Wesley, ‘the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground.‘ This signalled the start of the Evangelical Revival led by John, Charles and George which took the message of salvation by faith to the working classes of Britain.
Following the Moravian model, Wesley and Whitefield set up bands and societies to disciple their converts. Wesley became a familiar figure on horseback riding the equivalent of ten times around the world! Not without just cause has Wesley been called the Apostle of England.
Wesley’s passion to see the lordship of Christ applied to every nook and cranny of society resulted in reforms and institutions taken for granted today: including the abolition of slavery, workers‚Äô rights, trade unions, women‚Äôs emancipation, education, the reform of prisons, hospitals and the nursing profession.
In time, this renewal was to have global consequences. It birthed the Evangelical movement, and led to the Salvation Army, the pentecostal and charismatic movements–and, as we will see, the modern missionary movement.
Till next week,
Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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