The Wonderful Birthday

IMMEDIATELY after breakfast he rode from the inn at Dover. He must get to London to report to the Georgia Trustees. At nightfall he had reached Faversham. If we accepted the view of some biographers, we should expect him to shrink into the shadows of the room he had hired and to busy himself with morbid introspection or maudlin recollection. Actually you would have found him preaching to the people at the inn! His heart was aching, his mind was perplexed with depressing problems, but there was an inner Voice that would not be denied. He read prayers and expounded ‘the Second Lesson to a few of those who were indeed more savage in their behaviour than the wildest Indians I have yet met with’. He did not know all he had longed to know, but he was sure enough of something the loiterers about the tavern needed, and what he had he gave.

Next day he journeyed to Blendon Hall, near Bexley, where he ‘expected a cold reception’. He was coming back utterly conscious of failure and defeat, but he was no coward. He might so easily have avoided such contacts; instead he sought them. There is no trace of ignominious surrender in his attitude. He is a knight on a desparate quest. The Delamottes welcomed him gladly; he was very thankful but he did not stay to nurse his wounds. In the evening he reached London. His brother Charles hurried to James Hutton’s to meet him. The time of his outward loneliness had passed.

There was a home for him with the Rev. John Hutton in Westminster, or in the rooms at the ‘Bible and Sun’, the bookshop kept by his friend, James. Friends were eager to meet him again. They had heard something about the new colony from Charles, but they waited anxiously for John’s story. He did not shrink from the ordeal. His spirit was battered and bruised, but he told them the facts plainly.

They heard his account with some astonishment but he was restless. He must report his presence in London to the people who had sent him abroad. Several times he went to the offices of the Georgia Trust but it was some days before he had an opportunity of presenting his case and returning his official appointment. They preserved in their ‘Journals’ a masterly silence beyond the curt recording of facts. Oglethorpe, who was in London, was anxious lest John should, in self-justification, denounce the whole experiment in Georgia. He did nothing of the kind. Life in America was a blurred memory, with a few incidents and people sharply defined. He would not soon forget Sophie Hopkey, nor Oglethorpe, but perhaps the deepest impression had been left by the Moravians who had so constantly challenged his whole conception of religion. They had made him quite certain that he lacked the sense of assurance which was so real to them. His spiritual resources had not been enough to meet the demands of his own life. There was a constant call to preach, and he longed for a more vital gospel. The next four months were spent on this intensified quest, and there are at least five dates which mark stages in his progress.

On Tuesday, February 7, he went to the house of Weinantz, a Dutch merchant, where he met several young Germans who had just landed. It was, as he said, ‘a day much to be remembered’, for he was introduced to Peter Böhler, a Moravian on his way to begin mission-work in America. The two men became intimate companions. They had much in common, and John Wesley lost no opportunity of talking with him, though the conversation was generally in Latin. He secured lodgings for the little company, near John Hutton’s in Westminster. Peter and he went to Oxford together, talking continually of the meaning of faith. Hour after hour Wesley tried to reach Böhler’s conclusions by argument. It was impossible. At length the Moravian saw the difficulty. ‘My brother,’ he said, ‘that philosophy of yours must be purged away.’ All his life he had been trying, as his father said, ‘to carry everything by dint of argument’. The persistent unconscious egotism of the man who would define the infinite within the frontiers of a few Latin words was crowding out faith and bolting the door against personal experience.

Back again he rode to London, and a week later took coach to Salisbury, where he saw his mother, intending to go on to brother Samuel at Tiverton. Suddenly an S.O.S. altered all his plans—perhaps changed his whole career. Word came that Charles lay critically ill, with pleurisy, at Oxford. He had never been well since he left Georgia, and now he was laid low. John hurried back to Oxford—and, providentially, to Peter Böhler. The journey took two days, and on the way he tried to clear his mind on many things. He re-wrote his own account of the Sophie Hopkey episode, and this probably led him to consider his own future conduct. He resolved to be open and unreserved in conversation, to labour after continual seriousness, to speak no word which did not tend to the glory of God, and to guide his pleasures by the same principle. Poor John! still struggling by little codes of rules to reach a shining goal! So he came to Oxford, to find his brother recovering and Peter Böhler preaching joyously of saving faith. Once again he clutched the little page of rules in his pocket, and admitted they were not enough.

On Sunday, March 5, he came to a second crisis. In desperation he had almost decided not to preach again. He went to Böhler to confirm his own feeling that he could not preach to others because he had not faith himself. The young Moravian was quite definite. ‘Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.’ It was a somewhat strange command, but S. T. Coleridge defends it by suggesting that ‘much may be said where the moral interest of mankind demands it and reason does not countermand; or where the Scripture seems expressly to affirm it’. That explains Wesley’s acquiescence. He could see no logical denial of assurance or saving faith; indeed, his eager pursuit of its reality in his own experience, showed his belief in its value. He began to preach it next day. It was no more casuistry than for a partially blind man to advocate the value of seeing clearly, though he himself lived in a misty world.

For some weeks after this he rode from place to place preaching. His texts at this time are illuminating. He was following his friend’s advice and proclaiming the reality of faith and its consequences. So he came back to Oxford and found himself in Mr. Fox’s Society or fellowship-meeting, with his heart so full that as he says, ‘I could not confine myself to the forms of prayer which we were accustomed to use there. Neither do I propose to be confined to them any more; but to pray indifferently, with a form or without, as I may find suitable to particular occasions’.

This was a great decision for the precise and rule-bound ‘Methodist’. It brought him to a new stage in his quest.

On Easter Sunday, April 2, he preached in Lincoln College chapel. The text was significant and his comment more so. The date marks another milestone. Three times that day, in the beautiful chapel, in the Castle prison, and at Carfax, the home of the Broughtons, he preached on the same verse: ‘The hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live.’ At night he wrote in his journal: ‘I see the promise; but it is far off.’

It is evident that he felt a crisis was at hand, for he continued his next sentence, ‘Believing it would be better for me to wait for the accomplishment of it in silence and retirement, on Monday the 3rd I complied with Mr. Kinchin’s desire and went to him at Dummer, in Hampshire’. A fortnight later he returned to London, still in the same frame of mind.

On Sunday, April 23, he reached another definite stage in the quest. On Saturday he had spent some hours with Peter Böhler, in what the latter described as ‘a right searching conversation’. The subject was the same as ever, and John went so far as to agree with his friend that faith was ‘a sure trust and confidence which a man has in God, that through the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven and he reconciled to the favour of God’. He agreed too that happiness was a proper result of such a faith. There was one point, however, which troubled him. Böhler insisted that the coming of such an experience might be instantaneous. He went back to his New Testament, and was astonished to find that most of the instances of conversion, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, were apparently sudden. One last citadel remained, and on Saturday night he retreated within it: such things happened long ago but times had changed. One could scarcely expect them to occur now!

Next morning even that stronghold was besieged and taken. Böhler brought four Englishmen to bear their witness to the reality of saving faith in their own lives. He watched the effect of their stories on John who was ‘thunderstruck’. Still he obstinately said four were only four! Böhler replied he would bring him eight more. John capitulated. He wrote tersely but completely, ‘Here ended my – disputing. I could now only cry out, “Lord, help Thou my unbelief”!’ Together the little group stood up and sang a German hymn:

My soul before Thee prostrate lies;

To Thee, her source, my spirit flies;

My wants I mourn, my chains I see;

O let Thy presence set me free!

It was a prayer which came from the depths. There was no posturing in that little room. The Moravian saw his friend’s eyes were blinded with tears. The tears were there because he had caught a glimpse of the Promised Land, yet could not see the path his feet must tread to reach it.

The next few weeks were not spent in idleness. He spoke continually of the subject that was in his heart. Three days before sailing Peter Böhler met the two Wesleys, Piers, the vicar of Bexley, and certain others at the ‘Bible and Sun’. A society was formed for fellowship, rather on the lines of a modern Group. It began with simple rules, which were unfortunately multiplied later when it moved to Fetter Lane. On Wednesday Peter Böhler convinced Charles of the nature of that living faith by which ‘through grace we are saved’. On Thursday, May 4, the young Moravian had gone. In his few months’ stay in London he had helped to change the course of English history. Little did he think as he wrote a few lines to John, urging him to believe in his Jesus Christ, that he had led his friend to the brink of a new experience from which should be born a great revival. Nor did John realize how far he had, himself, come. It was only three months since he first met Böhler. For nine weeks he had argued, not so much with the Moravian as with himself. The arguments were ended but the experience seemed as far off as ever. Some days he was ‘sorrowful and heavy’. He could neither pray nor read; he could not think or sing. He was at the far end. At other times he went out bravely to preach about the faith he did not yet know in its fullness.

There was a certain urgency about his preaching, now, which attracted the people and frightened the clergy. His message was personal and vital. The people did not hear a polished essay. They were fascinated by this man who had not brought a sermon in his pocket, but spoke to them directly. Just at the moment when his words seemed to be more effective than ever before, the church doors were closed to him. Place after place was forbidden. He had not been surprised, in those first breathless days after his return from Georgia, that his passionate words had given offence. In February he had been forbidden to preach again in St. John the Evangelist’s, Westminster, and in St. Andrew’s, Holborn. Now it became almost customary. He seemed to be preaching a round of farewell sermons. The list grew longer. He must not preach any more in St. Lawrence’s, St. Katherine Cree’s, Great St. Helen’s, St. Ann’s, Alders-gate, St. John’s, Wapping, or St. Benet’s. It was not encouraging. Some of his old friends were dismayed as much by his manner as by his doctrine. He went on steadfastly, without any great joy but in spite of periods of real depression. His heart might break, but as long as he could, he would preach the gospel as he understood it. That was the difficulty. It was still, largely an intellectual process though it was passionate enough in its sincerity.

Though Charles Wesley had not accepted Böhler’s teaching till the night before he sailed, it soon became more than mere acquiescence. For some time he had been lodging with Bray, a poor brazier living in Little Britain, near Aldersgate. He was only partly recovered from his pleurisy and on May 19, lay ill. One of the Moravians, William Holland, a painter, visited him and described the incident: ‘Being providentially directed to Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, I carried it round to Mr. Charles Wesley, who was then sick at Mr. Bray’s.’ It was a revelation. Charles found Martin ‘nobly full of faith’. His visitor left and he lay thinking. Again and again he returned to the comments on the last verses of the second chapter. Presently he was repeating, not Luther but Paul, ‘Who loved me and gave himself for me’. If only he could realize that ‘me’ meant Charles Wesley! He ‘laboured, waited and prayed to feel’ it. On Whit-Sunday, May 21, his prayer was answered.

Brother John had been to St. Mary-le-Strand to hear Dr. Heylyn preach. He had assisted him at Holy Communion. After the service he was told about what had happened. ‘I received the surprising news that my brother had found rest to his soul. His bodily strength returned also from that hour. Who is so great a God as our God?’

Lonelier now than ever, John struggled on. Twice that day he preached, and on each occasion was told that he must preach no more in that church. His own heart was heavy. He tried to escape its repressions by writing a letter to a friend. It was a passionate cry that he might be saved from trusting in anything but his Saviour.

On Tuesday morning, May 23, Charles writes, ‘I waked under the protection of Christ and gave myself up, soul and body, to Him’. The whole world was new. He must get up. He must write. He must sing—yes, that was it, he must sing. There was too much for one song—too much for six thousand, though God was to spare him to write them. Pen! Paper! Ink!

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 Deliver’s praise?

The pen flew on over the waiting paper. It must surely scorch the page. Eight verses are written, sung for very joy. It is the song of a soul, believing itself new-born—but it swells into a universal call to all men to share with him this great, redeeming love.

Outcasts of men, to you I call,

Harlots, and publicans, and thieves!

Somewhere, walking the streets of London, John trudges on patiently, expectantly, wondering. The hours pass, he goes home to bed. For him there is no song—only a hunger that cannot be satisfied. Day broke over London onWednesday, May 24, 1738, and the growing light stole in through the windows, waking the sleepers to begin once more the round of work. There was nothing to let them know their little lives would be altered by the happenings. Nobody dreamt that before nightfall something would come to pass which would change the course of history. Only one man could have told them what had happened to him.

‘I think it was about five this morning, that I opened my Testament on those words: “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. i. 4). Just as I went out, I opened it again on those words, “Thou are not far from the kingdom of God”. In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s. The anthem was, “Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, 0 Lord: Lord hear my voice. O let Thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If Thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with Thee; therefore shalt Thou be feared. 0 Israel, trust in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all its sins”.

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

It was an amazing day. The very first words had leaped at him from the printed page. He had been stirred into new wakefulness. He opened the book again—’not far from the Kingdom of God’. He went out to walk the streets. He was lonely, distraught. A friend persuaded him to go to the great Cathedral. The anthem was as the cry of his own soul. Old Dr. Crofts had understood, and the very music cried out for him. He groped his way out of the dimly-lit church. His soul was in travail.

Restless, dissatisfied with himself, and uneasy because of the strange stirrings on his heart and mind, he wandered on. It was already evening. Unwillingly he dragged his feet towards the narrow byway on the East side of Aldersgate. In a little room in Nettleton Court the ‘society’ was assembling. Why should he go? Why must he go? He is in their midst—the picture of dejection. Presently, honest William Holland stands up to read. He listens, dully at first, then more intently. Something happens. He is radiantly happy. His heart is warm, aflame! ‘I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used and persecuted me.’ Joy! doubt! buffetings! victory! He cannot contain it. All the world must know—but first Charles. Round the corner he runs. His friends can scarcely keep up with him. Up the stairs in the brazier’s house in Little Britain, they clamber. Charles is waiting. ‘I believe’, cries John. Not another word! He would not have been heard, had he uttered it. They are all singing the new hymn:

Where shall my wondering soul begin,

How shall I all to heaven aspire?

It is a birthday—one of the great birthdays in the history of the world.

What shall we say of it all? Was he not a good man before? Can this be conversion? Was it not rather his evangelical conversion? Was it an awakening, an illumination, a revelation, ‘something tidal’, or shall we sneer and count it hysteria, the emotional product of fear? Best perhaps let words alone. Let it speak for itself. Here is a man transformed. In his troubled heart, deep peace at last. In his whole being strange new energy. Fifty years of amazing activity beginning. Fire running through stubble. The grace of God in England.

Was it a birthday? Was he not a good man before? He was so conscientious and painstaking that he might have become a model cleric if he had missed out this day. He had been a faithful priest; he became a flaming prophet. He had been a dutiful servant; he became a joyful son.

There would be days of depression and seeming defeat, but never again would he forget that he was forgiven—that God was with him.

‘Thursday, 25.—The moment I awaked, “Jesus, Master” was in my heart and in my mouth.’

‘If any man be in Christ he is a new creature.’