In Aldersgate, London, Anglican priest John Wesley had an experience in the middle of a spiritual crisis which lead to establishment of Methodism. This is called the Aldersgate experience, and Aldersgate Day is an annual memorial for many Christians. We look at why he was in a crisis, and then 'How his heart was strangely warmed' according to his journal.
Wesley had arrived back in England after a few years ministry in America, he had fled the colony after a legal dispute and returned to England in despair, he felt he did not have the faith to continue to preach with integrity (See pod of Mar 2). He was going through what a spiritual director might identify as an acute spiritual desolation. He confided his anxiety to a Moravian friend, he shared his misery, sense of failure and decision to give up the ministry. His friend Peter knew that you should not make any life-changing decisions in a disorienting desolation and counselled Wesley to "Preach faith till you have it," and he advised. "And then because you have it, you will preach faith." John was encouraged by his advice, which gave him spiritual resilience when he needed it, he acted on the advice. Encouraged by some pastoral success in his prison ministry, Wesley was astonished by how receptive the prisoners were to what he considered to be his weak preaching. He had been struggling for years and yet saw a prisoner transformed instantly. Making a study of the New Testament to understand his predicament, he found to his astonishment that the longest recorded delay in salvation was three days--while the apostle Paul waited for his eyes to open.
The Moravian Church, or the Moravian Brethren, is one of the oldest Protestant denominations in the world, dating back to the Bohemian Reformation of the 15th century lead by Jan Huus, preceding Martin Luther. Full of fervour the Moravians assured Wesley that their personal experiences had been instantaneous. Wesley desperately wanting to rediscover his early zeal found himself crying out, "Lord, help my unbelief!" echoing the famous words of the apostle Thomas. However, still Wesley felt dull within and little motivated even to pray for his own salvation. On this day, May 24th, 1738 he opened his Bible at about five in the morning and came across these words, "There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should partakers of the divine nature." That evening he reluctantly attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate and at about 8:45 p.m. something happened that would change his life. While he was listening to someone describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, he said “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." The next three months Wesley spent in Germany visiting the Moravians.
Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish mystic would describe this inner experience as Spiritual Consolation. He explains how an experience like this directs our focus outside and beyond ourselves, generates new inspiration and ideas and restores balance and refreshes our inner vision, releasing new energy in us. Wesley had been renewed, experiencing that inner spark he had been desperately and anxiously waiting for. However, as many spiritual converts will attest, his newly found enthusiasm soon hit the cold rocks of indifference of those around him. Daniel L. Burnett called this event, Wesley's "Evangelical Conversion", even though he was already a priest. Wesley would move away from the Moravians and founded a new society, which would become the Methodist movement.
Aldersgate Day is celebrated on May 24 (or the closest Sunday) to commemorate when John Wesley experienced assurance of his salvation. " We do not know whether the building where John Wesley's experience took place still exists, nor exactly in which building on Aldersgate Street it may have been if it still stands. A monument at the London Museum on Aldersgate Street marks where some believe the building may have been. Over time, Aldersgate Street has been shortened by common Methodist usage to simply Aldersgate. The word has come to represent both the place and John Wesley's experience, A hymn How small a spark has lit a living fire! celebrates Wesley’s Aldersgate experience and was written in 1988 for the 250th anniversary of the event.