“The Holy Spirit began to move among us with amazing power when we met in his name…. These unusual works of the Holy Spirit continued to follow and bless my ministry.” –John Wesley
Few names in church history carry as much influence as that of John Wesley (1703-1791) of England.
He traveled about 250,000 miles ministering the Word of God, much of that on horseback. When he died in 1791, there were 72,000 Methodists in his home country, and an additional 43,000 adherents in America. He had preached 42,000 sermons and authored 250 books and pamphlets. As impressive as those numbers are, statistics alone do not begin to convey how powerfully the Holy Spirit worked through Wesley, dynamically and profoundly impacting people’s lives.
In 1735, John and Charles boarded a ship sailing to the American colony of Georgia to engage in missionary work. In transit, their vessel was battered by a severe storm, and John found himself fearing for his life. Aboard the same ship was a group of Moravian missionaries—from Zinzendorf’s ministry—and their calm, confident faith made a significant impression on Wesley. These missionaries joyfully sang psalms while Wesley, the ship’s chaplain, was anxious and fearful. Wesley was deeply religious, but this gnawing agitation forced him to recognize that he lacked the peace and assurance they so gloriously possessed.
Following more than two difficult years on the mission field, Wesley returned to England, still struggling with his faith. He writes in his journal, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who will convert me? Who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief?”1 Five days later, he again expressed his angst, “I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God.”2 Back in England, Wesley began interacting with Peter Boehler, a young Moravian preacher who admonished him regarding his need for the new birth. He writes that Boehler “amazed me more and more by the account he gave of the fruits of living faith—the holiness and happiness which he affirmed to attend it.”3 Wesley acknowledged that he lacked faith, but Boehler told him, “Preach faith until you have faith, then you will preach it because you have it.”
On May 24, 1738, a great breakthrough event occurred in Wesley’s life that he describes in his journal:
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.
A few days before John’s experience, his brother Charles also received “the living faith,” as John called it.
Because of the Moravians’ influence on his life, John traveled to Germany and spent a couple of months with believers in Herrnhut. As Wesley witnessed the strong work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Moravians, it reinforced his blossoming perspective that salvation was to be truly experienced. Returning to England, he began seeing tremendous demonstrations of God’s power:
Those who had received this new living faith through the Holy Spirit continued to meet together. About sixty of us were holding a love feast on New Year’s Eve on Fetter Lane. At about three in the morning, as we were continuing in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us. Many cried out in complete joy. Others were knocked to the ground. As soon as we recovered a little from that awe and amazement at God’s presence, we broke out in praise. “We praise you, O God; we acknowledge you to be the Lord.”5
From this time forward, Wesley spoke periodically of people who would sink, or fall to the ground under the power of the Holy Spirit while he was preaching. Sometimes he used the word “thunderstruck” to describe people who fell as their physical strength succumbed to God’s power. He also described many crying out for mercy as they came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
These types of events did not happen all of the time, and there seemed to be seasons where they were more frequent than other. However, it is clear from Wesley’s own writings that powerful expressions of the Holy Spirit often occurred. For example, on Thursday, April 26, 1739, Wesley writes that while he was preaching, “Immediately one, and another, and another sunk to the earth: They dropped on every side as if thunderstruck.”
The point with Wesley was never simply the phenomenon of people falling, but rather, that God was working mightily in their hearts to bring them into conviction, repentance, faith, and into right relationship with himself. To Wesley, outward manifestations were simply indicators of inward workings of the Holy Spirit. On May 9 of the same year, Wesley writes:
In the evening, while I was declaring that Jesus Christ had “given himself a ransom for all,” three persons, almost at once, sunk down as dead, having all their sins set in array before them. But in a short time they were raised up, and knew that “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” had taken away their sins.
At the encouragement of his friend and fellow evangelist, George Whitefield, Wesley had begun preaching in open fields and on highways. At first, this seemed inappropriate to Wesley, but it proved to be a tremendously effective method. Not only was preaching outdoors necessary because many churches had closed their doors to him, but buildings could not handle the massive crowds that Wesley and Whitefield were drawing.
Just as Wesley was initially unsure about preaching outdoors, Whitefield was uncertain about some of the manifestations that were happening in Wesley’s meetings. The two men had a most interesting exchange about the “outward signs” that were happening in Wesley’s meetings, and interestingly, Whitefield had the opportunity to witness these himself. Wesley writes:
I had an opportunity to talk with him [Whitefield] of those outward signs which had so often accompanied the inward work of God. I found his objections were chiefly grounded on gross misrepresentations of matter of fact. But the next day he had an opportunity of informing himself better: for no sooner had he begun (in the application of his sermon) to invite all sinners to believe in Christ, than four persons sank down close to him, almost in the same moment. One of them lay without either sense or motion. A second trembled exceedingly. The third had strong convulsions all over his body, but made no noise unless by groans. The fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God with strong cries and tears. From this time, I trust, we shall all suffer God to carry on His own work in the way that pleaseth Him.8
A few years later, Wesley was visiting Epworth where he had grown up. Because he was not welcome to speak to the congregation where his father had pastored, Wesley took the unusual action of preaching from his father’s tombstone. His description of what happened while in Epworth is similar to what happened at other times throughout his ministry. Wesley writes:
I preached on the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of faith. While I was speaking, several dropped down as dead and among the rest such a cry was heard of sinners groaning for the righteousness of faith as almost drowned my voice. But many of these soon lifted up their heads with joy and broke out into thanksgiving, being assured they now had the desire of their soul—the forgiveness of their sins.9
While Wesley often mentioned the phenomenon of people falling, crying out, etc., this was never his goal. Rather, Wesley focused on what he called “the inward work of God.” He sought to see people receive forgiveness and come to a “living faith.” He desired to see people’s lives transformed. One time Wesley reported that the moral character of Arbroath, a community in Scotland, had been radically changed because people there had responded to the gospel:
In this town there is a change indeed! It was wicked…remarkable for sabbath-breaking, cursing, swearing, drunkenness, and a general contempt of religion. But it is not so now. Open wickedness disappears…no drunkenness seen in the streets. And many have not only ceased from evil and learned to do well, but are witnesses of the inward kingdom of God, “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”10
Wesley wrote often of people being healed and delivered from demonic power as a result of prayer. Regarding a New Year’s Day service, Wesley writes, “We met, as usual, to renew our covenant with God. It was a solemn season wherein many found His power present to heal and were enabled to urge their way with strength renewed.”
Shortly before Christmas in 1742, both Wesley and a coworker, Mr. Meyrick, caught a “violent cold” due to preaching and riding in very cold weather. Wesley recovered, but Mr. Meyrick continued to decline. A few days later, Wesley writes:
When I came home they told me the physician said he did not expect Mr. Meyrick would live till the morning. I went to him, but his pulse was gone. He had been speechless and senseless for some time. A few of us immediately joined in prayer: (I relate the naked fact:) Before we had done, his sense and his speech returned. Now he that will account for this by natural causes, has my free leave; but I choose to say, this is the power of God.
After his initial recovery, Mr. Meyrick faced a setback. Five days later, on Christmas day, Wesley reports:
The physician told me he could do no more; Mr. Meyrick could not live over the night. I went up and found them all crying about him; his legs being cold, and (as it seemed) dead already. We all kneeled down and called upon God with strong cries and tears. He opened his eyes and called for me; and, from that hour he continued to recover his strength, till he was restored to perfect health. I wait to hear who will either disprove this fact or philosophically account for it.
After this healing event occurred in 1742, Mr. Meyrick lived decades longer and died in 1770 after a long and fruitful ministry.
Some might wonder why, after what seemed like an initial recovery, Mr. Meyrick became sick again. Why was it necessary for Wesley to pray for him on two different occasions? It would be good to recall that even Jesus laid hands twice on the blind man in Bethsaida. The first time Jesus laid hands on him, the man reported that he saw “men like trees, walking.” The manifestation of the healing was initiated, but not complete. The very next verse describes what Jesus did next: “Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly” (Mark 8:25).
Wesley was a learned and intelligent man, and yet he had no difficulty attributing these and other healings to supernatural interventions by God. Wesley wrote more than once of experiencing healing in his own life. For example, he speaks of a time when his horse had become “exceedingly lame” and also of the problems he himself encountered after a time of riding. He states:
I was thoroughly tired, and my head ached more than it had done for some months…I then thought, “Cannot God heal either man or beast, by any means, or without any?” Immediately my weariness and headache ceased, and my horse’s lameness in the same instant. Nor did he halt any more either that day or the next. A very odd accident this also!
Clearly, Wesley was being facetious when he referred to these as “accidents.”
In yet another situation, Wesley speaks of symptoms being relieved while he preached, and then experiencing complete healing manifesting in his body afterward:
I found myself much out of order. However, I made shift to preach in the evening; but on Saturday my bodily strength quite failed so that for several hours I could scarcely lift up my head. I was obliged to lie down most part of the day, being easy only in that posture. Yet in the evening my weakness was suspended while I was calling sinners to repentance. But at our love-feast which followed, beside the pain in my back and head and the fever which still continued upon me, just as I began to pray I was seized with such a cough that I could hardly speak. At the same time came strongly into my mind, “These signs shall follow them that believe” [Mark 16:17]. I called on Jesus aloud to “increase my faith” and to “confirm the word of his grace.” While I was speaking my pain vanished away; the fever left me; my bodily strength returned; and for many weeks I felt neither weakness nor pain. “Unto thee, O Lord, do I give thanks.”
At one point in his ministry, Wesley was accused by a Mr. Church of being an “enthusiast” and of having claimed that healings and supernatural deliverances had happened under his ministry. Wesley’s eloquent response demonstrates his firm belief in the supernatural power of God:
As it can be proved by abundance of witnesses that these cures were frequently (indeed almost always) the instantaneous consequences of prayer, your inference is just. I cannot, dare not, affirm that they were purely natural. I believe they were not. I believe many of them were wrought by the supernatural power of God.
In the same response to Mr. Church, Wesley was firm in articulating his position that he had personally witnessed things that could not be explained by natural means. He writes:
I acknowledge that I have seen with my eyes, and heard with my ears, several things which, to the best of my judgment, cannot be accounted for by the ordinary course of natural causes; and which I therefore believe ought to be “ascribed to the extraordinary interposition of God.” If any man choose to style these miracles, I reclaim [object] not. I have diligently inquired into the facts. I have weighed the preceding and following circumstances. I have strove to account for them in a natural way. I could not, without doing violence to my reason.
Wesley gave examples of supernatural works he had seen, including a supernatural deliverance of John Haydon from demonic power, and a dramatic healing he himself experienced. He states, “I cannot account for either of these in a natural way. Therefore I believe they were both supernatural.”
Wesley was no stranger to objections and criticism; and while some celebrated the works of God taking place, others certainly did not. Joseph Butler, the Bishop of Bristol, was disturbed at what he had heard about the different manifestations taking place in Wesley’s ministry, and told him, “The pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.” This rebuke came to Wesley in spite of them having met to discuss matters on three separate occasions. Wesley, though, was well aware of the possibility of false signs, and addressed the issue thoroughly.
Decently And In Order
What we call extremes or excesses today, Wesley called extravagance. Wesley always welcomed the working of the Spirit of God, but he was also keenly aware of fleshly activity that could distract from the gospel. Wesley gladly acknowledged the operation of God’s power in the lives of people, but he was also a major proponent of the truth Paul communicates in 1 Corinthians 14:40, “Let all things be done decently and in order.”
Wesley spoke of believers in one place who had experienced great blessings from God, but then expressed concern, “…even while they are full of love, Satan strives to push many of them to extravagance.”19 He then gave examples of meetings where chaos and confusion reigned. Wesley referred to people screaming, to the “Jumpers in Wales,” and even to a group of people who would repeatedly fall and get back up in meetings—it sounds like they were falling for the sake of falling. Wesley states that these types of extravagances “bring the real work [of God] into contempt.” He proceeds to admonish, “Yet whenever we reprove them, it should be in the most mild and gentle manner possible.”20
Wesley was known for his strictness, so it is impressive for him to be calling for correction “in the most mild and gentle manner possible.” Perhaps Wesley was basing this on an understanding that if people are corrected with unnecessary harshness, they will be afraid to ever yield to the Holy Spirit, even in the right way. Correction done in love will certainly yield the best results. Twentieth century Pentecostal leader Donald Gee spoke of showing kindness and humility even when people are not expressing the Holy Spirit in the best way possible.
The true servant of God will ever have his eye and his heart open to help forward a genuine movement of the Spirit of God, though at first he may find it wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the weakness and the foolishness of our poor human nature.
Wesley also spoke of preaching in a place where “outward signs” were not as pronounced as they had been at previous times, and Wesley was fine with that; he recognized that it was a different season for the people in that location. On an earlier visit by Wesley, people had been tremendously convicted of sin, with dramatic, accompanying signs. At this later time, Wesley states, “God was eminently present with us, though rather to comfort than convince” and “Many were refreshed with the multitude of peace.”22 In speaking of some of the more dramatic manifestations such as falling, trembling, etc., Wesley writes elsewhere, “Now these circumstances are common at the dawn of a work, but afterwards, very uncommon.”
Wesley did not believe that the same manifestations had to happen all the time, and he realized that there was always the possibility of fleshly counterfeits happening. He states that in some cases, “Satan mimicked this work of God in order to discredit the whole work,” but that God “will enable us to discern how far, in every case, the work is pure and where it mixes or degenerates.”
Why Had The Gifts Diminished?
While Wesley had seen many manifestations of the Holy Spirit, he was curious as to why the gifts and demonstrations of the Holy Spirit, so prevalent in the early church, had diminished so greatly over the centuries. Referring back to the time of Constantine and the increasing institutionalization of the Church, he addresses this issue head-on:
The cause of this was not (as has been vulgarly supposed) that there was no more need or occasion for them, because all the world had become Christian. This is a miserable mistake. Not a twentieth part of the world was then nominally Christian. The real cause of the loss was that the love of many, almost all the so-called Christians had grown cold. The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other heathens. The Son of Man, when He came to examine His church, could hardly find faith on earth. This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were no longer to be found in the Christian church after that time. It was because the Christians had turned heathen again, and had only a dead form left. So, when this faith and holiness were nearly lost, dry, formal, orthodox men began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they did not have themselves. They belittled and discredited all the gifts of the Spirit as either madness or fraud.
In another communication, Wesley responded to a Dr. Middleton, an anti-supernaturalist who claimed that the gift of tongues had not been heard of since the Reformation. Wesley counters by referring to the French Protestants, who in recent times had claimed to exercise tongues and other miraculous powers.
Wesley actually bemoaned the overall condition of the church relative to the Holy Spirit and his wonderful gifts. Though Wesley witnessed numerous expressions of God’s power, he realized that the church, generally speaking, was unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with the third member of the Godhead. He writes:
Who of you is, in any degree, acquainted with the work of his Spirit, his supernatural work in the souls of men? Can you bear, unless now and then, in a church, any talk of the Holy Ghost? Would you not take it for granted, if one began such a conversation, that it was hypocrisy or enthusiasm [extremism]?
Organization And Lasting Influence
The power of God’s Spirit working through Wesley has often been ignored, but what has been noted frequently is his organizational prowess. George Whitefield was actually considered to be the better preacher of the two, but Wesley’s skills in organization helped perpetuate and maintain the fruit of his labors. Whitefield said:
My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class [discipleship groups], and thus preserved the fruits of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.
Wesley organized his followers into groups that promoted discipleship, accountability, and spiritual growth. Lay preachers were developed and utilized, and women took on leadership roles in overseeing classes for other women. Wesley’s programs were designed to supplement the Church of England, not to conflict with it. His lay preachers would not administer communion, as the members of the groups were expected to maintain their membership and involvement in the established church.
Eventually, the Methodists would ordain their own clergy and the societies became fully functioning congregations separate from the Church of England, but that was not Wesley’s original intention. Today, Wesley’s influence is felt far beyond the Methodist Church. Wesleyan groups, Nazarenes, Holiness groups, Pentecostal churches, Evangelical and Charismatic groups, as well as many “revival” oriented groups and movements all look to Wesley as a significant catalyst to their works.
A Prophetic Warning
Wesley not only grasped the spiritual climate of his own day, he was also a keen student of church history. He was fully aware of how different movements had started in revival but eventually degenerated into lifeless formalism and ritualism. His understanding of these matters prompted him to write:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
Wesley’s prophetic concern was not just valid for his own followers, but is a vital admonition to every movement that is birthed in the power of God’s Spirit. Even Jesus mentioned the potential of the mighty, first century church of Ephesus losing its lampstand (Revelation 2:5). A church, once aflame with the power of God’s Spirit, can lose its influence. It has happened repeatedly throughout church history.
Wesley’s knowledge of human nature and of revival itself prompted him to state, “Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to last long.”30 He reasoned that when God works deeply in the heart of people (he called Methodism a “religion of the heart”) they become more industrious and prudent, which inevitably leads to prosperity.
Wesley had observed over many decades—he wrote this when he was 83 years old—that when people become more prosperous, they tend to become less reliant on God and digress into carnality. When this happens, Wesley observes, the outward structure of religion will remain, but “the spirit is swiftly vanishing away.”
While Wesley was not without hope, he saw only one way for people to experience meaningful, perpetuating revival. Though he saw wrong attitudes toward money as a significant stumbling block, he did not advocate poverty as the means to continuing spiritual vibrancy. Instead, he writes:
We must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich! What way, then, (I ask again,) can we take, that our money may not sink us to the nethermost hell? There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who “gain all they can,” and “save all they can,” will likewise “give all they can;” then, the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.
So to Wesley, abundant, overflowing generosity was the only way that a person who had received the outward effects of inward grace and stay on track with God. Wesley’s heart had been “strangely warmed” by the Holy Spirit, and he desired all followers of Jesus to stay fervent and passionate toward the things of God.