WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
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. –
John Wesley’s journal, May 24, 1738
The Romans built a wall protecting the city of London in approximately 200 AD, but Aldersgate was not one of the original gates. Historians believe it was added in approximately 1,000 AD, being named after either Ealdrād, a man of the late Saxon period, or a group of alder trees which grew nearby. The original gate was taken down and rebuilt in 1617 to commemorate James VI of Scotland’s use of the gate to enter London prior to being crowned king, but the new gate was damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The damaged Aldersgate remained in place until 1761.
Originally, Aldersgate Street referenced only the section of road starting from the Church of St. Botolph Without Aldersgate towards Long Lane. There have been many known religious experiences that have occurred here. In 1554, 17,000 people came to hear a “heavenly voice” speak anti-Catholic statements, but this turned out to be Elizabeth Crofts, a woman who had been placed inside the old Roman wall. And before 1655, one of the earliest Quaker meetings in London was held in the house of Sarah Sawyer in Rose and Rainbow Court. But, these aren’t the religious experiences that we think of during the month of May.
In the evening of May 24, 1738, John Wesley “very unwillingly” attended a Bible study with the Moravians who had a church at 28 Aldersgate Street and, at 8:45 p.m., John was converted to the belief of justification by faith. Prior to his conversion, Wesley, in keeping with the Church of England’s teachings, believed that both man and God played roles in the justification, or forgiveness, of sins because man’s good works and obedience to the sacraments were instrumental in the process. The Moravians, however, followed the teachings of Martin Luther who believed and taught that justification, forgiveness of sins, was God’s alone to give and man’s works, whether good or not, were not a factor in God’s forgiveness.
John Wesley was burdened to his very soul with the effort of doing works that were “good” enough to earn God’s grace and forgiveness. Less than six months after his father, Samuel’s, death, John left England and his mother, Susanna, to journey to Georgia to do God’s will and convert the Native Americans. In less than two years, however, John returned to England having converted not one Native American to Christianity but having been jailed by his fellow English citizens.
What a relief it must have been on Whitsunday in 1738 when his younger brother Charles was converted to justification by faith alone. Maybe it was the mere thought of this relief which led John to attend the Moravian Bible study that Wednesday evening on Aldersgate Street. And, oh, how grateful are we that he did.
As we commemorate Aldersgate Sunday this year, may we remember that our good works and observances are important, but it is only through God’s love and grace that we are forgiven. May we stay strangely warmed.
Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.