Ask your average Methodist what the turning point was in the history of the Methodist movement, and you’ll likely get the response that it was John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience in 1738. It was there that Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed and received the assurance of his salvation. Methodism couldn’t have grown and expanded in the years following had it not been for Wesley’s own encounter with Christ that fateful evening, right?
Wesley clearly saw Aldersgate as important. The entry in his Journal for May 24, 1738, is long and richly detailed. He is presenting what happened to him in a very particular way. Aldersgate gave him the experiential understanding of faith as gift, as well as of the assurance that can only come by the witness of the Spirit.
I find it interesting, though, that Wesley does not point to Aldersgate when he tells the story of the pivotal moments in the rise of the Methodist movement. He points to three “rises” of Methodism, in fact, and Aldersgate isn’t one of them.
The key text for what I’m talking about here is Wesley’s “A Short History of the People Called Methodists,” which he published in 1781. How he describes the three rises of Methodism says a lot about what he thought lay at the heart of the revival. Here’s the relevant passage:
“On Monday, May 1, [1738,] our little society began in London. But it may be observed, the first rise of Methodism (so-called) was in November 1729, when four of us met together at Oxford: the second was at Savannah, in April 1736, when twenty or thirty persons met at my house: the last, was at London, on this day, when forty or fifty of us agreed to meet together every Wednesday evening, in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer. In all our steps we were greatly assisted by the advice and exhortations of Peter Boehler, an excellent young man, belonging to the society commonly called Moravians.”
Take note of the three locations Wesley mentions: Oxford, Savannah [GA], and London. The locations were personally significant for Wesley, because each place marked a significant point in his spiritual development from his late 20s to his mid-30s. More significant, though, is the characteristic activity that Wesley describes as taking place in each circumstance. It has to do with Christians gathering together in small groups in order to better practice their faith—a handful in Oxford, a couple of dozen in Savannah, and a few more than that in London.
The form of organization to which Wesley is referring is what he called a “Society.” He defines it in the General Rules of the United Societies as “a company of men ‘having the form, and seeking the power of godliness’, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation’.” It is with the creation of Societies at pivotal points that Wesley identifies the three rises of Methodism. It’s a way of him saying that, at its heart, this is what Methodism is. We might also note what he’s not identifying as lying at the heart of the Methodist revival: it is not his Aldersgate experience, the advent of field preaching, the first Conference in 1744, or any other significant event in early Methodist history. It is the formation of Societies—where men and women could come together and by their common practice encourage one another to receive God’s grace for their own salvation.
I find this commitment by Wesley to be very important. Partly this is because when we tend to wax nostalgic about the early Methodists, it is to charismatic images that we tend to gravitate. Daring instances of field preaching in the presence of hostile mobs, or the American circuit rider with his shoulders braced against the rain as he rides alone on the frontier, or (of course) Wesley at that meeting in Aldersgate street. These and others are beloved images of the Methodist past. They’re important. They aren’t the most important images, though, if by that we mean the images connected to the very heart of what the Methodist revival was really about. Instead, our image should be of the English (or American) artisan or farm laborer or clerk, meeting faithfully with his or her fellows once per week to share their common faith and partake of the means of grace that can only come about in an intimate Christian community. Dramatic conversions happened, to be sure, but most growth came slowly by degrees. And yet, in this setting Christian believers came to know themselves as accepted by God in Christ Jesus and experienced real growth in holiness of heart and life. This is, in a real sense, what Methodism is all about.
The primary substructure of a Methodist Society was called the class meeting. Everybody had to belong to one, and your membership had to be renewed quarterly by the issuance of a ticket. Weekly attendance in the class meeting was required. If it sounds too rigid or organized or even boring, then at least hear Wesley’s testimony about what happened in the class meetings:
“It can scarce be conceived what advantages have been reaped from this little prudential regulation. Many now happily experience that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to ‘bear one another’s burdens’, and ‘naturally’ to ‘care for each other’. As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for each other. And ‘speaking the truth in love, they grew up into him in all things which is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplied, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, increased unto the edifying itself in love.”
Those words come from A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists, a treatise Wesley wrote in 1749 to explain the Methodist revival and its organization to the larger British public. Here, as elsewhere, Wesley’s message is clear: If you want to know the love of Christ for you and how that love can transform you entirely, join together with other Christian believers in a small group fellowship and begin living as God has called you to do.
It’s that simple, in the 18th century or in the 21st.