Re-Claiming Aldersgate

Methodists often speak of Aldersgate. Some people wonder what this means.

  • Aldersgate is a street in London.
  • Aldersgate is a road that leads somewhere.
  • Aldersgate is an experience in the heart of the believer.

Let us see how this came about.

On May 24, 1738, a few people met in a small room there in Aldersgate Street, for prayer and Bible study. These were people in search of a deeper faith,—something that was lacking in the Sunday services at that time.

One of them was John Wesley. Though an ordained minister of the Anglican Church and a returned missionary from colonial America, he was restless and unhappy with his spiritual condition. Leafing through the Bible very early that morning he had come to two passages which aroused his hopes and expectations: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding precious promises; that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” Again, “Thou art not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Troubled in mind, he went for a walk that evening down Aldersgate street. On hearing the singing he stopped in, but “very unwillingly”, at the meeting. The leader was reading a book by Martin Luther, explaining Paul’s letter to the Romans. “While he (Luther) 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.”

That night when the prayer meeting adjourned, John went to find his brother Charles and tell him the glad news. The spirit of God fell on the brother as well. Together the brothers went out to preach as though they knew what they were preaching, to speak as though they expected their listeners to do something about it at once.

The Aldersgate experience suggests a number of things which Methodism must retain, or re-gain, if it is to live up to its founder. The first of these is Christian experience. Methodists believe that man needs to be saved, that he is worth saving, that he has a Saviour, and therefore can be saved. This experience of salvation is something that can be definite, that the person may know, as Wesley knew, that the promises of the Scripture have been fulfilled in him. Bishop Ensley has said, “How tragic to be born, and never grow, remaining all one’s days a religious dwarf, a spiritual idiot.” The Bible declares, “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 2:18).

Aldersgate suggests, secondly, joyous singing. The Methodist revival was borne in on a wave of song. Up till Wesley’s time, the vast majority of the hymns used in Christian worship were based on the Old Testament. Imagine what a new and positive note was brought into Christian worship by the thousands of hymns which Charles Wesley penned. In the accounts of the Wesleyan revivals, we read, “He gathered a congregation about him by singing, and after prayer began to preach.” Hymn-singing melted and molded the people into a powerful emotional unity. Some congregations are finding these values in the Festival of Hymns.

In the third place, the Wesleyan revival was characterized by gospel preaching. It is to be remembered that the experience at Aldersgate was the climax of a day’s reflection on three promises of Scripture which had come to him that day. If we are to re-discover Aldersgate in our time we must again become earnest and faithful students of the Word of God.

John Wesley preached tirelessly. He preached wherever he could get an audience. He preached any day in the week, sometimes several times in a day. We wonder what he would think of modern preachers who satisfy themselves with one sermon a week. The fact that John Wesley broke out of the well-formed religious molds and patterns of his time and went to the people, to the crowds in the streets, ought to be a lesson for our time and situation. Is there something we are overlooking?

Finally, this movement was characterized by tireless witnessing. Wesley gathered his followers together in the homes of the people for praise and prayer, for sharing of experience. We may rejoice that in Malaya, as well as in some other places around the world, the house or parish meeting is again coming into its own. There are powerful resources in parish meetings when utilized to their fullest extent. Not only this, but in visiting from house to house did the people called Methodists bring their witness to the community. Wesley and his people would begin at one end of the village and go right through to the other end, calling on all the Methodist homes. They did this to encourage, to correct, and to instruct the members.

A good deal has been said here that applies to methods. But the principal thing is not the method, but the spirit of the leader and worker in the church. We’ve had no end of instruction in methods, in education, in evangelism, and churchmanship; but these have not borne the expected results. What is needed is a new experience, the transforming power of Christ in the heart of the believer. This is something which, though earnestly sought, cannot be acquired without divine help. It is a gift of God. May the Holy Spirit be poured out upon the church, its pastors, and workers, upon every member in the pew. Then Aldersgate will be reclaimed, in South Eastern Asia and around the world.

W. S. R.

 Methodist Message (May 1961)