From his earliest childhood Wesley was uncommonly susceptible to religious impressions. He was reverential, conscientious, reflective, and grave, far beyond his years. These qualities were developed by the religious atmosphere which pervaded the Epworth rectory, by the methodical instruction and judicious training of his affcctionate and highly gifted mother, and by the influence of his learned and devout father. Reared in this home, consecrated to the domestic affections, to intellectual culture, and to spiritual pursuits, his mind and heart drank in the sweet influences of the spirit of truth so precociously that his father, impressed by the consistency of his childlife, admitted him to the communion when he was only eight years old. And he himself declared that "until I was about ten years old I had not sinned away that washing of the Holy Ghost which was given me in baptism."
When he was sent to the Charterhouse School, he was like a plant suddenly removed from the genial warmth of a greenhouse to the cold air of an unsheltered garden. The form of religion was maintained in its halls, but the spiritual atmosphere and the personal guidance to which he had been accustomed were not there. Hence the piety of his childhood wilted. He still adhered to the outward duties of religion, but his heart lost the consolations of the Spirit; and though he avoided scandalous sins, he fell into practices which his conscience condemned.
In this state he entered the university, where, for five years, while treating his religious duties with outward respect, he continued to sin against his convictions in spite of the castigations of his conscience. These were so severe at times as to induce transient fits of unfruitful repentance. His love of learning was too strong to suffer his pleasures to interfere with his studies; his poverty held him back from the costly vices which enslaved many of his college companions, but did not prevent him from becoming a lively and witty, though not an immoral, sinner. When twenty-two years of age his thoughts were drawn to more serious views of life by his father's pressing letters, urging him to enter into holy orders, and by the light which broke upon his conscience while reading the Christian's Pattern, by Thomas à Kempis. The conversation of a religious friend, and, after his removal to Lincoln College, the perusal of Law's Christian Perfection and Serious Call, deepened these convictions, and led him to devote himself, soul, body, and substance, to the service of God. The completeness of this self-devotion, combined with his rare moral courage and superior strength of character, caused him to be recognised as the leader of a group of undergraduates which was nicknamed the "Holy Club" by the ungodly students and dons of the university, who also derided its members for their rigid adhesion to ritualistic rules and charitable practices by calling them "Methodists."
From this unreserved dedication of himself to God Wesley never receded. Henceforth he sought to do the divine will with all the force of his energetic nature. But, owing to his failure to comprehend the scriptural doctrine of salvation by faith only, he groped in the dark through thirteen years of ascetic self-denial, ritualistic observances, unceasing prayer, and works of charity, before he gained an assurance that God, for Christ's sake, had pardoned his sins. No stronger proof of sincerity and earnestness can be found in human history than is contained in Wesley's absolute and complete devotion to religion through those long, wearisome, comfortless years or seeking God without finding him. Perhaps there is no fact more surprising in his marvellous career than that, with his singularly large perceptive powers and his familiarity with Scripture and with the writings of the English divines, he lived so long without gaining a right conception of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And when, on his voyage to Savannah, he saw some pious Moravians rejoicing, while he was shaken with fears of death, amid the fury of a storm which apparently was driving them into the jaws of destruction, he did not suspect that his fear was the fruit of his erroneous views. Nevertheless, his attention was thereby directed to the unsatisfactory features of his experience. He talked much with some of the Moravian brethren after his arrival in Savannah; but it was not until after his return to England, in 1738, that Peter Bohler, a Moravian preacher in London, after much conversation, aided by the testimonies of several living witnesses, convinced him that to gain peace of mind he must renounce that dependence upon his own works which had hitherto been the bane of his experience, and replace it with a full reliance on the blood of Christ shed for him. To gain this faith he strove with all possible earnestness. And at a Moravian society meeting in Aldersgate Street, while one was reading Luther's statement of the change which God works in the heart through faith, Wesley says, "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."
Wesley was now the possessor of "constant peace;" but, his faith being yet, weak, was subject to many fluctuations through manifold temptations. He therefore devoted all the forces of his mind to the culture of his faith. He sought association with the spiritually minded Moravians; journeyed to Germany; visited count Zinzendorf; made himself familiar with the religious life of the Moravians at Herrnhut; conversed freely with many of their most distinguished men: and, in September, 1738, returned to London, strong in faith and prepared to enter with unbounded zeal upon the duty of calling men to repentance as Providence might give him opportunities. "I look," he said to a friend, shortly after his return to England, 'upon all the world as my parish; thus far, I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation."
Last modified 30 April 2010