Very few people today are aware that John Wesley was a charismatic who experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in very real and very tangible ways. Most Methodists today are so unaware of this that if they ever experienced the Spirit in the same ways as Wesley did, they would write the experience off as emotion, science, or even as demonic before they ever considered the idea that God was interacting with them. But for Wesley, the Holy Spirit’s power was found not only in experience, but in almost everything related to the Christian faith.
Howard A. Snyder explains that “Wesley’s understanding of the church and Christian experience can be described as charismatic because of the place of the Holy Spirit in his theology and because of his openness to the gifts of the Spirit” (The Divided Flame 57). One will find this statement to be true just by reading Wesley’s journals. He references the Holy Spirit time and time again. Wesley walks so closely with the Spirit, that it seems he cannot be separated from God’s charismatic ways of presenting Himself.
Sadly, many Christians today are offended by the same kind of charismatic works the Holy Spirit did in Wesley’s time. This offense is not in any way new. There were very many people during Wesley’s time that were also offended by the Holy Spirit.
That is not to say that the Holy Spirit’s power in and of itself was offensive, but rather that those who did not believe or understand it were offended by it. That is part of the reason Wesley had a hard time with his opponents. They were people of reason who thought the “power of the Spirit” at these Methodist meetings was actually the power of emotion and in some instances, insanity. Wesley writes about one such situation in his journal:
We understood that many were offended at the cries of those on whom the power of God came, among whom was a physician, who was much afraid there might be fraud or imposture in the case. Today one whom he had known many years was the first (while I was preaching in Newgate) who broke out into ‘strong cries and tears’. He could hardly believe his own eyes and ears. He went and stood close to her, and observed every symptom, till great drops of sweat ran down her face, and all her bones shook. He then knew not what to think, being clearly convinced it was not fraud, nor yet any natural disorder. But when both her soul and body were healed in a moment, he acknowledged the finger of God (52-3).
This story is enough to baffle many Christians today, but even Wesley himself had experienced similar emotion and physical expression. One particular morning, he found himself in solitude when he had an encounter with the Holy Spirit. Wesley tried to put this experience into words by writing it down in his journal:
The love of God was shed abroad in my heart, and a flame kindled there, with pains so violent, yet so very ravishing, that my body was almost torn asunder. I loved. The Spirit cried strong in my heart. I sweated. I trembled. I fainted. I sung. I joined my voice with those that excel in strength (26).
This is hardly the weirdest thing that Wesley had seen the Spirit do in His lifetime. Even though he recognized these simple physical expressions (shaking, crying, sweating, fainting, trembling, and singing) to be caused by the Holy Spirit, he had seen in Scripture and in his own life that the Spirit was capable of doing much, much more.
One of the popular acts of the Holy Spirit seen among charismatic meetings today is known as being “slain in the Spirit.” Those who are familiar with this work recognize it when individuals fall to the ground. Once there, they typically enter either a calm state of bliss, or their body is sent into convulsions. Many understand this to be the work of the Spirit, while many others claim it to be the work of insanity. But if we look to Wesley to find an answer, we would see that he believed this to be the power of God.
In fact, in one particular situation, a Quaker was attending one of Wesley’s meetings and was growing angry with the supposed work of the Spirit going on around him. Wesley describes him as “biting his lips and knitting his brows, when he dropped down as thunderstruck.” God personally settled the debate for this Quaker by slaying Him. When he finally arose from the ground, he stated, “Now I know, thou art a prophet of the Lord” (53). This is an obvious change in mindset for this Quaker, who only moments ago was angry at what he thought to be fraud. God, however, showed him otherwise.
This is not the only time something like this has happened in Wesley’s life. In a similar situation Wesley watched some people convulse more violently than he had ever seen. Wesley prayed that God would not “suffer those who were weak to be offended,” but despite his prayers, one woman was very angry. But then, Wesley documents her having “dropped down, in as violent an agony as the rest,” despite her disposition towards the act. Altogether, at least 26 people endured these violent convulsions during one service on June 15, 1739.
And this is not the only time Wesley references this act of the Spirit. On April 21, of the same year, Wesley documented a man trembling violently and then sinking down to the ground (50). In another situation a “three persons almost at once sunk down as dead” (57). And then, on a wider scale, the Spirit performed this same type of work on New Year’s Day, 1739. It was approximately three in the morning and John and Charles Wesley were in prayer with about sixty other men. Wesley wrote that “the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground” (29).
On April 26, Wesley felt the Spirit urge him to say something he had not planned on saying during one of his sermons. Wesley, certain that this was of the Spirit, obeyed and as a result saw the power of God come on different individuals.
I was sensibly led, without any previous design, to declare strongly and explicitly that God ‘willeth all men to be thus saved’ and to pray that if this were not the truth of God, he would not suffer the blind to go out of the way; but if it were, he would bear witness to his Word. Immediately one and another and another sunk to the earth: they dropped on every side as thunderstruck (51).
Stories similar to these are documented all over Wesley’s journal, as are other works of the Spirit. But as these stories continued, so did the criticism. Many people still did not feel that these supernatural events were of God and so they rejected them completely.
But despite their rejection, John Wesley saw both spiritual and emotional healing come from people’s experience with God as they fell to the ground and convulsed. Many times they would rise to their feet with a true understanding of God’s forgiveness of their sins. Wesley also was privileged to see actual physical healing happen. Wesley, it seems, “was convinced that the Great Physician is committed to the ultimate healing of both body and soul, and that some degree of physical recovery is available even in this life—if we allow it to begin” (Maddox 147).
In one such case of physical healing, a woman by the name of Ann Calcut “had been speechless for sometime.” Wesley and some others began to pray for this woman and just about as soon as they had started, her speech returned to her. She was apparently healed of some other problems too, since Wesley speaks of a fever leaving her and that “in a few days she arose and walked, glorifying God” (258).
In another story, a middle-aged woman was “restored to a sound mind.” Many were able to testify that only a few days earlier she was “really distracted, and as such tied down in her bed” (100). But Wesley believed the power of the Spirit to be greater than the pain and sickness of the world, and so he prayed for this woman regardless of what many saw as a dead end. God heard the prayers of Wesley and others and He restored the woman to health.
Even Wesley himself had experienced physical healing! On May 10, 1741, Wesley had become quite sick. He had pain in his head as well as his back, a fever, and a cough that was so great that he could hardly speak. But then a miracle happened to Wesley as he “called on Jesus aloud.” As he spoke, his pain disappeared, his fever left, and his strength returned. And on top of that, he felt no weakness or pain for many weeks after (194).
But perhaps one of the craziest healing miracles Wesley ever saw was at the deathbed of Mr. Meyrick, on December 20, 1742. A doctor had told Wesley that this man was not expected to make it through the night. This word was confirmed when Wesley arrived at Mr. Meyrick’s side:
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 (306).
Wesley was obviously impressed by the finger of God upon this situation as he then wrote in his journal, “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” (306). It was a miracle! God had answered prayers and raised the dead! But this was not the end of the story. Five days later, on Christmas, Mr. Meyrick was expected once again to not make it to the morning. And so, on December 25, Wesley recorded in his journal the continuation of a miracle.
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. (306)
Another work of the Spirit that many Christians today either caution against or do not believe in is that of dreams and visions. But, just as Wesley believed in the Spirit’s power to heal, slay, or simply bring a person to tears, so did he believe in the supernatural power of dreams and visions. We are able to read his opinion on this matter in his journal. There he includes a summary of the letters he wrote to an opponent who had advised him against believing in dreams and visions.
What I have to say touching visions or dreams is this: I know several persons in whom this great change [being free of sin to do the will of God] was wrought, in a dream, or during a strong representation to the eye of their mind, of Christ either on the cross or in glory. This is the fact; let any judge of it as they please (59).
Towards the end of his response to his opponent, Wesley grows stronger in his opinion of the existence of this work of the Spirit:
…God does now, as aforetime, give remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost, even to us and to our children; yea, and that always suddenly, as far as I have known, and often in dreams or in the visions of God. If it be not so, I am found a false witness before God. For these things I do, and by his grace will testify (60).
As we have seen already, the Holy Spirit made Himself known to John Wesley in many ways. But what we have not yet talked about is Wesley’s involvement with the Spirit in liberating demoniacs. Christians have read in their Bible’s about the Spirit’s power to do such a thing, yet many today have not seen anything like it (outside of Hollywood’s representation). But Wesley saw it in his own life many times.
One man, by the name of John Haydon, was reported to have been reading a sermon, when “he changed colour, fell off his chair, and began screaming terribly and beating himself against the ground.” Wesley arrived at the scene only to be accused by the demon as “a deceiver of the people.” The demon pretended to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in hopes to turn people against Wesley, but Wesley fought back. He and all the others there began to pray. Soon, Haydon’s “pangs ceased and both his body and soul were set at liberty” (55).
Sometimes these demonic deliverances did not take too long. For example, it only took about fifteen minutes to deliver one particular woman from “the pangs of death” (94). But other deliverances lasted much longer, such as Wesley’s encounter with the young woman from Kingswood. He describes in his journal not only the physical manifestation of these demons, but he also records what the demons spoke to him (109).
I found her on the bed, two or three persons holding her. It was a terrible sight. Anguish, horror, and despair, above all description, appeared in her pale face. The thousand distortions of her whole body showed how the dogs of hell were gnawing her heart. The shrieks intermixed were scare to be endured. But her stony eyes could not weep. She screamed out, as soon as words could find their way, ‘I am damned, damned; lost forever. Six days ago you might have helped me. But it is past. I am the devil’s now. I have given myself to him. His I am. Him I must serve. With him I must got to hell. I will be his. I will serve him. I will go with him to hell. I cannot be saved. I will not be saved. I must, I will, I will be damned.’ She then began praying the devil (109).
Wesley and the others with him began to sing a hymn that was popular at that time, which was written by John’s brother, Charles. “Arm of the Lord, awake, awake!” they sang, which caused the demoniac to immediately sink down. But then, the demon manifested again, this time even more intensely. Charles joined John in prayer around 9:00 and together they prayed past 11:00. Over two hours were spent on this exorcism alone. These are only two examples of deliverances that John Wesley took part in, but he documented many others in his journals as well.
Perhaps we can even find the Spirit’s work in Wesley’s shift of emotions. Author John White seems to understand these moments to be divine in nature as he reflects on Wesley’s famous experience at Aldersgate, where his heart was strangely warmed.. “Wesley has been accused, and perhaps rightly, of too great a concern with his subjective states. But were those feelings of warmth, of trust and of assurance merely the psychological result of the reading, or were they the results of divine illumination, imparted by the Holy Spirit at that very moment?” (53).
It seems that from day-to-day, Wesley took part in God’s supernatural ways. The Holy Spirit worked through him constantly, whether it was through an exorcism, through a message, through a healing, or through many of the other miracles the Spirit performed. The power of the Spirit was a constant in Wesley’s life. But it is important to note that just because Wesley was charismatic, does not mean that he lived without reason. Snyder points this out in his book The Radical Wesley:
Wesley was a man of reason in an age of rationalism; yet he was roundly charged with enthusiasm or fanaticism because of his stress on experience and his openness to the expression of emotion… He was always clear as to the priority of Scripture, especially from 1738 on, and his experiential emphasis was guarded from pure subjectivism not only by his respect for Scripture but also by his emphasis on the witness of the Spirit, the work of the Holy Spirit testifying to and confirming the Word in present experience (71).
If we decide to ignore all of the supernatural encounters found in Wesley’s life or even if we choose to write them off as insanity or mere coincidence, we will find ourselves admiring an incomplete and fictional John Wesley. This revivalist, so it seems, was quite charismatic in his approach to church, because he allowed the Holy Spirit room to work through him not just in the natural, but the supernatural as well. And if Wesley had not done so, it is possible that many would not have been touched by God in the way that they had been.
Maddox, Randy L. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville,Tenn.: Kingswood, 1994. Print.
Snyder, Howard A., and Daniel V. Runyon. The Divided Flame: Wesleyans and Charismatic Renewal. Grand Rapids, Mich.: F. Asbury, 1986. Print.
Snyder, Howard A. The Radical Wesley & Patterns for Church Renewal. DownersGrove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1980. Print.
Wesley, John, William Reginald Ward, and Richard P. Heitzenrater. The Works of John Wesley. Vol. 19. Nashville: Abingdon, 1990. Print.
White, John. When the Spirit Comes with Power: Signs & Wonders among God’s People. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1988. Print.