The Moravians and John Wesley
THE WORLDWIDE INFLUENCE the 18th century Moravian missionaries was extraordinary. One notable example is the impact they had on John Wesley, leading directly to his conversion experience. Wesley’s Journal, covering the years 1736–1738, is replete with comments of his observations of and encounters with the Moravians (often calling them “the Germans”). A few selections of highlights give insight into the characters and spirit of the Moravian movement and its impression on the founder of the Methodists.
Sunday, January 25, 1736
Wesley is on board a ship bound for America and observes the Moravians in the midst of life-threatening storms.
At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.” And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid to die.”
From them I went to their crying, trembling neighbours, and pointed out to them the difference in the hour of trial, between him that feareth God, and him that feareth him not. At twelve the wind fell. This was the most glorious day which I have hitherto seen.
Tuesday, February 24, 1736
In Savannah, Georgia
At our return the next day, (Mr. Quincy being then in the house wherein we afterwards were,) Mr. Delamotte and I took up our lodging with the Germans (the Moravians). We had now an opportunity, day by day, of observing their whole behaviour. For we were in one room with them from morning to night, unless for the little time I spent in walking. They were always employed, always cheerful themselves, and in good humour with one another; they had put away all anger and strife, and wrath, and bitterness, and clamour, and evil-speaking; they walked worthy of the vocation wherewith they were called, and adorned the Gospel of our Lord in all things.
Saturday, February 28, 1736
They met to consult concerning the affairs of their Church; Mr. Spangenberg being shortly to go to Pennsylvania, and Bishop Nitschman to return to Germany. After several hours spent in conference and prayer, they proceeded to the election and ordination of a Bishop. The great simplicity, as well as solemnity, of the whole, almost made me forget the seventeen hundred years between, and imagine myself in one of those assemblies where form and state were not; but Paul the tent-maker, or Peter the fisherman, presided; yet with the demonstration of the Spirit and of power.
Saturday, March 4, 1738
I found my brother at Oxford, recovering from his pleurisy; and with him Peter Boehler; by whom (in the hand of the great God) I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.
Immediately it struck into my mind, “Leave off preaching. How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” I asked Boehler, whether he thought I should leave it off or not. He answered “By no means.” I asked, “But what can I preach?” He said, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
Wednesday and Thursday, May 3–4, 1738
My brother had a long and particular conversation with Peter Boehler. And it now pleased God to open his eyes; so that he also saw clearly what was the nature of that one true living faith, whereby alone, “through grace, we are saved.”
Peter Boehler left London, in order to embark for Carolina. O what a work hath God begun since his coming into England! Such an one as shall never come to an end, till heaven and earth pass away.
Wednesday, May 10, 1738
Wesley, still in England, reports “I was sorrowful and very heavy” (in spirit), and records the contents of a letter received from Peter Boehler that day which refreshed him.
“I love you greatly and think much of you in my journey, wishing and praying that the tender mercies of Jesus Christ the Crucified, whose bowels were moved towards you more than six thousand years ago, may be manifested to your soul: That you may taste and then see, how exceedingly the Son of God has loved you, and loves you still; and that so you may continually trust in Him, and feel his life in yourself. Beware of the sin of unbelief; and if you have not conquered it yet, see that you conquer it this very day, through the blood of Jesus Christ. Delay not, I beseech you, to believe in your Jesus Christ; but so put Him in mind of his promises to poor sinners, that He may not be able to refrain from doing for you, what He hath done for so many others. O how great, how inexpressible, how unexhausted is his love! Surely he is now ready to help; and nothing can offend Him but our unbelief.
“The Lord bless you! Abide in faith, love, teaching, the communion of saints; and briefly, in all which we have in the New Testament. I am,
“Your unworthy Brother, Peter Boehler.”
Wednesday, May 24, 1738
Wesley summarizes his life changing conversion experience.
In my return to England, January, 1738, being in imminent danger of death, and very uneasy on that account, I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief; and that the gaining a true, living faith was the “one thing needful” for me. But still I fixed not this faith on its right object: I meant only faith in God, not faith in or through Christ. Again, I knew not that I was wholly void of this faith; but only thought, I had not enough of it. So that when Peter Boehler, whom God prepared for me as soon as I came to London, affirmed of true faith in Christ, (which is but one,) that it had those two fruits inseparably attending it, “Dominion over sin, and constant Peace from a sense of forgiveness,” I was quite amazed, and looked upon it as a new Gospel. If this was so, it was clear I had not faith. But I was not willing to be convinced of this. Therefore, I disputed with all my might, and laboured to prove that faith might be where these were not; especially where the sense of forgiveness was not: For all the Scriptures relating to this I had been long since taught to construe away; and to call all Presbyterians who spoke otherwise. Besides, I well saw, no one could, in the nature of things, have such a sense of forgiveness, and not feel it. But I felt it not. If then there was no faith without this, all my pretensions to faith dropped at once.
When I met Peter Boehler again, he consented to put the dispute upon the issue which I desired, namely, Scripture and experience. I first consulted the Scripture. But when I set aside the glosses of men, and simply considered the words of God, comparing them together, endeavouring to illustrate the obscure by the plainer passages; I found they all made against me, and was forced to retreat to my last hold, “that experience would never agree with the literal interpretation of those scriptures. Nor could I therefore allow it to be true, till I found some living witnesses of it.” He replied, he could show me such at any time; if I desired it, the next day. And accordingly, the next day he came again with three others, all of whom testified, of their own personal experience, that a true living faith in Christ is inseparable from a sense of pardon for all past, and freedom from all present, sins. They added with one mouth, that this faith was the gift, the free gift of God; and that he would surely bestow it upon every soul who earnestly and perseveringly sought it. I was now thoroughly convinced; and, by the grace of God, I resolved to seek it unto the end, 1. By absolutely renouncing all dependence, in whole or in part, upon my own works or righteousness; on which I had really grounded my hope of salvation, though I knew it not, from my youth up. 2. By adding to the constant use of all the other means of grace, continual prayer for this very thing, justifying, saving faith, a full reliance on the blood of Christ shed for me; a trust in Him, as my Christ, as my sole justification, sanctification, and redemption.
I continued thus to seek it, (though with strange indifference, dullness, and coldness, and unusually frequent relapses into sin,) till Wednesday, May 24. I think it was about five this morning, that I opened my Testament on those words: “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pet. i. 4.) Just as I went out, I opened it again on those words, “Thou art not far from the Kingdom of God.” In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s. The anthem was, “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. O let shine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with thee; therefore shalt thou be feared. O Israel, trust in the Lord: For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his sins.”
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.
Tuesday, August 8, 1738
Wesley visited Herrnhut and provides invaluable details about daily life there. One incident is particularly vivid and illuminating.
A child was buried. The burying-ground (called by them Gottes Acker, that is, God’s ground.) lies a few hundred yards out of the town, under the side of a little wood. There are distinct Squares in it for married men and unmarried; for married and unmarried women; for male and female children, and for widows. The corpse was carried from the chapel, the children walking first; next the orphan-father, (so they call him who has the chief care of the Orphan house,) with the Minister of Berthelsdorf; then four children bearing the corpse; and after them, Martin Dober and the father of the child. Then followed the men; and last of all the women and girls. They all sung as they went. Being come into the Square where the male children are buried, the men stood on two sides of it, the boys on the third, and the women and girls on the fourth. There they sung again; After which the Minister used (I think read) a short prayer, and concluded with that blessing, “Unto God’s gracious mercy and protection I commit you.” Seeing the father (a plain man, a tailor by trade) looking at the grave, I asked, “How do you find yourself?” He said, “Praised be the Lord, never better. He has taken the soul of my child to himself. I have seen, according to my desire, his body committed to holy ground. And I know that when it is raised again, both he and I shall be ever with the Lord.”
Saturday, August 12, 1738
His overall response to Herrnhut is summed up:
Today was the Intercession-day, when many strangers were present, some of whom came twenty or thirty miles. I would gladly have spent my life here; but my Master calling me to labour in another part of his vineyard, on Monday, 14, I was constrained to take my leave of this happy place; Martin Dober, and a few others of the brethren, walking with us about an hour, O when shall this Christianity cover the earth, as the “waters cover the sea?”
To hear in what manner God “out of darkness commanded this light to shine, ” must be agreeable to all those in every nation, who can testify from their own experience, “The gracious Lord hath so done his marvellous acts, that they ought to be had in remembrance.” I shall therefore here subjoin the substance of several conversations, which I had at Herrnhut, chiefly on this subject. And may many be incited hereby to give praise “unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!”
By John Wesley
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #1 in 1982]
My Zeal Has Not Cooled . . .
Zinzendorf's remembrances as he prepares to take his ordination exam.Nicolaus von Zinzendorf
Revival and Revolution: From the Publisher
About Christian History and its John Wesley issue.the Editors
John Wesley: Did You Know?
Fascinating facts about John Wesley and the Methodist movement.the Editors
Wesley’s Rule for Christian Living
A principle to live by.John Wesley