Walking with the Moravians

by Clay Oglesbee

"(The Moravian) P. Bohler walked with me a few miles and exhorted me not to stop short of the grace of God." — John Wesley's Journal, entry from April 26, 1738.

This month, Wesleyan and evangelical Christians commemorate the 250th anniversary of John Wesley's Aldersgate experience (May 24, 1738). I do not know if this will much interest readers of the Pietisten (since Wesley was not Swedish), but it is worth noting here because both Wesleyans and the Evangelical Covenant have common ground (koinos) in the telling influence of the pietist Moravians with their insistence upon "the one thing needful," the assured confidence in the personal effectiveness of Christ's work.

Covenanters familiar with Karl A. Olsson's By One Spirit already know the influence the Moravians had in stirring Sweden to a religious awakening during the mid-1700s. Zeisburger and Count Zinzendorf among others rebuked and offered fellowship alternatives to "a church which did not then or for many years thereafter know the meaning of a visitation of the Holy Ghost," as Olsson wrote.

Over the decades, their impact was widespread and served in the Christian formantion of the Covenanters' patriarchs and matriarchs, leaders like Rosenius and Waldenström. The Moravians, with Zinzendorf's leadership, affected Sweden with a faith that was orthodox Lutheran (in conformity with the Augsburg Confession) and, at the same time joyous, grateful "heart religion," which celebrated the completed initiative of God in Christ.

Presumably the "Mission Friends" are less familiar with the effect the Moravians had upon orthodox Anglican, John Wesley. Albert Outler (United Methodism's Karl Olsson) has even called Aldersgate Wesley's "Moravian conversion." Both the Covenant and the Wesleyan churches are strongly influenced by the Moravians; both were pietist awakenings within state churches; and neither could have come about without the Moravians' insistence upon "salvation by grace alone," received as intimate trust of Christ.

The Moravians (with something like 55,000 members in the United States today) have been "hidden seed" for the Covenant, for Methodism, and for Protestantism. Justo L. Gonzales says of them:

Given their very limited members, the Moravians could have been of scant importance for the history of Christianity. However, their significance is out of all proportion to their numbers. Their interest in missions resulted in their spreading the faith to various parts of the world, where they have influenced not only their direct spiritual descendants, but also the Protestant churches that have existed alongside them. Their impact on Wesley can be seen not only in Wesley himself, but also — though less directly — in the entire Methodist tradition. Through their influence on Friedrich Schleiermacher, they made a significant contribution to nineteenth and twentieth century theology. (History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3, p. 279).

What made the Moravians so effective? Both on the continent and in England, a blend of orthodoxy, coupled with unconverted Deism, just did not reach the majority of the people with anything that could be called "heart-warming" Christianity. The gospel's presentation was not effective or compelling. In contrast to this, the Moravians were intense, aggressive evangelists. They desired and pursued personal relationship with the Savior and received God's initiative gratefully as a liberation from fear of anything — but especially of sin, death, or the devil. They fostered attention to inner religious experience and supported it through small gatherings of believers, the "collegia pietatis." They had joy. God had really worked their salvation and they knew it and celebrated it.

Wesley's encounters with the Moravians are illustrative. Sailing to America, Wesley's ship ran into a storm. Everyone on board was terrified, including Wesley, who had a fear of the sea. Wesley wrote in his journal: "A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on...."

He had barely made land in Georgia when he was introduced to Spengberg, a Moravian pastor, who immediately probed Wesley: "Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?...Do you know Jesus Christ?...Do you know he has saved you?...Do you know yourself?"

Wesley's answers were all correct, but he admitted in his journal: " I fear (my words) were vain words." He wanted the Moravian assurance and the testimony of the Spirit!

When Wesley returned to England, he was "almost painfully ready to take (the Moravian, Peter Bohler) as a mentor." (Celebrating Aldersgate, "The Significance of Aldersgate for today", Moldwyn Edwards, p.3). And, Bohler labored over the compulsive churchman. He warned Wesley that his philosophy of merit had to be purged ( Feb. 18, 1738).

In March Bohler persuaded Wesley that he lacked either a doctrinal or an experiential grasp of "that faith whereby alone we are saved." Yet he encouraged Wesley to continue to "preach faith 'til you have it". (March 5, 1738)

On April 24, Bohler introduced Wesley to four witnesses who testified that they had experienced their salvation by faith in a moment's time. Wesley responded, "I could now only cry out,'Lord, help thou my disbelief!' "

On April 26, Wesley simply wrote, "P. Bohler walked with me a few miles and exhorted me not to stop short of the grace of God."

On May 4, Bohler left for England. Wesley continued to be nurtured in a Moravian initiated "society" (Christian support group?). Bohler's work had its effect. On May 21, John's brother Charles "found peace with God and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ." Then, on May 24, 1738, something happened to John.

In the evening I went very unwilling to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans.About a quarter to nine, while he was describing the changes which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that 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.

John came to Christ, to the heart's trust. Maybe it comes down to this, that he finally felt sure that he was a loved child of God and that he could completely trust that love. That was his gift from God, by way of the Moravians — something so simple and so difficult for Covenanters and Wesleyans alike!

This is a letter, I guess, from "a friend of a friend," from a Wesleyan Christian to a Covenanter, about God's work through the Moravians. There is mutual cause for appreciation and gratitude. This is a letter of joy and an invitation to Mission Friends to remember and celebrate the "Pentecost" of Wesleyan Christianity and the Moravian conversion of John Wesley. I imagine that Rosenius, Waldenström, and the English Wesleyan, George Scott (founder of the Pietisten) could have rejoiced together that Wesley, as well as the Swedes,"walked a few miles with the Moravians. Maybe they would even be pleased to know that we share our gratitude together through a re-born Pietisten! "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

See all articles by Clay Oglesbee