A history of the moravian church

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At last Boehler made a fine practical suggestion {March 5th.}. He urged Wesley to preach the Gospel to others. John Wesley was thunderstruck. He thought it rather his duty to leave off preaching. What right had he to preach to others a faith he did not yet possess himself? Should he leave off preaching or not?
“By no means,” replied Boehler.
“But what can I preach?” asked Wesley.
“Preach faith till you have it,” was the classic answer, “and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
Again he consulted Boehler on the point; and again Boehler, broad-minded man, gave the same wholesome advice.
“No,” he insisted, “do not hide in the earth the talent God has given you.”
The advice was sound. If John Wesley had left off preaching now, he might never have preached again; and if Boehler had been a narrow-minded bigot, he would certainly have informed his pupil that unless he possessed full assurance of faith he was unfit to remain in holy orders. But Boehler was a scholar and a gentleman, and acted throughout with tact. For some weeks John Wesley continued to be puzzled by Boehler’s doctrine of the holiness and happiness which spring from living faith; but at last he came to the firm conclusion that what Boehler said on the subject was precisely what was taught in the Church of England. He had read already in his own Church homilies that faith “is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God that through the merits of Christ his sins are forgiven, and he reconciled to the favour of God”; and yet, clergyman though he was, he had not yet that trust and confidence himself. Instead, therefore, of teaching Wesley new doctrine, Peter Boehler simply informed him that some men, though of course not all, were suddenly converted, that faith might be given in a moment, and that thus a man might pass at once from darkness to light and from sin and misery to righteousness and joy in the Holy Ghost. He had had that very experience himself at Jena; he had known it as a solid fact in the case of others; and, therefore, speaking from his own personal knowledge, he informed Wesley that when a man obtained true faith he acquired forthwith “dominion over sin and constant peace from a sense of forgiveness.”
At this Wesley was staggered. He called it a new Gospel. He would not believe that the sense of forgiveness could be given in a moment.
For answer Boehler appealed to the New Testament; and Wesley, looking to see for himself, found that nearly all the cases of conversion mentioned there were instantaneous. He contended, however, that such miracles did not happen in the eighteenth century. Boehler brought four friends to prove that they did. Four examples, said Wesley, were not enough to prove a principle. Boehler promised to bring eight more. For some days Wesley continued to wander in the valley of indecision, and consulted Boehler at every turn of the road. He persuaded Boehler to pray with him; he joined him in singing Richter’s hymn, “My soul before Thee prostrate lies”; and finally, he preached a sermon to four thousand hearers in London, enforcing that very faith in Christ which he himself did not yet possess. But Boehler had now to leave for South Carolina. From Southampton he wrote a farewell letter to Wesley. “Beware of the sin of unbelief,” he wrote, “and if you have not conquered it yet, see that you conquer it this very day, through the blood of Jesus Christ.”
The letter produced its effect. The turning-point in John Wesley’s career arrived. He was able to give, not only the day, but the hour, and almost the minute. As he was still under the influence of Boehler’s teaching, many writers have here assumed that his conversion took place in a Moravian society.110 The assumption is false. “In the evening,” says Wesley, “I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street {May 24th.}, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.” At that time the society in Aldersgate Street had no more connection with the Moravian Church than any other religious society in England. It was founded by James Hutton; it was an ordinary religious society; it consisted entirely of members of the Anglican Church; and there, in an Anglican religious society, Wesley’s conversion took place. “About a quarter to nine,” he says, “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.”
From that moment, despite some recurring doubts, John Wesley was a changed man. If he had not exactly learned any new doctrine, he had certainly passed through a new experience. He had peace in his heart; he was sure of his salvation; and henceforth, as all readers know, he was able to forget himself, to leave his soul in the hands of God, and to spend his life in the salvation of his fellow-men.
Meanwhile Peter Boehler had done another good work. If his influence over John Wesley was great, his influence over Charles Wesley was almost greater. For some weeks the two men appear to have been in daily communication; Charles Wesley taught Boehler English; and when Wesley was taken ill Boehler on several occasions, both at Oxford and at James Hutton’s house in London, sat up with him during the night, prayed for his recovery, and impressed upon him the value of faith and prayer. The faith of Boehler was amazing. As soon as he had prayed for Wesley’s recovery, he turned to the sufferer and calmly said, “You will not die now.” The patient felt he could not endure the pain much longer.
“Do you hope to be saved?” said Boehler.
“For what reason do you hope it?”
“Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God.”
Boehler shook his head, and said no more. As soon as Charles was restored to health, he passed through the same experience as his brother John; and gladly ascribed both recovery and conversion to the faith and prayer of Boehler.
But this was not the end of Boehler’s influence. As soon as he was able to speak English intelligibly, he began to give addresses on saving faith to the good folk who met at James Hutton’s house; and before long he changed the whole character of the Society. It had been a society of seekers; it became a society of believers. It had been a group of High Churchmen; it became a group of Evangelicals. It had been a free-and-easy gathering; it became a society with definite regulations. For two years the Society was nothing less than the headquarters of the growing evangelical revival; and the rules drawn up by Peter Boehler (May 1st, 1738), just before he left for America, were the means of making it a vital power. In these rules the members were introducing, though they knew it not, a new principle into English Church life. It was the principle of democratic government. The Society was now a self-governing body; and all the members, lay and clerical, stood upon the same footing. They met once a week to confess their faults to each other and to pray for each other; they divided the Society into “bands,” with a leader at the head of each; and they laid down the definite rule that “every one, without distinction, submit to the determination of his Brethren.”111 The Society increased; the room at Hutton’s house became too small; and Hutton therefore hired first a large room, and then a Baptist Hall, known as the Great Meeting House, in Fetter Lane.112
From this time the Society was known as the Fetter Lane Society, and the leading spirits were James Hutton and Charles Wesley. For a while the hall was the home of happiness and peace. As the months rolled on, various Moravians paid passing calls on their way to America; and Hutton, the Wesleys, Delamotte and others became still more impressed with the Brethren’s teaching. Charles Wesley was delighted. As he walked across the fields from his house at Islington to the Sunday evening love-feast in Fetter Lane, he would sing for very joy. John Wesley was equally charmed. He had visited the Brethren at Marienborn and Herrnhut (August, 1738). He had listened with delight to the preaching of Christian David. He had had long chats about spiritual matters with Martin Linner, the Chief Elder, with David Nitschmann, with Albin Feder, with Augustin Neisser, with Wenzel Neisser, with Hans Neisser, with David Schneider, and with Arvid Gradin, the historian; he felt he would like to spend his life at Herrnhut; and in his Journal he wrote the words, “Oh, when shall this Christianity cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” At a Watch-Night service in Fetter Lane (Dec. 31st, 1738) the fervour reached its height. At that service both the Wesleys, George Whitefield, Benjamin Ingham, Kinchin and other Oxford Methodists were present, and the meeting lasted till the small hours of the morning. “About three in the morning,” says John Wesley, “as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground.”
And yet all the while there was a worm within the bud. John Wesley soon found serious faults in the Brethren. As he journeyed to Herrnhut, he had called at Marienborn, and there they had given him what seemed to him an unnecessary snub. For some reason which has never been fully explained, they refused to admit him to the Holy Communion; and the only reason they gave him was that he was a “homo perturbatus,” i.e., a restless man.113 For the life of him Wesley could not understand why a “restless man” of good Christian character should not kneel at the Lord’s Table with the Brethren; and to make the insult more stinging still, they actually admitted his companion, Benjamin Ingham. But the real trouble lay at Fetter Lane. It is easy to put our finger on the cause. As long as people hold true to the faith and practice of their fathers they find it easy to live at peace with each other; but as soon as they begin to think for themselves they are sure to differ sooner or later. And that was exactly what happened at Fetter Lane. The members came from various stations in life. Some, like the Wesleys, were university men; some, like Hutton, were middle-class tradesmen, of moderate education; some, like Bray, the brazier, were artizans; and all stood on the same footing, and discussed theology with the zeal of novices and the confidence of experts. John Wesley found himself in a strange country. He had been brought up in the realm of authority; he found himself in the realm of free discussion. Some said that saying faith was one thing, and some said that it was another. Some said that a man could receive the forgiveness of his sins without knowing it, and some argued that if a man had any doubts he was not a true Christian at all. As Wesley listened to these discussions he grew impatient and disgusted. The whole tone of the Society was distasteful to his mind. If ever a man was born to rule it was Wesley; and here, at Fetter Lane, instead of being captain, he was merely one of the crew, and could not even undertake a journey without the consent of the Society. The fetters were beginning to gall.
At this point there arrived from Germany a strange young man on his way to America, who soon added fuel to the fire {Oct. 18th, 1739.}. His name was Philip Henry Molther. He was only twenty-five years old; he had belonged to the Brethren’s Church about a year; he had spent some months as tutor in Zinzendorf’s family; he had picked up only the weak side of the Brethren’s teaching; and now, with all the zeal of youth, he set forth his views in extravagant language, which soon filled Wesley with horror. His power in the Society was immense, and four times a week, in broken English, he preached to growing crowds. At first he was utterly shocked by what he saw. “The first time I entered the meeting,” he says, “I was alarmed and almost terror-stricken at hearing their sighing and groaning, their whining and howling, which strange proceeding they call the demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” For these follies Molther had a cure of his own. He called it “stillness.” As long as men were sinners, he said, they were not to try to obtain saving faith by any efforts of their own. They were not to go to church. They were not to communicate. They were not to fast. They were not to use so much private prayer. They were not to read the Scriptures. They were not to do either temporal or spiritual good. Instead of seeking Christ in these ways, said Molther, the sinner should rather sit still and wait for Christ to give him the Divine revelation. If this doctrine had no other merit it had at least the charm of novelty. The dispute at Fetter Lane grew keener than ever. On the one hand Hutton, James Bell, John Bray, and other simple-minded men regarded Molther as a preacher of the pure Gospel. He had, said Hutton, drawn men away from many a false foundation, and had led them to the only true foundation, Christ. “No soul,” said another, “can be washed in the blood of Christ unless it first be brought to one in whom Christ is fully formed. But there are only two such men in London, Bell and Molther.” John Bray, the brazier, went further.
“It is impossible,” he said, “for anyone to be a true Christian outside the Moravian Church.”
As the man was outside that Church himself, and remained outside it all his life, his statement is rather bewildering.114
John Wesley was disgusted. He regarded Molther as a teacher of dangerous errors. The two men were poles asunder. The one was a quietist evangelical; the other a staunch High Churchman. According to Molther the correct order was, through Christ to the ordinances of the Church; according to Wesley, through the ordinances to Christ. According to Molther, a man ought to be a believer in Christ before he reads the Bible, or attends Communion, or even does good works; according to Wesley, a man should read his Bible, go to Communion, and do good works in order to become a believer. According to Molther the Sacrament was a privilege, meant for believers only; according to Wesley it was a duty, and a means of grace for all men. According to Molther, the only means of grace was Christ; according to Wesley, there were many means of grace, all leading the soul to Christ. According to Molther there were no degrees in faith; according to Wesley there were. No longer was the Fetter Lane Society a calm abode of peace. Instead of trying to help each other the members would sometimes sit for an hour without speaking a word; and sometimes they only reported themselves without having a proper meeting at all. John Wesley spoke his mind. He declared that Satan was beginning to rule in the Society. He heard that Molther was taken ill, and regarded the illness as a judgment from heaven. At last the wranglings came to an open rupture. At an evening meeting in Fetter Lane {July 16th, 1740.}, John Wesley, resolved to clear the air, read out from a book supposed to be prized by the Brethren the following astounding doctrine: “The Scriptures are good; prayer is good; communicating is good; relieving our neighbour is good; but to one who is not born of God, none of these is good, but all very evil. For him to read the Scriptures, or to pray, or to communicate, or to do any outward work is deadly poison. First, let him be born of God. Till then, let him not do any of these things. For if he does, he destroys himself.”
He read the passage aloud two or three times. “My brethren,” he asked, “is this right, or is this wrong?”
“It is right,” said Richard Bell, the watchcase maker, “it is all right. It is the truth. To this we must all come, or we never can come to Christ.”
“I believe,” broke in Bray, the brazier, “our brother Bell did not hear what you read, or did not rightly understand.”
“Yes! I heard every word,” said Bell, “and I understand it well. I say it is the truth; it is the very truth; it is the inward truth.”
“I used the ordinances twenty years,” said George Bowers, the Dissenter, of George Yard, Little Britain, “yet I found not Christ. But I left them off for only a few weeks and I found Him then. And I am now as close united to Him as my arm is to my body.”
The dispute was coming to a crisis. The discussion lasted till eleven o’clock. Some said that Wesley might preach in Fetter Lane.
“No,” said others, “this place is taken for the Germans.”
Some argued that Wesley had often put an end to confusions in the Society.
“Confusion!” snapped others, “What do you mean? We never were in any confusion at all.”
Next Sunday evening Wesley appeared again {July 20th, 1740.}. He was resolved what to do.
“I find you,” he said, “more and more confirmed in the error of your ways. Nothing now remains but that I should give you up to God. You that are of the same opinion follow me.”
As some wicked joker had hidden his hat, he was not able to leave the room with the dignity befitting the occasion; but eighteen supporters answered to his call; and the face of John Wesley was seen in the Fetter Lane Society no more. The breach was final; the wound remained open; and Moravians and Methodists went their several ways. For some years the dispute continued to rage with unabated fury. The causes were various. The damage done by Molther was immense. The more Wesley studied the writings of the Brethren the more convinced he became that in many ways they were dangerous teachers. They thought, he said, too highly of their own Church. They would never acknowledge themselves to be in the wrong. They submitted too much to the authority of Zinzendorf, and actually addressed him as Rabbi. They were dark and secret in their behaviour, and practised guile and dissimulation. They taught the doctrine of universal salvation. Above all, however, John Wesley held that the Brethren, like Molther, laid a one-sided stress on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They were, he contended, Antinomians; they followed too closely the teaching of Luther; they despised the law, the commandments, good works, and all forms of self-denial.
“You have lost your first joy,” said one, “therefore you pray: that is the devil. You read the Bible: that is the devil. You communicate: that is the devil.”
In vain Count Zinzendorf, longing for peace, endeavoured to pour oil on the raging waters. The two leaders met in Gray’s Inn Gardens and made an attempt to come to a common understanding {Sept. 3rd, 1741.}. The attempt was useless. The more keenly they argued the question out the further they drifted from each other. For Zinzendorf Wesley had never much respect, and he certainly never managed to understand him. If a poet and a botanist talk about roses they are hardly likely to understand each other; and that was just how the matter stood between Zinzendorf and Wesley. The Count was a poet, and used poetic, language. John Wesley was a level-headed Briton, with a mind as exact as a calculating machine.
“Why have you left the Church of England?”115 began the Count.
“I was not aware that I had left the Church of England,” replied Wesley.
And then the two men began to discuss theology.
“I acknowledge no inherent perfection in this life,” said the Count. “This is the error of errors. I pursue it through the world with fire and sword. I trample it under foot. I exterminate it. Christ is our only perfection. Whoever follows after inherent perfection denies Christ.”
“But I believe,” replied Wesley, “that the Spirit of Christ works perfection in true Christians.”
“Not at all,” replied Zinzendorf, “All our perfection is in Christ. The whole of Christian perfection is imputed, not inherent. We are perfect in Christ--in ourselves, never.”
“What,” asked Wesley, in blank amazement, after Zinzendorf had hammered out his point. “Does not a believer, while he increases in love, increase equally in holiness?”
“By no means,” said the Count; “the moment he is justified he is sanctified wholly. From that time, even unto death, he is neither more nor less holy. A babe in Christ is as pure in heart as a father in Christ. There is no difference.”
At the close of the discussion the Count spoke a sentence which seemed to Wesley as bad as the teaching of Molther.
“We spurn all self-denial,” he said, “we trample it under foot. Being believers, we do whatever we will and nothing more. We ridicule all mortification. No purification precedes perfect love.”
And thus the Count, by extravagant language, drove Wesley further away from the Brethren than ever.
Meanwhile, at Fetter Lane events were moving fast. As soon as Wesley was out of the way, James Hutton came to the front; a good many Moravians--Bishop Nitschmann, Anna Nitschmann, John Toeltschig, Gussenbauer, and others--began to arrive on the scene; and step by step the Society became more Moravian in character. For this Hutton himself was chiefly responsible. He maintained a correspondence with Zinzendorf, and was the first to introduce Moravian literature to English readers. He published a collection of Moravian hymns, a Moravian Manual of Doctrine, and a volume in English of Zinzendorf’s Berlin discourses. He was fond of the Moravian type of teaching, and asked for Moravian teachers. His wish was speedily gratified. The foolish Molther departed. The sober Spangenberg arrived. The whole movement now was raised to a higher level. As soon as Spangenberg had hold of the reins the members, instead of quarrelling with each other, began to apply themselves to the spread of the Gospel; and to this end they now established the “Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel.” Its object was the support of foreign missions {1741.}. At its head was a committee of four, of whom James Hutton was one. For many years the “Society” supported the foreign work of the Brethren in English colonies; and in later years it supplied the funds for the work in Labrador. The next step was to license the Chapel in Fetter Lane. The need was pressing. As long as the members met without a licence they might be accused, at any time, of breaking the Conventicle Act. They wished now to have the law on their side. Already the windows had been broken by a mob. The services now were open to the public. The chapel was becoming an evangelistic hall. The licence was taken (Sept.). The members took upon themselves the name “Moravian Brethren, formerly of the Anglican Communion.” But the members at Fetter Lane were not yet satisfied. For all their loyalty to the Church of England, they longed for closer communion with the Church of the Brethren; and William Holland openly asked the question, “Can a man join the Moravian Church and yet remain a member of the Anglican Church?”
“Yes,” was the answer, “for they are sister Churches.”
For this reason, therefore, and without any desire to become Dissenters, a number of the members of the Fetter Lane Society applied to Spangenberg to establish a congregation of the Moravian Church in England. The cautious Spangenberg paused. For the fourth time a momentous question was put to the decision of the Lot. The Lot sanctioned the move. The London congregation was established (November 10th, 1742). It consisted of seventy-two members of the Fetter Lane Society. Of those members the greater number were Anglicans, and considered themselves Anglicans still. And yet they were Brethren in the fullest sense and at least half of them took office. The congregation was organized on the Herrnhut model. It was divided into “Choirs.” At the head of each choir was an Elder; and further there were two Congregation Elders, two Wardens, two Admonitors, two Censors, five Servants, and eight Sick-Waiters. Thus was the first Moravian congregation established in England. For many years this Church in Fetter Lane was the headquarters of Moravian work in Great Britain. Already a new campaign had been started in Yorkshire; and a few years later Boehler declared that this one congregation alone had sent out two hundred preachers of the Gospel.116


AS we follow the strange and eventful story of the renewal of the Brethren’s Church, we can hardly fail to be struck by the fact that wherever new congregations were planted the way was first prepared by a man who did not originally belong to that Church himself. At Herrnhut the leader was the Lutheran, Christian David; at Fetter Lane, James Hutton, the Anglican clergyman’s son; and in Yorkshire, the clergyman, Benjamin Ingham, who never joined the Moravian Church at all. He had, like the Wesleys and Whitefield, taken part in the Evangelical Revival. He was one of the Oxford Methodists, and had belonged to the Holy Club. He had sailed with John Wesley on his voyage to America, had met the Brethren on board the Simmonds, and had learned to know them more thoroughly in Georgia. He had been with John Wesley to Marienborn, had been admitted to the Communion there, had then travelled on to Herrnhut, and had been “exceedingly strengthened and comforted by the Christian conversation of the Brethren.” He had often been at James Hutton’s house, had attended services in Fetter Lane, was present at the famous Watch-Night Love-feast, and had thus learned to know the Brethren as thoroughly as Wesley himself. From first to last he held them in high esteem. “They are,” he wrote, “more like the Primitive Christians than any other Church now in the world, for they retain both the faith, practice and discipline delivered by the Apostles. They live together in perfect love and peace. They are more ready to serve their neighbours than themselves. In their business they are diligent and industrious, in all their dealings strictly just and conscientious. In everything they behave themselves with great meekness, sweetness and simplicity.”

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