John Wesley’s ministry was saved from shipwreck by some unexpected advice.
At least that’s how Joseph Hutton described the matter in his History of the Moravian Church.
This story finds its place in Moravian church history because the man who gave Wesley that advice was a Moravian minister named Peter Boehler.
Wesley met Boehler in London in 1738. Wesley had just returned from spending three years in the American colonies, in Georgia. On his trip to the colonies, he had been impressed by the faith of some Moravians traveling with him. When he met Boehler, Wesley took the opportunity to seek help with a crisis he was going through.
John Wesley lacked assurance of his own salvation. This was at a time in his ministry when he was preaching to crowds of about four thousand people.
Here is Hutton’s account of how Boehler helped Wesley through the crisis:
At last Boehler made a fine practical suggestion. 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.
I guess no one really knows if Wesley would have quit the ministry were it not for Boehler’s advice, but it certainly helped him to keep going.
Maybe the advice sounds more radical than it really was. After all, Boehler was not telling Wesley to preach a doctrine that he was not convinced of, but to preach an experience he had not yet had. (Wesley followed the same strategy years later in his ministry when he began preaching his message of Entire Sanctification — an experience he admitted that he had not yet received.)
After their three weeks together, Boehler set sail for South Carolina and Wesley experienced the faith he had been preaching. This happened in the famous meeting at Aldersgate Street, where Wesley later reported, “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.”
Joseph Hutton was careful to point out that the society meeting at Adlersgate Street was Anglican, not Moravian. Wesley benefited from the Moravians’ example and advice, but he got his breakthrough in an Anglican meeting. This was fitting, for it was the Moravians’ goal to encourage believers from all denominations but not to try to persuade them to join the Moravian Church. It was also convenient for Wesley, who later became a sharp critic of the Moravian Church.