What would have been John Wesley’s attitude toward the modern doctrine and practice of Speaking in Tongues? Pentecostal churches teach that this is a necessary initial sign of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit (a empowerment experience subsequent to Christian conversion). Other churches teach that spiritual gifts and miracles were signs that ceased after the age of the apostles. Where would Wesley have stood on these issues?
The evangelistic ministry and teaching John Wesley provided the impetus for the development of the Methodist & Holiness movements. The holiness movement, in turn, provided the seedbed for the emergence of early Pentecostalism. And, the original Azusa Street Pentecostalism thus provided the impetus for the development of the modern Pentecostal & Charismatic movements — which have (somewhat ironically) often lost or even explicitly denied the Holiness / Sanctification themes in Wesley’s teachings.
That is a rather complicated schema. Is there any evidence of this later unfolding that is already present in Wesley teachings?
Wesley distinguished between “extraordinary gifts” and “ordinary” graces of the Spirit. Speaking in Tongues would fall into the category of “extraordinary gifts.” Thus, he did not see the gift of Tongues as part of the abiding significance of the Pentecost event.
This distinction is very much a part of the discussion in Wesley’s A Letter to the Reverend Doctor Conyers Middleton Occasioned by his late ‘Free Inquiry’. It is clear from this (lengthy and very interesting) letter that Wesley was not a cessationist — he believed that miracles and spiritual gifts continued in the church after the age of the apostles. On this basis, they could become present in the church in any subsequent age.
In fact, it is clear that Wesley believed that the loss of such extraordinary gifts to the church was, in fact, an evidence of spiritual decline. Notice this:
It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were common in the church for more than two or three centuries. We seldom hear of them after that fatal period when the Emperor Constantine called himself a Christian; and, from a vain imagination of promoting the Christian cause thereby, heaped riches and power and honour upon the Christians in general, but in particular upon the Christian clergy. From this time they almost totally ceased; very few instances of the kind were found. The cause of this was not, (as has been vulgarly supposed,) `because there was no more occasion for them,’ because all the world was become Christians. This is a miserable mistake; not a twentieth part of it was then nominally Christian. The real cause was, `the love of many,’ almost of all Christians, so called, was ‘waxed cold.’ The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other heathens. The Son of Man, when he came to examine his church, could hardly `find faith upon the earth’. This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian church; because the Christians were turned heathens again, and had only a dead form left.
On the other hand, Wesley did not see outward evidences — spiritual gifts or miracles — as necessary signs of the Spirit’s activity. At this point, he would not agree with Pentecostalism in it’s emphasis on these things. The evidence of the Spirit’s activity was love for God and love for others — that is to say, holy living. It was the “fruit of the Spirit” (as in Galatians 5:22-23 “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”) not the (extraordinary) gifts of the Spirit that were crucial to him.
Notice this — a part of Wesley’s defense that he is not an “enthusiast” (or as we might say, “fanatic”):
Are you not convinced, Sir, that you have laid to my charge things which I know not? I do not gravely tell you (as much an enthusiast as you over and over affirm me to be) that I sensibly feel (in your sense) the motions of the Holy Spirit. Much less do I make this, any more than ‘convulsions, agonies, howlings, roarings, and violent contortions of the body,’ either ‘certain signs of men’s being in a state of salvation,’ or ‘necessary in order thereunto.’ You might with equal justice and truth inform the world, and the worshipful the magistrates of Newcastle, that I make seeing the wind, or feeling the light, necessary to salvation.
Neither do I confound the extraordinary with the ordinary operations of the Spirit. And as to your last inquiry, ‘What is the best proof of our being led by the Spirit?’ I have no exception to that just and scriptural answer which you yourself have given, — ‘A thorough change and renovation of mind and heart, and the leading a new and holy life.’
This tract is one of his lengthy defenses of his teachings & ministry. It spells out the difference between what he considered the “ordinary” operations of the Spirit vs. the “extraordinary” operations.
Also, notice this:
You do not know, that in these very Journals I utterly disclaim the ‘extraordinary gifts of the Spirit,’ and all other ‘influences and operations of the Holy Ghost’ than those that are common to all real Christians.
— “Second Letter to the Author of ‘The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compared.”
In the context of this quote, I think he means that he “utterly disclaims” the notion that “extraordinary gifts of the Spirit” are necessary either to justification or sanctification (in any sense of the word).
Wesley’s note on 1 Corinthians 12:31:
V.31. Ye covet earnestly the best gifts — And they are worth your pursuit, though but few of you can attain them. But there is a far more excellent gift than all these; and one which all may, yea, must attain or perish.
Thus we can say that Wesley would not have fully endorsed either cessationism or pentecostalism. Extraordinary gifts and miracles have not necessarily ceased, but they are not necessary proofs of the Holy Spirit, either.
Wesley said that he did not claim “extraordinary gifts” of the Spirit as being necessary to the Spirit’s regeneration or sanctification of Christian lives. He does not seem to have claimed any particular “extraordinary gifts” for himself.
But, there is nothing in Wesley’s teaching that would absolutely disallow extraordinary gifts in the Church. Wesley’s defense of Montanus and his love for the writings of Tertullian could be seen as an argument in favor of the possibility of “extraordinary gifts” in the contemporary Church.
From Wesley’s Journal:
By reflecting on an odd book which I had read in this journey, “The General Delusion of Christians with regard to Prophecy,” I was fully convinced of what I had long suspected,
1. That the Montanists, in the second and third centuries, were real, scriptural Christians; and,
2. That the grand reason why the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn, was not only that faith and holiness were well-nigh lost; but that dry, formal, orthodox men began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves, and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.
— Journal: “August 15, 1750.”
But, it is certain that he would have objected to an emphasis on “extraordinary gifts” that in any way detracted from the focus on holy living.