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John Wesley and Spiritual Gifts

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?pentecostwindow-4360485489

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.

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

John Wesley (1703 –1791)

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.

Sermon 89, “The More Excellent Way.”

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.’

“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason & Religion”

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.

Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament.

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.

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17 Responses

  1. Bishop I.F Barreto May 5, 2014 / 10:18 am


    The charismatic movement of the seventeenth century with the Methodists, disciples of John Wesley.
    It may be that the Methodists are not aware that the experience of the disciples of Wesley in the seventeenth century. But sometimes, the disciples were very similar to the Charismatics of our time.
    The Journal of John Weley

    Monday,6 (Everton) – I talked largely with Ann Thorm and two others, who had been several times in éxtasis.What they all agreed in was:

    (1) that when they went away, as they turned it, it was always at the time they were fullest of the the love of God.

    (2) That it came upon them in a moment, without any previous notice, and took away all thier senses and strenght;

    (3) That they were some exceptions, but in general, from that moment, they were in another world, knowing nothing of what was done or said by all that were round about them.

    About five in the afternoon I heard them singing hymns. Soon after, Mr. B. came up and told me Alice Miller (fifteen years old) had fallen into a trance. I went down immediately and found her sitting on a stool and leaning against the wall, with her eyes open and fixed upward. I made a motion as if going to strike, but they continued immovablel. Her face showed a unspeakable, mixture of reverence and love, while silent tears stole (move secretly or silently), down her cheeks . Her lips were a little open, and sometimes moved; but not enough to cause any sound.

    I do not know whether I ever saw, a human face look so beautiful; sometimes it was covered with a smile, as from joy, mixing with love and reverence; but the tears fell still though not so fast. Her pulse was quite regular. In about half an hour I observed her countenance change into the form of fear, pity , and distress; then she burst into a flood of tears and cried out, “Dear Lord; they will be damned! They will be damned! But about five minutes her smiles returned, and only love and joy appeared in her face.

    About half an hour after six, I observed distress take place again; and soon after she wept bitterly and cried out ” Dear Lord, they will go to hell! The world will go to hell ” Soon after, she said: “Cry aloud! Spare not! (refrain not!, dispense not!,).

    And in a few moments her look was composed again, and spoke with a mixture of reverence, joy, and love.

    Then she said aloud: “Give God the glory”. About seven her senses returned. I asked” – , “Where have you been?- I” I have been with my Saviour”. ” In heaven or on earth?” – I Cannot tell; but I Was in glory”

    “Why did you cry?” – Not for myself, but for the world; for I saw they were on the brink of hell”
    “Whom did you desire to give the glory to God? –

    Advise for the preachers.
    Ministers that cry aloud to the world ; else they will be proud; and then God will leave them, and they will lose their own souls”.

    *Cry; make loud or shrill sound, to express pain or grief or joy.
    * CarismatikoV The suffix means that Κος belongs to the Spirit

    The Journal of John Wesley1757-1759- in Everton. (pg.234-235) Edite by: Percy Livingstone Parker.
    Bishop I.f. Barreto

    • Craig L. Adams May 5, 2014 / 10:28 am

      Thanks for adding that quote. Yes, I agree: the experiences of the early Methodists were often very similar to the experiences of modern charismatics.

      • Darla October 20, 2019 / 12:09 pm

        His frustration with experiences comes through in his Journal at age 83:
        “…but even while they are full of love, Satan strives to push many to extravagance. This appears in several instances. (1) Frequently three of four, yea, ten or twelve, pray aloud all together. (2) Some of them, perhaps many, scream all together as loud as they possibly can. (3) Some of them use improper, yea, indecent expressions in prayer. (4) Several drop down as dead and are as stiff as a corpse, but in a while they start up and cry, Glory! Glory! perhaps twenty times together. Just so did the French Prophets, and very lately the Jumpers in Wales, bring the real work into contempt. Yet whenever we reprove them, it should be in the most mild and gentle manner possible.”
        The Journal of the Reverend John Wesley… Vol II (1837) google book page 631 “April 3, 1786”

  2. Cassandra Wright May 5, 2014 / 11:33 am

    I have heard many comments that showing the gifts of the Spirit were only by young, overly emotional Christians. Many of those were from those in the modern holiness movement, which seems to look at showing such emotions as unacceptable. Since the modern holiness movement seems to accept almost anything as holy, they wind up with no emotions and no holiness.

    I am not inclined to put God in a box. I don’t want to tell the Spirit that He cannot display a gift, or that He must. I would prefer to see gifts displayed in what seems to be the historic way, but that’s not my place to call it.

    • Craig L. Adams May 5, 2014 / 12:03 pm

      I think we are all a lot better off if we don’t try to put God in a box. It doesn’t work anyway.

  3. Nathan R. Hale May 7, 2014 / 1:43 pm

    A helpful distinction for me has been to understand speaking in tongues (or “private prayer language”) as a consequence of–instead of evidence of–being baptized in the Holy Spirit. So, speaking in tongues may be *available* to all, but is not *necessarily* exercised by all, for a variety of legitimate reasons.

    • Craig L. Adams May 7, 2014 / 1:45 pm

      That’s an interesting perspective, Nathan. I still think that is a departure from the classical Pentecostal position, however.

      • Nathan R. Hale May 7, 2014 / 1:51 pm

        No doubt it is a departure from classical Pentecostalism! 🙂 I’m not a Pentecostal, though I would say I’m Charismatic. The “consequence” vs. “evidence” idea was given to me by an Anglican bishop, and it has helped me to make some sense of my own unpredictable experiences of God the Holy Spirit.

  4. A friend January 4, 2016 / 9:08 am

    I understood john Wesley to be all about the releasing the fire of God, and experience then charasmatic pentacostal style, unlike the Methodist churches i grew up in. I learned very small percent of bible in Sunday school. Thanks to my charasmatic preachers i was drawn to, latched onto and started following adopting them as my pastors, learning alot more of the bible. My thanks owed to Lakewood church and Fresh fire USA, yes two of the most hated preachers, Joel Osteen and Todd Bentley. Their associates John Gray (Lakewood) ,Stephen Powell. I hear good things about bethel too. If they’re totally like my two, they preach the TRUTH, their statements say, their doctrine is the Bible, no man made doctrines of demons. (Take first five letters of denomination, switch the n and m, I rest my case, my wish is for great revival awakening the innocent people who are trapped by the seven demons controlling their leaders making the underlying prophecy the story of Aaron come true (aarons snake represents true teaching, pharaohs snakes representing false teaching, Aaron snake eats others)

  5. Hugh Alcorn January 13, 2021 / 2:33 pm

    It was interesting for me to learn from church history that most of the extraordinary signs had all but disappeared from the church as worldliness filtered in and drowned out holiness and a sincere faith in the present Christ.

    For 24 years I was involved with the charismatic movement, speaking in so-called tongues like others, but soon after the “Toronto Blessing” and Vineyard’s doctrines hit the world I started asking more questions that I was allowed to, and was referred to as a trouble-maker. This was in the late 80’s and early 90’s. My tongues had more vocabulary than any I had heard. I used to practice for hours a night to develop it, and my final word on it, and the tongues of today is that it is absolute gibberish.

    If men talk with ” tongues of men and angels” then all I have further to say is:
    1) Which tongues of men – no one knows. And whatever tongue it is, that tribe is very limited in conversation.
    2) If it is of angels, which is the same universal language of God, then God must have run out of imagination after creating the world. The latter is obviously is not true.

    I have since discovered that God is a reasonable God and does all things with reason that He conveys to man, seeing that His purpose for nature involves man as His prime motivation. All things that are of God are to be reasonable and true to scripture. If not, then they are not true.

    • Craig L. Adams January 25, 2021 / 8:54 am

      I think the following passages suggest that the “tongues” as practiced in Corinth were quite similar to what we see in our day:

        “For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.” — 1 Corinthians 14:2-4 NRSV.

        “Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air.” — 1 Corinthians 14:6-9 NRSV.

        “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.” — 1 Corinthians 14:14 NRSV.

      However, having said that, I do share your conviction that the things of God are reasonable and true to Scripture.. These Scripture quotes appear in the context of an argument that such tongues are not valuable to the congregation as prophecy (preaching) is — since they have no rational, intelligible content.

  6. Linda K Thompson January 26, 2021 / 9:39 pm

    Not all Pentecostals or Charismatics believe that speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of being a Christian nor of being filled with the Holy Spirit. The Bible does not teach that. If it were a prerequisite to salvation, Jesus would taught us that Himself. Scripture teaches, without a doubt, that the greatest and most excellent gift is love. Jesus taught us that as well. How sad we let our personal beliefs, and doctrines divide us and keep us from reaching the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For it is by faith in Jesus and His redemptive work at Calvary that we are saved and not by works. I am one of those tongue speakers and consider it nothing less than a clanging cymbal without love. It is the least of the spiritual gifts according to Scriptures. Let us seek love above all else. Love for God … each other … and the lost. May God be with us as we take the Good News to a very lost and hopeless world that needs to know about our precious Savior and the hope of a new life found only in Him.

  7. Henry Sherwood June 1, 2021 / 6:23 pm

    I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I have heard people taught to step out in faith and speak in tongues or to repeat after their teacher as he speaks in tongues.

    I now believe not to stress over the gifts. If they don’t happen, they don’t happen. If they do, don’t deny the reality of the experiences.

    Don’t feel inferior because you have not experienced these gifts. Our Biblical instruction is to desire the gifts, but it is destructive to try to produce them ourselves. I left attending Pentecostal churches because gifts became the proof of Christian growth instead of fruit.

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