Skip to main content Accessibility help

“My chains fell off, my heart was free”: Early Methodist Conversion Narrative in England

  • D. Bruce Hindmarsh (a1)


From twelve at night till two it was my turn to stand sentinel at a dangerous post … As soon as I was alone, I kneeled down, and determined not to rise, but to continue crying and wrestling with God, till He had mercy on me. How long I was in that agony I cannot tell; but as I looked up to heaven I saw the clouds open exceeding bright, and I saw Jesus hanging on the cross. At the same moment these words were applied to my heart, “thy sins are forgiven thee.” My chains fell off; my heart was free. All guilt was gone, and my soul was filled with unutterable peace. I loved God and all mankind, and the fear of death and hell was vanished away. I was filled with wonder and astonishment.



Hide All

1. Telford, John, ed., Wesley's Veterans: Lives of Early Methodist Preachers Told by Themselves (London: Robert Culley, 1912), 1:7475;Jackson, Thomas, ed., Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, 3d ed. (London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 18651866), 4:122.I cross-reference the third edition (1865–66) of Jackson's Lives throughout this article, since this (or the identical fourth edition begun 1871) is the most complete and authoritative edition produced by Jackson. For a comparison of the Telford and Jackson editions, see Bretherton, F. F., “ ‘Early Methodist Preachers’ and ‘Wesley's Veterans,’” Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society 22 (1940): 102–3. Telford's edition also provides cross-references to the original autobiographical essays in the Arminian Magazine.

2. Arnold, Matthew, St. Paul and Protestantism (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1887), 36.

3. James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1929), 166–75.

4. On evangelical traditions of conversion, see for example Hy. Pickering, , Twice-Born Men (London: Pickering and Inglis, n.d. [1932 or later]).Routley, Erik refers to Paul, Augustine, and Wesley as “classic conversions” in his Conversion (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 1923.On readings of John Wesley's conversion, see Maddox, Randy L., “Aldersgate: A Tradition History,” in Aldersgate Reconsidered, ed. Maddox, Randy L. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 133–i6.

5. The discussion that follows sets the evangelical conversion type in the context of historical shifts in the understanding of conversion. I explore these historical shifts in more detail in D. B. Hindmarsh, “Early Evangelical Conversion in the Light of Early Evangelical Mission History,” position paper no. 25, North Atlantic Missiology Project, Cambridge, 1997. For an analytical typology of conversion, see Lewis Rambo, R., Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993), esp. 5–19.

6. Stendahl, Krister, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” in Paul among the jews and Gentiles and Other Essays, ed. Stendahl, Krister (London: SCM Press, 1976), 7896;cf.Hurtado, Larry W., “Convert, Apostate or Apostle to the Nations: The ‘Conversion’ of Paul in Recent Scholarship,” Studies in Religion 2 (1993): 273–84;Longnecker, Richard, ed., The Road from Damascus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997).

7. Chadwick, Henry, introduction to Confessions, by Augustine, ed. Chadwick, Henry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), ixxxviii; andidem, Augustine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 66–74.

8. Harran, Marilyn J., Luther on Conversion (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983), 185.

9. Oberman, Heiko A., Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Walliser-Schwarzbart, Eileen (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), 164–66; Harran, Luther on Conversion, 174–88.

10. Wilcox, Peter, “Restoration, Reformation and the Progress of the Kingdom of Christ: Evangelisation in the Thought and Practice of John Calvin, 1555–1564” (D.Phil, diss., University of Oxford, 1993), 177209, and Conversion in the Thought and Experience of John Calvin,” Anvil 14 (1997): 113–28.

11. Cf. Ward, W. R., The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 2.

12. F. Ernst Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, Studies in the History of Religions 9 (Leiden, 1971). On the Puritan genre see Caldwell, Patricia, The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983);Hambrick-Stowe, Charles E., The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982);Stoever, William K. B., “A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven”: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978);Watkins, Owen, The Puritan Experience: Studies in Spiritual Autobiography (London: Schocken, 1972);Shea, Daniel B. Jr, Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968); andPettit, Norman, The Heart Prepared: Grace and Conversion in Puritan Spiritual Life (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1966).The role of conversion between Protestant and Roman Catholic allegiance in the later Elizabethan and Jacobean periods is discussed in Questier, Michael C., Conversion, Politics and Religion in England, 1580–1625, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

13. Nuttall, Geoffrey G., “Methodism and the Older Dissent: Some Perspectives,” United Reformed Church Historical Society Journal 2 (1981): 259–74.

14. W. R. Ward, introduction to Journals and Diaries 1, ed. Ward, W. R. and Heitzenrater, Richard P., vol. 18 of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Heitzenrater, Richard P. and Baker, Frank (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988), 1119;Barry, Jonathan and Morgan, Kenneth, eds., Reformation and Revival in Eighteenth-Century Bristol, Bristol Record Society's Publications 45 (Bristol: Bristol Record Society, 1994);Dresser, Madge, “Sisters and Brethren: Power, Propriety and Gender among the Bristol Moravians, 1746–1833,Social History 21 (1996): 304329.

15. See further Hindmarsh, “Early Evangelical Conversion.”

16. Mascuch, Michael, Origins of the Individualist Self: Autobiography and Self-Identity in England, 1591–1791 (Cambridge: Polity, 1997), 2324;cf.Gusdorf, Georges, “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. Olney, James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 2848;Weintraub, Karl J., “Autobiography and Historical Consciousness,” Critical Inquiry 1 (1975): 821–48.

17. Wesley, Journals and Diaries 1, 250.

18. On the elements of autobiography as a hermeneutical genre, see Olney, James, “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. Olney, 6.

19. Wesley, Journals and Diaries 1, 214.

20. The best analysis of Wesley's changing self-interpretation is Heitzenrater, Richard P., “Great Expectations: Aldersgate and the Evidences of Genuine Christianity,” in Aldersgate Reconsidered, ed. Maddox, Randy L. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 4991.

21. Rivers, “ ‘Strangers and Pilgrims,’ ” 194.

22. Dreyer, Frederick, “Faith and Experience in the Thought of John Wesley,” American Historical Review 87 (1983): 1230.

23. Jackson, Lives, l:xii.

24. Sometimes there was a further crisis of travail and relief when experiencing “entire sanctification,” though the preachers were understandably often more reticent to speak of this until drawn out by others. See for example the cases of John Haime and William Hunter in Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 1:56–58 and 4:177–79; Jackson, Lives, 1:269–311 and 2:240–61.

25. Arminian Magazine 2 (1779): 77–89, 129–6; Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 1:197–251; Jackson, Lives, 2:48–106.

26. Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 1:205; Jackson, Lives, 2:56.

27. Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 1:242–43; Jackson, Lives, 2:89.

28. Indeed, the preachers' lives do not refer to Wesley's Aldersgate experience as a model for their own conversion. Even in Methodist history subsequent to Wesley, Aldersgate figured less prominently in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. See further, Jean Miller Schmidt,“‘Strangely Warmed’: The Place of Aldersgate in the Methodist Canon,” in Aldersgate Reconsidered, ed. Maddox, 109–119.

29. See Heitzenrater, “Great Expectations,” 84–91.

30. Rivers, “ ‘Strangers and Pilgrims,’ ” 192–96.

31. Rivers, “ ‘Strangers and Pilgrims,’ ” 195–96.

32. Rivers, “ ‘Strangers and Pilgrims,’ ” 195.

33. I discuss the epistolary form in more detail in Hindmarsh, D. B., John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 2934, 243–47

34. Jackson, Thomas, ed., The Journal of the Rev. Charles Wesley, 2 vols. (London: John Mason, 1849), entry for 21 May 1738.

35. Margaret Austin to Charles Wesley, 19 May 1740, Early Methodist Volume, John Rylands Library, Manchester. (For sources cited from this archive, the abbreviation JRL will be used hereafter.)

36. Austin to Wesley, 19 May 1740.

37. Jackson, Journal of Charles Wesley, 1:211. Some of the narratives of members of both the Wesleyan Methodist and Moravian bands in London during the stillness controversy are extant, and it would be useful to compare the two. The narratives from the Wesleyan side of the dispute are in the Early Methodist Volume at the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Unfortunately, the Moravian records of the Fetter Lane Society, housed at Moravian Church House, London, have been mothballed for several years and are not available to researchers.

38. Jackson, Journal of Charles Wesley, 1207.

39. Jackson, Journal of Charles Wesley, 1207.

40. In this vein, Maria Price began her letter to Charles Wesley in 1740 by addressing him, “My dear father in God,” MS letter, JRL. It appears that Charles Wesley solicited several of the first MS letters in this volume from women in the London bands as documentation against stillness and confirmation “—‘seals’ to his ministry.” The letter from Bristow, E., the earliest in the archive, is reprinted in Jackson, Journal of Charles Wesley, 1:217–18, only three days after the date on the MS letter.

41. John Walsh's testimony, recorded by Wesley in July 1759 in Wesley, Journals and Diaries 4, ed. Ward, W. R. and Heitzenrater, Richard P., vol. 21 of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Heitzenrater, Richard P. and Baker, Frank (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992), 220.

42. Ct. Frye's, Northrop analysis of the sequence of biblical narrative as a U-shaped “divine comedy,” and his exposition of the influence of this pattern on Western imagination; The Great Code (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), esp. 169–98.

43. Mrs. Clagget to Charles Wesley, 24 July 1738, MS letter, JRL; cf. Jackson, , journal of Charles Wesley, 1:112–14.

44. Taverner Wallis to Charles Wesley, 24 November 1741, MS letter, JRL.

45. Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 2:78; Jackson, Lives, 2:158.

46. Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 2:52; Jackson, Lives, 2:132

47. Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 4:170; Jackson, Lives, 2:241.

48. Martha Jones to Charles Wesley, 1 June 1740, MS letter, JRL.

49. For example, Sarah Middleton began her account to Charles Wesley, “I wrote these lines to let you know what a pharisee I was. I went to Church and Sacrament Constantly and I thought I did very well for I was a strict pharisee.” 25 May 1740, MSS letter, JRL.

50. Newton, John, Memoirs of the Life of the Late Rev. William Grimshaw (London, 1799; reprint, London, 1825), 4.

51. See John Wesley's anniversary recollection of the fire on February 9, 1750 in Journals and Diaries 3, ed. Ward, W. R. and Heitzenrater, Richard P., vol. 20 of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Heitzenrater, Richard P. and Baker, Frank (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 320; cf. Arminian Magazine (1778): 31–33.

52. Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 1:175; Jackson, Lives, 1:240.

53. Wesley, Journals and Diaries 1, 242–43.

54. Martha Jones to Charles Wesley, 1 June 1740.

55. Thomas Cooper to Charles Wesley, [1741], MS letter, JRL.

56. Maria Price to Charles Wesley, 18 May 1740, MS letter, JRL.

57. Charles Wesley told Maria Price in 1740 that she ought to read this chapter, since it described her state (Price to Wesley, 18 May 1740).

58. Cooper to Wesley, [1741].

59. Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 1:205; Jackson, Lives, 2:56.

60. James Hewett to Charles Wesley, November 1741, MS letter, JRL.

61. Wesley, John, Letters 2, ed. Baker, Frank, vol. 26 of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Frank Baker (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), 418.Cf. the advice of John Berridge to Charles Simeon: “ ‘When you open your commission, begin with ripping up the Audience, and Moses will lend you a Carving Knife, which may be often whetted at his Grind-Stone. Lay open the universal sinfulness of nature.” Berridge went on, “When your Hearers have been well harrowed, and the clumps begin to fall… Let them know that all the Treasures of Grace are lodged in Jesus Christ, for the use of poor needy sinners.” Arminian Magazine (1794), 496–98; cf. The Works of the Rev. John Berridge… with an enlarged Memoir of his Life, ed. Whittingham, Richard (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1838), 476–77.

62. Jackson, Journal of Charles Wesley, entry for 21 May 1738.

63. The locus classicus for this was 1 Peter 1:8, the text upon which Jonathan Edwards based his treatise on The Religious Affections in 1746.

64. A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, ed. Hildebrandt, Franz and Beckerlegge, Oliver A., with Dale, James, vol. 7 of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Baker, Frank and Heitzenrater, Richard P. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983), 323. In the quotation at the beginning of this article, Sampson Staniforth's words, “my chains fell off; my heart was free,” were doubtless an allusion to this hymn.

65. Mrs Platt to Wesley, Charles, 20 September [1740], MS letter, JRL; cf. Jackson, Journal of Charles Wesley, 1:129, where Charles Wesley describes Mrs. Platt's progress from sorrow to joy; and also John Wesley, Journals and Diaries 2, ed. Ward, W. R. and Heitzenrater, Richard P., vol. 19 of The Works of John Wesley, ed. Baker, Frank and Heitzenrater, Richard P. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1990), 127.

66. Rack, Henry D., “Evangelical Endings: Death-Beds in Evangelical Biography,” Bulletin of the john Rylands University Library of Manchester 74 (1992): 3956.

67. Many manuscript narratives of deathbed piety are also included in the Early Methodist Volume, JRL.

68. Account of Joanna Barber's death by her husband [William Barber?] to Charles Wesley, February 1752, MS letter, JRL.

69. Austin to Wesley, 19 May 1740.

70. Mary Ramsay to Charles Wesley, 4 June 1740, MS letter, JRL.

71. Austin to Wesley, 19 May 1740.

72. Sarah Barber to Charles Wesley, May 1740, MS letter, JRL.

73. See for example the narratives by Margaret Austin, Mrs. Platt, and Mrs. Clagget, JRL.

74. On the question of the relationship between gender and religious ideology, as raised in such narratives, see Nussbaum, Felicity A., The Autobiographical Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 154–77; andMartha Tomhave Blauvelt and Rosemary Keller, Skinner, “Women and Revivalism: The Puritan and Wesleyan Traditions,” in Women and Religion in America, vol. 2, The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, ed. Ruether, Rosemary Radford and Keller, Rosemary Skinner (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), 316–67.Virginia Lieson Brereton examines nineteenth- and twentieth-century conversion narratives by women in From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women's Conversions, 1800 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991). She uses the notion of “surface” and “submerged”0 plots to demonstrate the way in which the conventional religious story also functioned politically to create a more public role for women: “Rather than becoming retiring flowers, women went on to dedicated, bold, and often courageous activity” (29).

75. See for example the narratives of Mitchell, Thomas and Lee, Thomas in Telford, Wesley's Veterans, 1:175–96 and 3:198–219; and Jackson, Lives, 1:240–59 and 4:152–69. Cf.Walsh, John, “Methodism and the Mob in the Eighteenth Century,” in Popular Belief and Practice, ed. Cumming, G. J. and Baker, Derek, Studies in Church History 8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 213–27.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed