Wesley and Aldersgate

Interpreting Conversion Narratives

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Mark K. Olson
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , August
     2018.
     230 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138307810.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Wesley and Aldersgate: Interpreting Conversion Narratives, Mark K. Olson contributes more than a standard revision of a doctoral thesis to the field of Methodist Studies. By stepping back from the usual efforts to synthesize John Wesley’s multiple accounts of his own conversion long enough to examine all the accounts for evidence of development, and by then placing his findings in the broader context of 18th century conversion narratives, Olson extends the relevance of the “riddle” of Aldersgate to Religious Studies scholars interested in the phenomenon of Christian conversion. Olson makes many bold promises but, wisely, does not give a conclusive solution to this riddle. 

Instead, Olson addresses various questions prompted by this riddle, such as Randy Maddox’s recurring query “[h]ow could a single event spawn such a variety of interpretations?” (5, 10, 12, 24, 137). Olson concludes that “Aldersgate defies single explanations because it was a complex event—even for John Wesley” (26). Olson further contends that Wesley’s own eclectic use of multiple traditions to construct the official version of the Aldersgate narrative has allowed subsequent interpreters to seize upon whichever interpretation stems from, and therefore resonates with, their particular tradition (137). 

With the potential to become, to Methodist Studies, what Burton H. Throckmorton Jr’s Gospel Parallels became to Biblical Studies, this book needs to be well organized, and, for the most part, it is. Olson meticulously introduces the work with attention to the very definition of “evangelical,” and the pre-Wesleyan roots of the “morphology of evangelical conversion” (2). The wisdom of incorporating such definitions in the body of the text, rather than relegating them to the copious footnotes, is evident in at least one place where he chose not to do so—to frustrating results. A term in the Introduction, “riddle,” is footnoted for definition (9, fn 39). This footnote makes reference to another footnote in the next chapter, which unfortunately does not offer the definition after all (due to an apparent typo, perhaps?). Embedding the definition of “riddle” within the body of the text, as he had with “evangelical,” would solve the problem. 

The ensuing six chapters are carefully laid out to present an overview of scholarly debates about “The Riddle of Aldersgate” (chapter 1), Wesley’s own sources and official and unofficial versions of the Aldersgate account (chapters 2-5), as well four corroborating witness’s accounts (chapter 6). Olson’s Conclusion is preceded by assessment of the elements and security of “The Legacy of Aldersgate” (chapter 7). Each excursus is well placed—two dealing with justification and one with preaching—and the two appendices provide helpful presentations of primary sources: the various references to Wesley’s conversion (Appendix 1), and parallel accounts thereof, organized by phases that Olson identifies in the text (Appendix 2).

One challenge of such a textual tour de force, however, is that in dealing with the sheer volume of textual artifacts, the author runs the risk of flattening the context of each. For example, the initial presentation of Wesley’s earliest biographers fails to take into account the struggles for authority among official and unofficial biographers of Wesley. Thomas Coke and Henry Moore would likely chafe angrily at ever being described as “following [unauthorized biographer] Hampson’s lead” in any way (12), as the latter’s slightly polemically motivated and unauthorized biography’s hasty release only exacerbated the issues they were having with fellow executor John Whitehead over the primary documents, which Olson investigates so carefully here. 

In this otherwise exhaustive and ambitious presentation, it is curious that Olson omits the early work of Rex D. Matthews. Matthews’s Harvard ThD dissertation (“Religion and Reason Joined: a Study in the Theology of John Wesley,” 1986) became a landmark work that identified three shifts in the development of Wesley’s concept of faith, which were important to Maddox’s work (especially Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology, Abingdon Press, 1994), is integral to Olson’s bibliography. In light of Olson’s emphasis on Wesley’s doctrine of justification, and argument that “Wesley’s interpretation of Aldersgate evolved over time and the primary driver was [sic]developments in his soteriology,” the absence is notable (112).

Nevertheless, Olson’s conclusion regarding Aldersgate’s proper location within the broader context of “diverse, nuanced, and variegated” conversion in the 18th century is strong, and he effectively discourages the reader from accepting or offering incomplete or imbalanced interpretations of Wesley’s dramatic Aldersgate experience (172). Notwithstanding his gestures—beyond this work’s scope—to Wesley’s work linking sanctification, instantaneous reception, and the doctrine of Christian perfection (which seem contrived to direct the reader to Olson’s previous work on the latter doctrine), Wesley and Aldersgate is a useful book for Methodist Studies scholars, as well as to Religion scholars and laypeople interested in conversion—for the latter—with the aid of some of the historical and theological works upon which Olson draws to fill in context.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Natalya Cherry is Assistant Professor of Methodist Studies and Theology at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark K. Olson is Adjunct Faculty at Indiana Wesleyan University and Nazarene Bible College, both in the USA. He has published several books on Wesley including A John Wesley Reader on Eschatology (2011) and John Wesley’s Theology of Christian Perfection (2007) and multiple articles.

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