Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church invites the community to the performance of the dramatic musical, “The Man from Aldersgate,” based on the lives and music of John and Charles Wesley.
The program is scheduled for October 15 at 6 p.m. and includes actor and missionary B.J. Johnston as John Wesley, along with the Thrasher choir and orchestra under the direction of Josh O’Dell.
Aldersgate is a street in London. The man from Aldersgate is John Wesley, who is said to have had a profound spiritual experience at a church there that eventually led to the founding of the Methodist Church. However, this play is not only of significance to Methodists but to all denominations that on a weekly basis sing the hymns of the Wesleys in their services.
The one-man play, written by playwright Brad L. Smith, was taken entirely from the journals of John Wesley and brings to life Wesley and his dynamic ministry. In tracing his life from his birth in 1703 to his death in 1791, the drama uses Wesley’s own words to tell how his faith in Jesus Christ sparked a revival that changed the history of England, America, and beyond. During his ministry, he rode over 250,000 miles on horseback to bring spiritual renewal to the English-speaking world.
In 1738, Wesley attended a religious meeting at a church on Aldersgate Street where he underwent a spiritual conversion, “feeling his heart strangely warmed,” centered upon his realization that salvation is obtained by faith in Christ alone. After this transformation, he devoted his life to evangelism.
Through scripture, Wesley urges the audience to live more disciplined lives of faith. He shares how his mother’s faith helped shape his own personal destiny; how individuals can share their faith with others in a personal manner, even at gunpoint; the importance of prayer; and how personal failure can teach a person to trust in Christ.
According to the producers of the play, Wesley’s simple message of grace encourages people to love and serve God and resist the temptation to conform to the destructive ways of their culture. His untiring zeal for God helped bring about social reforms including prison reform, child labor laws, orphanages, and medical care facilities.
Wesley tells the moving story of what compelled him to spend the last 54 years of his life riding his horse all over England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and America encouraging people to serve God by helping one another.
He urges individuals to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
B.J. Johnston portrays “The Man from Aldersgate.” He has been performing the play as a mission in 32 states, five countries, and before 22 different denominations so far.
“This is a play about transformation,” said Johnston. “It’s about Wesley’s struggle with trying to earn his salvation, but realizing he could not.”
He says about 43 years ago, as a fairly new Christian attending Scarritt College in Nashville, Wesley was part of the curriculum in a class he was enrolled in. He has been studying Wesley and his works ever since.
Johnston employs his performing arts skills as a method of ministry. He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Acting with a Minor in Dance from Stephens College and his Master’s in Theatre Education from Scarritt College. He performed several thousand one-man shows at Six Flags over Georgia, and in hundreds of schools using mime, magic, music, stories, and dance. He has appeared in over 50 theatrical productions including summer stock and regional theatre.
His other training includes studies at the Wisconsin Mime School and the Cambridge School of Ballet. He studied opera and vocal performance at Boston University. He served as director for the College of Arts at the University of Nations and went on to minister at Belhaven College as Director of Development for the Arts, Annual Fund Director and Assistant to the Vice President of Advancement.
For 28 years, Johnston and Karen, his wife of 44 years, have served as missionary artists with the non-denominational Youth with A Mission (YWAM) organization in many countries including Russia, Bulgaria, China, Canada, Guyana, Brazil, Switzerland, Egypt, England, and New Zealand. They are currently traveling in India, Norway, and Switzerland teaching three-month programs in which students learn to memorize an entire book of the Bible, which leads them “to become storytellers of the gospel.” Johnston says he usually includes John Wesley in the curriculum.
Johnston says their ministry has always been centered in music, culture and the arts, and teaching. He and Karen have two sons, Ryan, a filmmaker/musician living in Hawaii, and Daniel, a composer/videographer living in Nashville with his wife Abigail and daughter.
He is now doing research on John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” with plans to collaborate with a former student who is now a playwright on a new one-man play.
This is Johnston’s first performance in the Roanoke area. His visit was arranged by Thrasher’s Minister of Music Josh O’Dell, who watched a video clip of the play online.
Johnston describes the style of the drama as “presentational” with Wesley interacting with the audience, speaking to the audience, even stepping into the audience and walking among them. Although the play is “totally scripted” it may include improvisations occasionally as a reaction to the happenings in the sanctuary.
What is unique about this performance of “The Man from Aldersgate” is that O’Dell had the inspiration to add a musical dimension to the play and convinced Johnston to adapt the production with the Thrasher Choir and Orchestra singing hymns written by John Wesley and his brother Charles.
Johnston says that he found the idea of adding music to be “intriguing” and also “challenging,” when O’Dell made the suggestion. The play is tightly written and he anticipated difficulties in inserting the hymns into the dialogue during Wesley’s lines, interspersing them throughout. He said, “It took a lot of thought to put the right hymns in the right place,” but it now flows perfectly.
O’Dell chose such Wesleyan hymns as “Oh for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Rejoice,” “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” and “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today.” The project has been in the works for about a year.
“The Man from Aldersgate” will be performed in the sanctuary at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church in Vinton on Sunday, October 15, at 6 p.m. There is no charge to attend; it is free and open to the public.
The Roanoke Valley Homeschool Choir will be catering a dinner in the Fellowship Hall after the play, priced at $10 for adults and $5 for children ten and under. No advance tickets are required; pay at the door for a meal which includes fried chicken, green beans, macaroni and cheese, rolls, dessert, and beverages.
Johnston has scheduled a second performance of “The Man from Aldersgate” in the area on Tuesday night at Greene Memorial Methodist in downtown Roanoke.
Johnston says that generally he is invited to perform at various churches and organizations by individuals who have discovered his performance online through YouTube clips, or have heard about his mission through word of mouth.
More information, including the booking of performances, is available at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.kareproductions.com and 601-951-1761