Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wesley, poverty and democracy

Poverty, Sanctification and the Progress of English Democracy
Larry James
United Methodist History  HX 7365, Fall 2013
Professor Tamara E. Lewis
From the earliest days religious societies in one expression or another provided the backbone for the Wesleyan movement to reform the Church of England and to renew the entire nation.  Regular, weekly attention to religious devotion, personal discipleship and meaningful engagement with the poor and downcast, both in and outside society membership, provided stability and purpose to these groups, as well as growth for individual members and to the expanding movement. 

                For all the argument over issues related to assurance, predestination, perseverance of the saints and other matters emerging from John Wesley’s ongoing dialogue and struggle with Calvinism and Quietism, it is my contention that service to and concern for the poor became increasingly important to  Wesley and to his understanding of the meaning and purpose of his work.  So important was this aspect of his understanding that the notion of “works of mercy” became as important a “means of grace” as were “works of piety.” It appears that as Wesley’s lifelong struggle with issues related to the assurance of salvation matured, so did his commitment to the poor deepen.  By the end of his life, Wesley had developed a profound understanding of the poor, their struggles and the forces that continued to oppress them.  While his life ended in expressed disappointment regarding the overall Methodist response to the problems associated with poverty and an adequate Christian reaction,[1] it is my contention that his work set the stage for dramatic advancements in democracy, social concern and organized labor.    

                As M. Douglas Meeks notes, it is

Wesley’s unequivocal insistence that the poor are at the heart of the evangel and that life with the poor is constitutive of Christian discipleship.  There is widespread agreement that, according to the practice of Wesley, ‘the poor in Jesus Christ’ has to do with the nature of the church and with salvation.  Wesley’s ministry with the poor included feeding, clothing, housing the poor; preparing the unemployed for work and finding them employment; visiting the poor, sick and prisoners; devising new forms of health care education and delivery for the indigent; distributing books to the needy; and raising structural questions about an economy that produced poverty.[2]

Wesley considered concern for the poor by Christian disciples as a determinative factor in the process of salvation.[3]

                Clearly, the outdoor or field-preaching that ushered in and/or accompanied revival among the people of the nation brought with it an egalitarian dimension that some found offensive.  Rev. Dr. Edmond Gibson, Bishop of London, wrote a pamphlet against both the Methodists and their “boldness to preach in the fields and other open space and inviting the rabble to be their hearers.”[4]  Wesley responded by reminding the Bishop that the reason these people stand in need of salvation is that they never came to the churches, the implication being that they were not invited or welcomed there.[5]  The Duchess of Buckingham expresses an even stronger reaction in her letter to the countess of Huntingdon, referring to the doctrines of the Methodist preachers as “most repulsive, and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks, and do away with all distinctions. . .. and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiment so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.”[6]

                The egalitarian nature of the methods (even if unknowing) of Wesley and others who reached out so effectively to the common people of the nation would result in many unintended consequences vital to the emergence of a thoroughly democratic society.  Wesley’s account of his experience preaching on the streets and later from a hilltop at Newcastle is moving and indicative of the hunger of listeners for hope and for inclusion in the social/religious life of the community and nation.[7]

                In my view, the fact that Wesley places increasing emphasis on ministry among the poor grows out of his economic vision for the followers of Christ.  His well-known dictum—“Earn all you can.”  “Save all you can.”  “Give all you can.”--became more and more important to him as he and his movement aged.  Wesley considered a person claiming to follow Christ and, at the same time, choosing to hold onto wealth while others suffered in need, antithetical to the call of Christian self-denial and was in fact a “mortal sin.”[8]

                Wesley’s well-known claim that there is “no holiness but social holiness” indicates the importance of works of compassion and justice to the essential process of sanctification.  In “The Scripture Way of Salvation” (1765), Wesley declares, “Why that both repentance, rightly understood, and the practice of all good works, works of piety, as well as works of mercy (now properly so called, since they spring from faith) are in some sense necessary to sanctification.”[9]  He goes on,

"But what good works are those, the practice of which you affirm to be necessary to sanctification?" First, all works of piety; such as public prayer, family prayer, and praying in our closet; receiving the supper of the Lord; searching the Scriptures, by hearing, reading, meditating; and using such a measure of fasting or abstinence as our bodily health allows.

Secondly, all works of mercy; whether they relate to the bodies or souls of men; such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted; such as the endeavouring to instruct the ignorant, to awaken the stupid sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to confirm the wavering, to comfort the feeble-minded, to succour the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death. This is the repentance, and these the "fruits meet for repentance," which are necessary to full sanctification. This is the way wherein God hath appointed His children to wait for complete salvation.[10]

From the beginning of his work in and with religious societies, and building on the history of the varieties of such organizations, Wesley included work among the poor as a vital part of his response to his experience of justification.  How seriously he took these concerns can be seen in how hard he and his followers worked to build institutional or organizational “structures”(to borrow a term from Randy L. Maddox)  to ensure that the poor were served by the sanctifying activities of the believers.[11]  It is equally clear that over time Wesley’s efforts among the poor moved beyond simple acts of charity to include empowerment strategies such as schools for poor children, employment programs, loan funds and even parish-based wellness efforts stemming from his rather innovative pharmacy work. 

                Wesley’s attitude toward the poor included an unique sensitivity as to how Christian acts of compassion, charity and justice would affect those served.[12]  Wesley evidences a social understanding well beyond his times when he defends the poor against the charge that their poverty is the result of their unwillingness to work.  The following journal entry in February 1753 reflects Wesley’s heart and understanding:

Thursday, 8 . . . In the afternoon I visited many of the sick; but such scenes, who could see unmoved?  There are none such to be found in a pagan country. If any of the Indians in Georgia were sick (which indeed exceeding rarely happened till they learned gluttony and drunkenness
from the Christians), those that were near him gave him whatever he wanted. Oh, who will
convert the English into honest heathens!   On Friday and Saturday I visited as many more as I could. I found some in their cells underground; others in their garrets, half-starved both with cold and hunger, added to weakness and pain. But I found not one of the unemployed who was able to crawl about the room. So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, “They are poor only because they are idle.” If you saw these things with your own eyes, could you lay out money in ornaments
or superfluities?[13]

                While Wesley’s vision of a reformed church and a renewed nation through the work of the Methodists did not materialize, I contend that the movement he helped create and led resulted in the planting of important, revolutionary seeds that bloomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Ironically, his social teaching did not result in what he had hoped for during his day.  However, Methodist social doctrine informed the creation of a new, robust form of social democracy that took seriously the needs of its people in ways the church could not imagine.  Further, while not thoroughly radical, Wesley’s work, and especially the organizational strategies of the societies, served very well the rise of labor in response to the Industrial Revolution in England.             
With this in mind, I’ll conclude with a description of the work of the “Sheffield Society,” one of the many more radical labor groups that began appearing on the English social, economic, political landscape toward the end of the 18th century.  Reported by noted, Marxist historian, E. P. Thompson, who regarded Methodism as an overall hindrance to social resistance;  notwithstanding, I find the passage clearly connected to the influence and form of the Wesley societies:

The Sheffield Society originated . . . from a gathering of “five or six mechanics. . . conversing about the enormous high price of provisions.”  It grew so rapidly that by January 1792, it comprised eight societies “which meet each at their different houses, all on the same evening.”  “None are admitted without a ticket . . . and perfect regular good order kept up.”  The societies met fortnightly, the General Meeting, “at which some hundreds attend,” monthly.  There were 1,400 subscribers to a pamphlet edition . . .of the First Part of Rights of Man, which was read with avidity in many of the workshops of Sheffield.”  In Mach 1792, after four months in existence, the society claimed nearly 2,000 members.  In May a new method of organization was adopted:  dividing them into small bodies or meetings of ten persons each, and then ten to appoint a delegate:  Ten of these delegates form another meeting, and so on . . . till at last are reduced to a proper number for constituting the Committee or Grand Council.[14]

[1] John Wesley, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” in John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology. Edited by Albert C. Outler nad Richard P. Heitzenrater, Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1991, pp. 550-557.
[2] M. Douglas Meeks, “On Reading Wesley with the Poor,  The Portion of the Poor, pp. 9-10.
[3] Meeks, p. 11.
[4] “Chapter IX, Society and Class,” John Wesley the Methodist, The Wesley Center Online, p. 3.
[5] “Chapter IX, Society and Class,” p. 3.
[6] Donald W. Dayton, “Liberation Theology in the Wesleyan and Holiness Tradition.” On Public Theology website (, p. 5.
[7] “Chapter IX, Society and Class,” p. 4.
[8] Randy L. Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’ John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” in The Wesleys and the Poor:  The Legacy and Development of Methodist Attitudes to Poverty, 1729-1999.  Edited by Richard Heitzenrater, Nashville, TN:  Kingswood Books, 2002,  p. 62
[9] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology.  Edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater, Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1991, p. 377; and  Randy L. Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’ John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” p. 65.
[10] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” p. 378.
[11]Randy L. Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’ John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” p. 66.
[12] Randy L. Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’ John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” p. 75.
[13]The Journal of John Wesley, edited by Percy Livingstone Parker, Chicago:  Moody Press, 1951, pp. 205-206,  Randy L. Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’ John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” p. 75.
[14] E. P. Thompson, The making of the English working class, New York:  Vintage Books, 1963, pp. 149-150.

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