“Going on to perfection”: from Social Holiness to Social Justice in the United Methodist Church
United Methodist History HX 7365, Fall 2013
Professor Tamara E. Lewis
The United Methodist Church demonstrated a consistent and, at times, increasingly significant commitment to the realization of social justice in American society during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. While at times this witness to social equity and justice appears as a “minority” report of sorts, both in the larger culture and even in the church, the commitment to realizing the living presence of the Kingdom of God on earth remained a constant refrain throughout the period, and continuing to date into the second millennium. To be sure, other voices in the denomination ignored or, worse, formed critical responses against Methodist advocates of social justice who considered the work for justice to be the very work of Christ and of the church. But, throughout the period in question, a steady stream of advocates for justice did important work, often at considerable personal sacrifice.
Interestingly, Methodists and Methodist organizations committed to the realization of social justice in the values of the church, and as expressed in its work in the world, refer to the founder of Methodism to explain their fundamental motivation. Often Methodist preachers and advocates linked the work of social justice to the values of John Wesley in regard to his commitment to “social holiness.” Interestingly, especially in the twentieth century and up until today, Methodists employ the admonition attributed to Wesley himself, “There is no holiness but social holiness,” to validate and position their commitment to works of social justice. In fact, as Andrew C. Thompson demonstrates clearly, John Wesley almost certainly never made the statement. It is found nowhere in his extant writings. The phrase “social holiness” appears once in Wesley’s writings and that in the Preface to the 1739 edition of “Hymns and Sacred Poems.”
Reading the phrase in the context of Wesley’s point reveals that by “social holiness” he had in mind (and directly contrary to the practice of the mystics whom he rejects) the social nature and shaping influence of the societies and the essential role of the group, the community as the “environmental context”in the realization of holiness or sanctification and walking faithfully in the world, including concern for doing good to everyone, especially to those of the community of faith. Wesley envisions his experiences with the societies that he worked so hard to establish. Wesley argues against the mystics,
If thou wilt be perfect, say they, trouble not thyself about outward works. It is better to work virtues in the will. He hath attain’d the true resignation who hath estranged himself from all outward works, that God may work inwardly in him, without any turning to outward things. These are the true worshippers, who worship God in spirit and in truth. For contemplation is with them the fulfilling of the law, even a contemplation that “consists in a cessation of all works.” 5. Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. “Holy solitaries” is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. “This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loveth God love his brother also;” and that we manifest our love 3Ori., ““by doing good unto all men, especially to them that are of the household of faith.” And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be “zealous of good works.” He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire, of spending and being spent for them. “My father,” will he say, “worketh hitherto, and I work.” And at all possible opportunities he is, like his Master, “going about doing good” (pages viii-ix).
Clearly, it is anachronistic to assign to Wesley’s phrase “social holiness” the burden of the twentieth century church’s developing concern for the realization of social justice in its fellowship and larger culture. At the same time, it seems fairly clear that the progressive values of Wesley himself and the life and order of the fellowship he did so much to create did inform the church’s modern day concern for doing works of justice and compassion, while working for the establishment of justice in society. The radical seeds of social revolution that can be found in portions of Wesley’s rather advanced worldview. For example, Wesley’s view of the heinous evil that was slavery, as revealed so powerfully in his sermon/pamphlet, Upon Thoughts of Slavery serves as an example of his radical thought. While he might not have framed it this way, his position on the subject, over a century ahead of his time, contributed to the revolution that eventually “sanctified” the secular culture by ridding it of the scourge of chattel bondage.
In a very real way, Methodists have been utilizing and at times rediscovering Wesley’s social ethic against various forces and influences that have tended to obscure a practical understanding of his basic theology and of the Wesleyan tradition. Included in any listing of these veiling or intrusive forces would be scholarly biblical form criticism and its revolutionary view of scripture, the rise of the Social Gospel movement, evolutionary theory, industrialization, urbanization of the United States and the growth of organized labor. Further, the rapid growth of the Methodist Church in America beginning in the period following the Revolutionary War and well into the mid-twentieth century served to establish the denomination as proto-typically American. What had begun as an English reform movement to revive a moribund Anglican Church, worked its way across North America to become the best expression of the American Church. With highly placed political, educational and social leaders in the membership of Methodist Churches across the nation, the denomination’s influence grew rapidly while its understanding of and reliance upon the heritage of John and Charles Wesley became more distant, obscure and forgotten, if not irrelevant.
At every important turn in the history of the denomination, prophetic voices have been heard that call the people of God and of the nation on to a new kind of society, one much like what Wesley envisioned when he spoke of slavery and the social outcomes of personal holiness. Examples are not hard to find. The tragic division of the church in 1844 over the issue of slavery among Christians demonstrated the ethic of the northern church to stand in Wesley’s position, while the departing Methodist Episcopal Church South allowed profit and southern culture to rule the day. Again, in the 1939 “reunion” of the church, even though the compromise leading to the formation of the Central Jurisdiction prevailed, shoring up southern racism and Jim Crow with the apparent blessing of the church, prophetic voices could be heard. The Central Jurisdiction itself spoke truth to power against racial segregation in the church  Groups such as the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) worked hard and aggressively in agitation and lobbying for the church to live up to its heritage by ending segregation in the Methodist Church.
Some Methodists at the time were considered so radical that they appeared before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee to defend their words and activities. One of the more notable cases involved Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, at that time assigned to Washington, DC. Oxnam’s career in the church had been exemplary, including his longstanding position and action in support of desegregation of church and society. While the committee brought no official action against the bishop, he was accused, along with other activist Methodist clergy, of being a communist because of his support of social change and due to his associations with and support of national and international ecumenical organizations that took liberal stands on a number of issues.
Methodist history in the twentieth century is replete with example after example of men and women who took courageous stands for social justice. Just two, obscure examples include the support of the Black Liberators in St. Louis by the United Methodist Church during a community struggle for labor and human rights and the steady and amazing work of lifelong educator Emma Buckmaster among the Japanese community in Bakersfield, California following Executive Order 9066 resulting in the interment of her and her friends, neighbors and fellow church members who were Japanese. The practical and heroic efforts of the First Methodist Church and Trinity Methodist Church to organize and store the belongings of Japanese friends relocated to Arizona calls to mind the work of Wesley’s societies in caring for one another in the name of Christ. Clearly, many Methodists were not afraid to speak up or to take action in defense of the rights of the oppressed among their fellows in the nation and in the larger church. While the record was far from flawless, again and again Methodists, both lay and clergy, could be found on the side of social justice.
Wesley’s theology of “social holiness” and his deepening understanding of the importance of compassionate and sound witness in the world paved the way for the new American Church, a church that challenged its culture and compromised with it, a church that reflected the best and worst of the American experience, but a church that continues its journey “on to perfection.”
 Andrew C. Thompson, “From Societies to Society: The Shift from Holiness to Justice in the Wesleyan Tradition,” Methodist Review, Vol. 3 (2011): 141-172.
 John and Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739; http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/cswt/04_Hymns_and_Sacred_Poems_%281739%29.pdf
 Thompson, 145.
 Ibid., pp. viii-ix.
 Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), page 391.
 Angela Lahr, “The Censure of a Bishop: Church and State in the McCarthy Era,” Methodist History, Vol. 44:1 (October 2005), 29-42.
 Kenneth Jolly, “Reaction to Liberation: Official Response to the Black Liberation Struggle
in St. Louis, Missouri,” by Gateway Heritage magazine, Vol. 23, no. 4, Spring 2003 (no pagination).