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WESLEY ON SOCIAL HOLINESS

The Wesleyan movement was a commitment to a holiness project. For John Wesley holiness of life was, the aim of his life, the organising centre of his thought, the spring of all action, his one abiding project.i The purpose of the Methodist movement was to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. Wesley once claimed that there was no holiness but social holiness. The original context of the saying was in relation to the necessity for Christian fellowship. Wesley was countering a privatised notion of Christian faith. One cannot go to heaven alone but one needs friends. It is within Christian community that holiness of life is to be realized. Today social holiness needs to be extended beyond ecclesial koinonia. It is within the socio-economic and political community that holiness of life is to be realized. During the late 19th century Wesleyan celebrations the English congregationalist preacher and theologian, R. W. Dale, reflecting on the Wesleyan heritage, claimed that Methodists had left the doctrine of holiness with Wesley and had not developed its potential as a great social ethic. The modern tendency towards individualism has too often resulted in Methodists understanding piety from an individualist perspective and reading the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification or holiness as an individual experience. The evangelistic practice flowing from this has emphasised the conversion of people one by one which then leads to changing society or the world. But does this gospel produce any real transformation at all apart from nominal change or conversion from a few personal bad habits? The conversion or even sanctification of the individual leading to societal change may well be a subverting of the gospel leaving untouched personal and structural realities of power relations, domination, greed and violence. Towards the end of his life Wesley was increasingly involved in a polemical relationship with the people called Methodists. At the end he even judged his scriptural holiness project a failure. I am distressed. I know not what to do. I see what I might have done once. I might have said peremptorily and expressly, here I am: I and my bible. I will not, I dare not, vary from this book, either in great things or small. I have no power to dispense with one jot or tittle of what is contained therein. I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost, but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground? Join me on this or not at all But, alas! The time is now passed; and what I can do now, I cannot tell. (Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity, Works VII: 287-88). Wesley frequently described holiness as renewal of the whole image of God. Wesley did not understand this in a purely individualistic way. He used eschatology and creation theology in his reflection on holiness. His horizon of holiness was the whole world, created and recreated.ii If holiness of life was described in terms of perfect love, then holiness involved social relations including environmental relations.

For Wesley the spreading of scriptural holiness entailed the transformation of the economic and political order, the establishment of Pentecostal commun(al)ism and the abolition of war.iii Holiness was nothing less than a new creation. If Wesley concluded at the end of his life that the Methodist holiness project had failed, it was in no small measure due, in his judgment, to the material prosperity of the Methodist people. His great lament was that as Methodists increased in riches so there was a decline in holiness. Wesleys gain all you can and save all you can taken, as they often were in isolation from give all you can, subverted the holiness project. Wesley even wondered if; true scriptural Christianity has a tendency, in process of time, to undermine and destroy itself? For wherever true Christianity spreads, it must cause diligence and frugality, which in the natural course of things, must beget riches! And riches naturally beget pride, love of the world, and every temper that is destructive of Christianity. (Causes of the inefficacy of Christianity, Works VII: 290). The failure of the Methodist holiness project was ultimately the failure of the Methodists to stand in radical solidarity with the poor. Yet Wesley had repeatedly called on the Methodists to go to the poor and not simply to wait until the poor came to them. To one gentlewoman member of a society he wrote; Do not confine your conversation to gentle and elegant people. I should like this as well as you do. But I cannot discover a precedent for it in the life of our Lord, or any of his Apostles. My dear friend, let you and I walk as he walked I want you to converse more, abundantly more, with the poorest of the people, who, if they have not taste, have souls, which you may forward on their way to heaven. And they have (many of them) faith, and the love of God in a larger measure than any persons I know. Creep in among these, in spire of dirt, and a hundred disgusting circumstances; and thus put off the gentlewoman. (Letter to A Member of the Society, February 7, 1776, Works 12: 301) Wesleys own regular practice was to go to the poor and often these common wretches found a sense of self worth. Wesleys opposition to the widespread use of liquor was not, as often thought, moralistic, but economic. Half of the wheat produced in Britain was going to the distilling industry which made wheat expensive and in turn made bread expensive and beyond the means of the very poor. Wesley was in reality attacking inflation. Expensive meat was caused by gentlemen farmers finding it more profitable to breed horses for export to France and to meet the increasing demand for horse carriages. Pork, poultry and eggs were so expensive because owners of large estates were earning more from cash crops than from leasing land to small tenant farmers. In response to these economic problems, Wesley called for Government intervention, increased employment opportunities, a prohibition on the distilling of hard liquor, a reduction in the demand for horses and an additional tax of gentlemens carriages and a tax of 10 on every horse exported to France. Wesley also advocated the discharge of half the national debt.

Though often criticized for being individualistic, Wesley nevertheless did address some of the structural injustices of his time. The common objection of those who were part of the structural oppression, that the poor were poor only because they were idle, Wesley described as wickedly, devilishly falseiv The poor were the members of the early societies who were given by Wesley a sense of their power over their own destiny Wesley organised them and trained them in organisational skillsv Wesleys option was for the poor and in the Methodist movement they were empowered as agents of change in society. Wesley also supported structural change in relation to the evil of slavery. He strongly opposed the denial of natural rights and the pro-slavery argument that slaves were necessary to cultivate crops in hot climates. He addressed ship captains, merchants, and plantation owners and wrote from his deathbed to Wilberforce; Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it (Letter to William Wilberforce, 24 February, 1791, Letters (Telford) 8:26) Wesley was dedicated to human rights and his emphasis was based on his understanding of human kind grounded in his doctrine of creation. Primarily Gods love supplies the context of the first, for it is Gods love which overflowed in the creation of humanity.vi Wesleys anthropology, essentially relational and holistic, provided a basis for his commitment to human rights.vii Though Wesley some times seemed opposed to the flowering of democracy (he was still a person of his time), by 1784 he had accepted the American movement for independence and freedom. Even though he was an establishment Anglican he saw the American separation of church and state as an opening for true religion. The total indifference of the Government whether there be any religion or none leaves room for the propagation of true scriptural religion without the least let or hindrance (Sermon 102). The above may give the impression that Wesley was more motivated by evangelism than by concerns for political ethics. Yet Wesley did believe that the church had fallen when it entered the Constantinian era in 313 C.E. For Wesley the greatest wound Christianity received; Was struck in the 4th century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honours, and power, upon the Christians; more especially on the Clergy Then, not the golden but the iron age of the church commenced. (Works VI: 261-62). Whether in economics or politics, Wesley, despite his being an established Anglican, was concerned that the Methodist movement recovered the simplicity and purity of the gospel and avoid the Constantinian wound in the 18th century. Wesleys holiness project therefore, did extend to the whole creation. Yet it did have weaknesses. Economic prosperity did ultimately undermine the Methodist commitment to scriptural holiness as the economic and political reform of the nation.

Wesley also stopped short of a prophetic critique of the state and the monarch. They were elevated above criticism which despite his pragmatic response to American events, did underline Wesleys conservative political views.viii Furthermore, Wesley was not radical enough in his commitment to structural change. He was concerned with awakening social conscience but at the same time did have a fear of anarchy and chaos if the social structures were disturbed. At times his leaning was more towards maintaining order rather than towards radical social transformation. The task for contemporary Methodists is still to develop the great social ethic of scriptural holiness. This will mean going beyond Wesley, not least because we live in a very different world, especially where globalization is dominant. It will mean in practical terms getting rid of our preferential option for the affluentix and developing a socio-political hermeneutic of scripture. This will mean a more contextual reading of the text in our 21st century context. It will mean engaging with the principalities and powers of racism, poverty, nationalism, ethnocentrism and the systemic violence which they express with such devastation and destruction of human and environmental community. This also includes the violence of sexism and the personal and structural domination of women. Scriptural holiness may still be a worthy Methodist project in an ecumenical context but only if we take social, economic and political structures seriously and learn to read scripture and theology from a new socio-political perspective.

REFERENCES Theodore W, Jennings, Jr Good News to the Poor : John Wesleys Evangelical Economics (Abingdon Press, 1990) p 140
ii

Ibid, p152
iii

Ibid, p153

Quoted in Theodore Runyon, The New Creation : John Wesleys Theology Today (Abingdon Press, 1998) p 190
iv v

Ibid, p191
vi

Ibid, p183
vii

See Randy L Maddox, Responsible Grace : John Wesleys Practical Theology (Kingswood Books, 1994) pp 65-92 for a fuller treatment of Wesleys Anthropology. Manfred Marquardt, John Wesleys Social Ethics ; Praxis and Principles (Abingdon Press, 1992) p 133
viii ix

Jennings, op.cit., p192 Johnston McMaster January 2002

Social Principles: Our Prophetic Voice


Theyve been called the conscience of The United Methodist Church, a body of gutsy words shaped by the Holy Spirit. Theyre found on pages 95-122 of the 2000 Book of Discipline. They can be controversial, triggering culture-war debates about faith and action in the world. Indeed, they ve been debated for nearly 100 years. Still, many United Methodists have never heard of them. Theyre the Social Principles, and the Rev. Lawton Higgs plans his day around them. The Social Principles are a manual you can go to for applying the gospel to human affairs, says Higgs, the pastor of Church of the Reconciler, one of the few interracial churches in Birmingham, Ala. Higgs is a self-identified recovering racist who became a minister in the 1970s after a career as a power utility engineer. Today, his church is remarkable for its ministries to homeless people. The Social Principles, inspired by the Scriptures and by United Methodist traditions of social holiness, lend clarity to his daily mission, he says. The principles address issues of social injustice and other ills of contemporary life. The denomination s highest legislative body, General Conference, which meets every four years with delegates from every United Methodist annual conference worldwide, has the power to write and to revise the Social Principles. Not legally binding, but instructive The Social Principles have no legal binding power, meaning you can t be kicked out of the church if you

disagree with them. However, they are designed to be instructive and persuasive, a guide for study, dialogue and practice. The seven sections of the Social Principles address the breadth of moral life economics, political values, the environment and human rights. The declarations are many, such as: Gambling is a menace to society. Churches and governments should ensure the social welfare of migrant workers. War is incompatible with the teachings of Christ. Nevertheless, we also acknowledge that most Christians regretfully realize that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide. The rights of homosexuals should be honored, though homosexual practice is not condoned. Ive yet to meet anyone who agrees with everything in the Social Principles, says James Winkler, top staff executive of the General Board of Church and Society in Washington, D.C. The board advocates for the denominations Social Principles in public life. The Social Principles might be controversial, but they are an important dimension to United Methodist identity, Winkler adds. We follow in the tradition of John Wesley [the denomination s founder] who had a deep concern for social matters, he explains. Wesley spoke out against slavery, the cruel treatment of prisoners and about how people made their money. Some United Methodists think the Social Principles are too liberal, too partisan or too politically oriented to inspire the whole denominationand ought to be revised. Theyre mostly covering yesterdays issues, reflecting a liberal secular optimism of the 1950s that even todays liberals wouldnt agree to, says Mark Tooley, director of United Methodist Action, a division of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., a longtime critic of United Methodist institutional leadership. Tooleys organization calls for the Social Principles to be entirely rewritten in a process involving local churches and asks that the social witness of the denomination reflect the informed conscience of our members. Winkler acknowledges the Social Principles are not well known in the pews. One reason, he says: The Social Principles attempt to spell out the tough social responsibilities of believing in the gospel, but some pastors perceive them as too controversial to discuss from the pulpit. United Methodists want to live holy lives, Winkler says. They want their faith and their lives to match. But that means addressing the entire system, the roots of homelessness, for instance, and that s hard. The Social Principles ask, What should the church of Jesus Christ say? Winkler hopes the Social Principles will soon be on the lips of the whole denomination. The General Board of Church and Society will likely ask the General Conference, meeting next in spring 2004, to promote a celebration of the Social Principles for the next four years, leading up to 2008. That year marks the 100th anniversary of the first Methodist Social Creed, which was later expanded and renamed the Social Principles. That first Social Creed was considered a distinctive document among Protestant churches in early 20thcentury United States, an impassioned slate of declarations of the economic rights of workers. It spoke out against child labor and in favor of better workplace conditions, wages and worker safety. A centennial commemoration would encourage local-church study of the principles and their history. Winkler also proposes a revision of the final section of the current Social Principles, called Our Social Creed, in hopes of making that section easier to use in worship settings. The Our Social Creed section, seven paragraphs long, states spiritual and social commitments. It declares belief in the Trinity, and affirms the natural world, human rights, world peace, the rule of law and the

triumph of Gods Word in human affairs. The denomination urges that Our Social Creed be used frequently in Sunday worship, but this hasn t caught on in many churches. The language sounds clunky in worship settings, Winkler says. He hopes for the day when Our Social Creed is recited with fervor across the denomination, the way United Methodists declare other affirmations of faith during worship. My hope is the Social Creed can be written to have that kind of power and eloquence, Winkler says. In Birmingham, Higgs finds the Social Principles at work in the lives of his nearly 200 parishioners, many of them homeless or economically distressed. His church hosts a weekly Sunday lunch for 250, organizes a coalition to empower the homeless in public policy and opens its doors on weekdays so homeless people can have access to phones, restrooms and dignity. You practice the Social Principles, and the homeless respond with gratitude, Higgs says. Ray Waddle, is former religion editor at The Tennessean and is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.