Wesley was active throughout his life in advocating actions commensurate with a Christian life of love for one's neighbor as well as for God. Acts of love were varied, ranging from evangelical ministries to social activism. Wesley considered a biblically based ministry to be inextricably bound up with the complex needs of society, and he did his best to balance evangelical and social concerns.
The broad Wesleyan movement following Wesley also manifested a noteworthy tradition of social as well as spiritual concern and activism. The balance found in Wesley, however, was not always characteristic of the various branches of Methodism. Sometimes denominations shifted, emphasizing the social to the neglect of the spiritual, or emphasizing the spiritual to the neglect of the social. But overall Wesleyans have been on the forefront of evangelical and social ministries.
Social Holiness. Wesley exhibited a marvelous balance between the need for right actions on both a private and public level. Holiness, for example, was seen neither as a purely private dimension of Christianity nor as a purely public dimension. Holiness, almost by definition, was something that affected the whole of one's life. Since people are spiritual as well as social beings, holiness should relate to all areas of life.In this section, I draw upon my work in The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1990), 93-95.
With regard to people's spiritual needs, Wesley sought to proclaim the gospel message and to nurture those who believe. In order to accomplish this ministry, Wesley began with Scripture, yet was willing to entertain that which could be distilled from tradition, reason, and experience. Thus, Wesley experimented with the unorthodox practices of preaching outdoors, establishing extended intra-church meetings, singing hymns to popular tunes, appointing lay preachers, and eventually ordaining them for the “effective work of the ministry.” The societies, classes, and bands were, as Colin Williams describes them, “important experiments . . . essential to translate faith into forms of discipline, in order to relate the faith to the common concerns of daily life and to provide for the mutual growth of the members.”Williams, John Wesley's Theology Today, 140. They also served as the training centers for those outside established programs in the Church of England who were interested in pursuing missions work, particularly in the American colonies. Methodist missionaries were officially sent from Britain to the American colonies in 1769.
Wesley is well known for his emphasis upon salvation, holiness, and other aspects of the spiritual life, but his care for people extended beyond their spiritual well being. Considering his time and place in history, Wesley was in the forefront of helping alleviate the social needs of eighteenth-century Britain. His care for souls extended to the whole person, especially recognizing the importance of caring for the poor, the uneducated, the sick, or those who—for various reasons—were dispossessed by society, for example, slaves and prisoners. Wesley especially sought care for the poor. It was toward them that he directed his primary evangelistic thrusts and his social concern. For example, he provided basic medical care and wrote simple medical manuals to aid those who could not afford professional care.For example, Wesley published Primitive Physic[k], Or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases (1747; London: Epworth Press, 1960), which was reprinted twenty-one times during his lifetime. He also established an orphange and what came to be known as “The Poor House” for those, especially widows, who could not care for themselves. Wesley took it upon himself to educate those who otherwise did not have the means to be educated, and eventually established Kingswood School to service a larger number of children. He even made it possible for people to receive money who had immediate needs for small loans by creating a benevolent loan fund.For an account of these social services, see “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” XII-XV, Works (Jackson ed.), 8:263-68.
Wesley's concern for the poor extended beyond actual acts of goodwill toward the poor. He wrote sermons—all biblically based—for the purpose of instructing Methodists on how to handle their money. In addition to giving to the ministry, Methodists were exhorted to give to the needs of the poor—those whom Outler describes as “Wesley's self-chosen constituency: ‘Christ's poor.’”Outler, introductory comment, “The Use of Money” (1760, sermon 50), Works (Bicentennial ed.), 2:263. In The Use of Money, Wesley exhorted Christians to gain all they can, save all they can, and give all they can.“The Use of Money,” (1760, sermon 50), Works (Bicentennial ed.), 2:263-380. He soon discovered that his Methodist followers were good at the first two principles, but ignored the third principle against surplus accumulation. He regarded surplus accumulation to be the leading sin prohibiting effective Christian praxis.See Outler's comments in the introductory comment to “The Danger of Riches” (1781, sermon 87), Works (Bicentennial ed.), 3:227.
Most Wesley scholars recognize that his teachings on social holiness and social responsibility concentrate on the renewal of society rather than on its transformation. Wesley did, however, exhibit characteristics of realized eschatology, that is, belief in the biblical promises of kingdom renewal for the present. Williams argues that Wesley's emphasis upon the new way of life available to Christians, the inward dynamic of religion, and the possibility of social renewal point to a belief that far-reaching renewal would result from the life of his societies.See Williams, John Wesley's Theology Today, 194-98; cf. 179-82.
Wesley lived in an era that did not possess the same social consciousness shared by modern Christians. So we must not expect from Wesley the kind of theological sophistication and praxis held by Christians today. But in his religious and economic radicalism, he laid the conceptual groundwork for later involvements by Methodists, for example, in the growth of the British Liberal Party, the rise of socialism, and activism on behalf of industrial laborers. In the words of Vivian Green, Wesley's “Religious radicalism had acted as a midwife to political reform.”Vivian H. H. Green, John Wesley (London: Nelson, 1964), 158. Thus, we are not surprised when Williams finds in Wesley's abolitionist support of Wilberforce, a belief “that God appoints times (kairoi) when an attack on great social evils can succeed, but that for their success the complete obedience of his followers and the leaders he has appointed is required.”Williams, John Wesley's Theology Today, 197n13.
Way of Being. Wesley saw the necessity of balancing right actions along with right beliefs and a right heart. Although he considered right beliefs essential to Christianity, his ministry focused more upon the need for a right heart and right actions. From his perspective, the essence of biblical Christianity reflected more of a way of being than a way of believing. That way of being included more than the state of one's heart; it also included actions that emanated from the character one develops in the context of a personal relationship with God. Thus, it became important to Wesley to determine those biblical principles that guide us toward determining right actions.
Wesley not only considered it important to determine what those principles are, he considered it vital to inculcate them in the lives of the Methodists. In 1739, soon after his experience at Aldersgate, he responded to requests of some of his followers to organize small groups in which prayer might occur and Scripture be studied in an atmosphere of accountability. The initial intentions of the people who came to Wesley were simply to avoid sin and seek salvation. Wesley responded by forming small groups for those with “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins,” which constituted the only prerequisite for membership.“The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies,” §4, Works (Jackson ed.), 8:270. But Wesley did not settle for ministering for these spiritual goals alone. He instituted The Rules of the United Societies to provide disciplines for developing whole people—whole Christians—in relationship to themselves individually, to their accountability group, and to others, including the church and society.
Simply stated, the rules consist of doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God.See Ibid., 269-71. The ordinances of God, of course, are derived from Scripture. They largely include the instituted means of grace described earlier: the public worship of God; ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; private prayer; searching the Scriptures; and fasting, or abstinence. The rules themselves constitute the prudential means of grace critical to the organization and function of the societies, classes, and bands.
Doing no harm included such traditional acts as not taking the name of God in vain. But it also included prohibitions reflective of a concern for problems that affected society. For example, the rules prohibit the buying and selling of uncustomed goods, the giving or taking of things on usury, and laying up treasures upon earth. We have already seen that Wesley considered the accumulation of wealth to be one of the greatest threats to the well-being of individual Christians as well as of society.
Doing good involved the longstanding Christian concern for sins of omission as well as those of commission. As Christians had opportunity and as far as it was possible, Wesley expected that good works should be performed that ministered to the whole person. He urged doing good
to their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick, or in prison; to their souls by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all they have any intercourse with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine of devils, that we are not to do good unless “our heart be free to it”....Ibid., 270-71.
In and of themselves, these rules appear unremarkable. When seen in the context of Wesley's small-group organization and his personal social ministry and published exhortations, we discover a holistic and Visionary activism. Even H. Richard Niebuhr recognized that the sanctification and perfection emphases of Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition represent one of the great church historical proponents of both individual and sociocultural transformation.See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), 218-19.
Revivalism and the Social Gospel. In the century following Wesley, Methodism continued a strong emphasis upon the well-being of individuals through its emphasis upon revivalism and a concomitant concern for holiness and Christian nurture. We have already seen how the Wesleyan tradition, especially in its Holiness, camp meeting, and Keswick branches, promoted optimism in the spiritual transformation of individuals. These emphases continued to be promoted through revivals, camp meetings, missions, and so on.
Following the biblical injunction to make disciples throughout the world, Methodists were actively involved worldwide in planting churches, schools, and medical facilities. The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States organized its own mission board as early as 1833. Other Wesleyan denominations established theirs, bringing the same zeal for revival and holy living to mission work. Methodist missionaries of note include William Taylor (1821-1902), who established missions on six continents; E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973), who was an innovator in employing methods of evangelism appropriate to a particular culture; and J. Waskom Pickett (1890-1981), whose missions writings inspired leaders in the contemporary Church Growth Movement.
A prominent sense of social consciousness and activism toward service for and the transformation of culture has historically characterized the Wesleyan tradition. These emphases began with Wesley, but his followers broadened them, becoming more inclusive in their ministry to persons around the world and to the need for social and political involvement in changing unjust social structures. One of the early examples of social concern in the United States may be found in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, which in 1843 argued for abolition as a reason for forming a new denomination. Similarly, the Free Methodist Church argued for abolition in 1860. Both representative of the Holiness movement, these churches advocated other traditional Wesleyan concerns, for example, the need for simple lifestyle and social concern on behalf of the poor. They also advocated greater participation of women in ministry, allowing women to preach and teach. Timothy Smith, author of Revivalism and Social Reform, argues that the origins of social Christianity in the United States rest in large measure upon the mid-century revivalists, particularly those who advocated perfection in the Wesleyan tradition.
The best example of social concern among evangelical Wesleyans in the nineteenth century may be found in the formation of the Salvation Army. William Booth (1829-1912), who grew up in British Methodism, founded the Salvation Army in London during the 1860s to minister through evangelism, social work, and rescue homes. During the latter decades of the century, the work of the Army spread to the United States and around the world. The movement continues as a symbol of dedicated concern for the social as well as spiritual well-being of people. Among evangelicals Wesleyans, the Salvation Army is the most prominent socialactivist group.
The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States acted significantly in line with its heritage of social service. In the 1880s, the northern bishops addressed the problems of workers during the labor crises. In 1908, that church adopted a Social Creed, under the editorial direction of Harry F. Ward (1873-1966), which formally addressed critical problems of industrial laborers. Frank North took the Social Creed to the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, a forerunner of the National Council of Churches, where it was widely adopted by other Protestant denominations. The Social Creed was later modified in 1912 to include other social concerns, and it is regarded as a classic statement of the goals of the social gospel.Stephen C. Mott, “Social Creed of the Churches,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, eds., Daniel G. Reid, et. al. (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity, 1990), 1101.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the term social gospel gained prominence as a description of the effort to relate biblical and theological insights to the problems of society. However, the social gospel increasingly became identified with liberal Christianity, both outside and inside the Wesleyan tradition. Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, both northern and southern, became concerned with greater social relevance in the communication and application of the gospel.
After World War I, the optimism of the social gospel movement began to wane. However, the influence continued to persist among denominations influenced by liberal concerns. In recent decades, evangelically influenced denominations have become more socially aware and active through the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Fellowship. Both evangelical and liberal Wesleyans have had difficulty trying to maintain the balance between spiritual and social concerns found in the theology and ministry of Wesley. But, overall, the Wesleyan tradition has been more conscious and active than most denominations in holding these tensions in balance.
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
For the best Bible Gateway experience, upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus. For less than the cost of a latte each month, you'll gain access to a vast digital Bible study library and reduced banner ads to minimize distractions from God's Word. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.