Finding the Forgotten
SOCIAL REFORM as we conceive of it today would have been impossible in Wesley’s time. Society in England during the eighteenth century was rigidly structured, and the only means of advancing from one class to another was preferment, the support of a wealthy benefactor. The nobility, the city and country gentry, and the tradesmen were sharply differentiated from servants, the poor, and slaves, in that order. If you were born, for example, in the servant class, chances were you remained there the rest of your life.
Wesley and his followers did not challenge the order and hierarchy of society. They were not revolutionaries. Rather, within each class they worked to enrich the spiritual dimensions of individual men’s and women’s lives. There was one exception to Wesley’s willingness to accept the status quo—that was slavery. Wesley’s journals record his interest in the movement to abolish slavery. Serfdom, or life bondage to the land, was abolished systematically in Europe during this period; slavery was largely abolished during the next century. Late in his career Wesley agreed with Wilberforce, the voice of the antislavery movement—slavery must end. (See “Wesley to Wilberforce”)
Wesley and his men and women went into the prisons, hospitals, and work houses to bring the message of salvation. The reform they sought was like that brought to the repentant thief on the cross. They tried to turn people in a hopeless situation to Christ for the sake of their immortality. This was scarcely easy, for prisoners felt themselves irrevocably condemned and ruined. There was no possibility of a life of honor if ever they were released. The sick were taught that illness was a form of God’s judgment, and this compounded their despondency at being hospitalized. Debt-ridden folk and female offenders in the work houses had little prospect of release.
Instead of being accepted with open arms when they visited the prisons and work houses, Wesley and his fellow Holy Club members, and later his followers, found hatred, taunts, and intractability. They preached over shouting, mockery, and physical abuse. Peer pressure made true repentance difficult for the downtrodden prisoners. Working under the threat of disease, amid unsanitary conditions, the Methodists continued with calm persistence in the face of abuse and repeated disappointment.
William Morgan, one of the members of the Holy Club, started the prison visitations, and all members followed his example. Wesley made this so basic a part of his program that William Hogarth could satirize in a print the fervid exhortations of a Methodist preacher as he tried to win a condemned soul for Christ on the way to execution. In fairness, Hogarth’s print depicts the Methodist as actively seeking to save the lost soul while the official Anglican clergyman sits idly by in comfort.
Wesley preached faith and God’s mercy to men and women who might have despaired of redemption. His message was that God’s grace is “free in all, and free for all.”
Hospitals in the eighteenth century were by no means the clean and elaborate organizations that we know today. Medicine itself was crude and ineffective. The poor were seldom able to get the medical attention they required. Here Wesley’s approach to reform was more direct. He established clinics for the poor.
Wesley’s success in the work houses seems remarkable even by contemporary standards of reform. Without changing conditions in the fundamental sense, Wesley’s preaching inspired inmates. He emphasized cleanliness and thrift. He records returning to work houses he had preached at previously—and finding evidence of almost total transformation. Particularly among “lost” women his appeal to human decency was heeded.
Cleanliness and thrift were topics of sermons that Wesley preached throughout Britain. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” he preached. And in order to inspire thrift, he himself decided to abandon tea. Recorded in his journal is his bout with caffeine fits during the three days just after he quit the tea habit. By example he showed that money could be saved by self-denial. Through analyzing his own reaction to life without tea, he came to know that nothing was lost in dropping the drink entirely.
Certain that the poor could better themselves from within, Wesley provided the inspiration for them to transform. He relentlessly emphasized that one did not have to be filthy or constantly on the edge of monetary ruin and that one should not treat one’s neighbors cruelly. No enormous government subsidies were forthcoming to help the poor. But the poor could, within limits, help themselves. Economic reform was not important for Wesley. He himself set an example of voluntary poverty. He set his income and never varied it. He experimented with frugality even within this self-imposed constraint.
If Wesley dropped tea for its expense, he avoided alcohol and attacked it because of its effects. The eighteenth century was the century of gin. Gin was cheap and deadly, and the poor drank enormous quantities of it. Gin destroyed the mind and body and served as an escape from responsibility. The ideal stance towards alcohol of any kind was abstinence. Temperance was a minimum requirement In place of drink, the Methodists emphasized true religious enthusiasm.
The strength of early Methodism was its burning desire to seek out and to minister to the forgotten people of Britain. This was the purpose of the open-air sermons. Contemporaries criticized Wesley’s preaching to workers going to work on the ground that a resultant loss in productivity would deal a blow to the economic system. In fact, the reverse was probably true. Capitalism in England was strengthened by the Methodist emphasis on the spiritual dignity of every man.
So Wesley made the open sky his nave. He provided a church for the unchurched. By preaching the simple virtues of cleanliness, temperance, thrift, and faith, he gradually transformed the character of his countrymen. His societies became what one observer has called “Mutual Admonition Societies” where members helped one another live full Christian lives.
Wesley had a hunch about the poor around him—that they wished to live better even though they seemed often incapable of fulfilling their wish, that they liked to think that there was hope for themselves yet, that they enjoyed being clean and striving to save a little money. They knew that they were bound to their class, but wanted their spirits to soar above all class distinctions. So Wesley’s social reform was neither a hand out nor a hand up. He did not teach “coping” or social climbing. He taught Christ as the way through whom all of the best possibilities in man are possible.
In addition, he made great strides forward on the issues of women and slavery. Like the Moravians, he saw fewer distinctions between men and women than other churchmen of his time, though he did not go as far as Quakers. Like the Quakers, he came to see the injustice in slavery, which he condemned as “the execrable sum of all villainies” and called for its abolition.
In sum, for Wesley, geniune faith of necessity manifested itself in concrete acts of service and compassion for the downtrodden and hurting masses. CH
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #2 in 1983]
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