Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wesleyan movement and social reform

As something of a follow-up to this post here's a lengthy quote from Richard Lovelace. This may be of special interest to Wesleyan and Methodist readers.

The phase of the Great Awakening most often connected with social reform by English-speaking Christians is the Wesleyan revival, although the Wesleys and Whitefield derived much of their social momentum from the example of German pietism. In addition to the standard Pietist concerns, however, John Wesley introduced several new emphases which were of critical significance.

In the most crucial of these, his attack upon slavery, Wesley had nevertheless been anticipated by another Christian group. The Quakers. . . .

Wesley again echoed the Quakers in his opposition to war, although he was not a doctrinaire pacifist. This concern was picked up by the evangelical peace societies in the next century. Similarly, Wesley led the way for later evangelicals in attacking the use of distilled spirits except for medical purposes, attempting to curb the problem of alcoloholism among the poor, which was one of the major social evils attending the onset of the Industrial Revolution. In his concern to help prisoners Wesley for once anticipated the Quaker reformers led by Elizabeth Fry.

But one of the greatest contributions of the Wesleyan movement to evangelical social consciousness was simply the ingathering of large numbers of lower-class people into the church. Whitefield and the Wesleys were forced into the fields and streets by the closing of church pulpits. The result was the recapture for the church of great numbers of the alienated poor. The evangelical leadership of Methodism and other dissenting churches during the early nineteenth century reflected the pastoral concerns rising out of lower-class flocks. Thus it is no surprise that the British Labor movement in its beginnings was heavily leavened by the evangelical influence of leaders like Keir Hardy.

This championing of the poor man's viewpoint was utterly characteristic of John Wesley himself. J. Wesley Bready comments that
Wesley supported fair prices, a living wage and honest, healthy employment for all. . . . Certain doctrinaire aspects of laissez faire. . . would have made his blood boil; as for . . . the Malthusian and Ricardian theories regarding food, disease, poverty, population and wages, he would have declared them diabolical. [England, Before and After Wesley]

I wonder if Wesley's views would have made him too radical for some conservative evangelical churches today?

Quote from Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979) pp. 367-9

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