Heritage Sunday: John Wesley and the Poor
by Elliott Wright
The United Methodist Church's current focus on ministry with the poor stands in strong continuity with the Methodist heritage back to founder John Wesley in 18th century England.
Wesley, who was suspicious of riches (as was Jesus), once told a colleague, "The poor are the Christians." He stirred so much animosity with his criticism of wealth and defense of the poor that he was prohibited from preaching in Church of England parishes. His response was the famous declaration that the world was his parish. He went out and preached standing on his father's gravestone. The poor heard him gladly.
Wesley's thinking about and approach to ministry with the poor changed over the years. When young he encouraged acts of charity, such as giving alms to the poor, even begging from the rich on behalf of the poor. He organized a society to provide relief for poor, sick, and friendless "strangers."
Later, Wesley would move away from charity and begging as responses to the needs of those on the economic margins. He looked for more lasting benefits and took a stance in favor of an 18th century form of individual, family, and community empowerment. He advocated and helped to organize:
Wesley encouraged the early Methodist preachers to live among the poor in order to maintain solidarity with them. He and his brother Charles sometimes acted as arbiters between the poor abused by the early industrial revolution and civil authorities. One mayor accused the Wesleys of causing "much mischief" in England, but they won him to the cause doing justice for people.
The Wesleys were keenly aware of poverty as the result of systems of injustice. They combined a positive concern for the welfare of people with protests against specific forms of injustice. John sharply criticized the exploitation of the poor by industrialists, merchants, doctors, lawyers, and distillers; he condemned colonialism and slavery. To a large degree, the treatment of the poor became for Wesley the litmus test of the value of Christian life and service.
As he grew old and Methodism became larger and more prosperous, Wesley deeply feared a growing complacency toward poverty. He warned of this in one of his last essays. He wrote: "For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently, they increase in goods. Hence they proportionally increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away."
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Date posted: May 20, 2011