Bishop's Message

John Wesley and the Poor

May 2010    

“Our ministry to the poor becomes a means of grace by which God does His work of holiness in us. It becomes a way by which God perfects us in His love and makes us Christ-like.”

JOHN WESLEY, THE FOUNDER OF METHODISM, had a big heart for the poor. He came from a family where his father was a relatively poor clergyman, and saw on at least one occasion how his father was marched off to the debtor’s prison for not being able to repay money to his lenders. Perhaps that left a big impression in his mind, and he did not want to be a clergyman like his father. But God had other plans for him.

In Oxford University, where John studied, he became a Fellow and was paid a rather comfortable sum which he spent quite happily on things he needed or wanted, including a number of luxuries. But all this changed after a particular incident in his life.

“He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward’? Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! – Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”

That incident made a permanent change in Wesley in the way he looked at his possessions, and in the way he saw the needs of the poor. He made a decision to live frugally, to buy only what he really needed, and to give the rest away for the poor and needy. During his long lifetime Wesley earned more than £30,000, almost all of which he gave away to the poor. After his death in 1791, it was discovered that the only personal possessions he left behind were a few coins in his pockets and dresser drawers.

During his time in Oxford, Wesley was part of a group of young earnest men who sought to pursue holiness through prayer and Bible study, visiting the prisons and helping the poor. This spirituality stayed with him all his life and he saw helping the poor along with other “works of mercy” as an essential aspect of his salvation in Christ. As Methodist theologian Randy Maddox has shown, Wesley saw the connection between helping the poor and Christian sanctification. Our ministry to the poor becomes a means of grace by which God does His work of holiness in us. It becomes a way by which God perfects us in His love and makes us Christ-like.

Wesley organised the Methodists into societies (congregations), classes (small groups of twelve), and bands (smaller groups of five or six). In addition, he had what he called select societies – these were specialised groups for those who have made much progress in their Christian discipleship, those who believed they have experienced “entire sanctification”. He put them together into such groups to help them pursue Christian perfection. As for rules for these rather exclusive select societies, there were only three: confidentiality, submission to the minister as their spiritual director, and bringing all their spare money into a common pool every week to help the poor.

We note here the connection between ministering to the poor and Christian perfection. The mystery is that the one helping the poor is probably blessed more deeply than the poor receiving the help. Did not Jesus say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35)?

Helping the poor was not just charity that one did with some loose coins, but a vital component of growing into holiness. It is not surprising, therefore, that Wesley took this very seriously and personally practised it. On one occasion, he wrote a letter to a friend explaining why he let his hair grow long – he was saving money so that he could give it to the poor!

Wesley was a man of many interests, one of which was medicine. While in Oxford, he read medical text books in his spare time, and got to know quite a bit of the medical knowledge at that time, which was not much compared to what it is today. He gathered enough knowledge to write a book on health and healing: Primitive Physick; or, an easy and natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. It became a best-seller in 18th century England and was read widely. In his preface, Wesley reveals the reasons for writing this book: the mistreatment of the poor by the generally incompetent medical practitioners of his time, and the greed of many of these physicians. In the words of Samuel Rogal, Wesley, in writing this book, offered “pills for the poor”.

WESLEY’S PRACTICAL CONCERN for the poor was expressed widely through the clinics, schools and other ministries that he established. He was driven by a deep concern for the poor that became an indispensable part of his imitation of Christ. His brother Charles expresses this well when he wrote:

Thy mind throughout my life be shown,
While listening to the wretch’s cry,
The widow’s and the orphan’s groan, On mercy’s wings I swiftly fly
The poor and helpless to relieve, My life, my all for them to give.

Wesley’s deep and practical concern for the poor is not surprising as he sought to closely follow his Lord, who declared that He was sent “to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), and whose identification with the poor (2 Cor. 8:9) and compassionate ministry among them reflected God’s deep concern for the poor – as reflected consistently throughout Scripture. The God who desires that “there should be no poor among you” (Dt. 15:4) sent His Son to save us from our sins and to become like His Son. To become like His Son, we have to relate to the poor the way Jesus did. Wesley knew this and pursued it wholeheartedly.

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