John Wesley had a wholesome view of holiness and Christian witness. Not only interested in personal spiritual development (important though that is), his spirituality expressed itself in the social dimension of his life and ministry. Against the temptation of Christians to keep their faith a private matter, his faith interacted with life and encouraged responsible social engagement.
Today Methodists around the world, as heirs of Wesley, have often sought to follow his example by nurturing our Christian faith and sharing the love of Christ through word and action. While there may be Christians who are satisfied merely to proclaim the Gospel, informed Methodists would take this a step further by living out the teaching of the Gospel, which includes caring for the whole creation and particularly those who are distressed and disadvantaged. This is a scriptural Christianity where holiness is understood to be both personal and social.
Putting aside the more personal dimension of holiness which can be picked up on another occasion, for this article, we want to consider Wesley’s Christian social responsibility, or works of mercy. A good summary of our understanding of social responsibility can be found in the introduction to our Methodist Social Principles (found in The Book of Discipline ¶81-90), which reads:
“The Methodist Church has a special interest in social concerns because of its desire to be obedient to Christ in bringing the whole of life with its activities, possessions, relationships and environment into conformity with the will of God. Such obedience is exemplified in the life and labour of John Wesley who ministered to the physical, intellectual, spiritual and social needs of the people to whom he preached the Gospel of personal redemption and social holiness.”
Examples of John Wesley’s social engagement
Throughout his ministry, we see Wesley reaching out to those who were trapped in poverty. He gave his own savings to support the work of alleviating suffering. In his 1744 sermon, on a theme which he would repeat a few times, he challenged Christians to “earn all you can; save all you can; and give all you can”.
The advice to “give all you can” is not to benefit the preacher. In other words, the giving was not to finance the preacher’s expensive lifestyle. He lived a simple life. He rode on ordinary horseback when going on his rounds to preach the Gospel and attend to the needs of the growing movement.
The main source of his income was the stipend he received as a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford. From what he received, he put aside 28 pounds for his personal use, giving away the rest in support of ministry and the poor. While his income increased over the years, he kept the same sum for himself and donated the bulk of his income to Christian work. That was the spirit of what it meant to “give all you can”, something which we seldom talk about today.
Wesley did not attend to the poor alone. Through the various societies and small groups, he rallied early Methodists who were able to help those who were less fortunate. The small groups became effective channels for Christian nurture, discipleship and pastoral care. I am amazed by the fact that in 1783, at the age of 80, Wesley was begging for money in Bath, not for himself but for the poor. At that age, those of us who are blessed with long life would have retired from active service, but not so John Wesley. He was a senior who continued his works of mercy.
He did not merely encourage giving money to ease immediate financial burdens of the poor and needy, although this was important – if someone is poor and hungry you feed them first; you do not ignore their plight and take comfort in setting up a committee to discuss poverty or to blame the poor for bringing problems to themselves, as we are sometimes wont to do.
Wesley recognised this, but was also concerned about how to get the poor out of the poverty trap. He built schools to give the children from poor families a place to study and to prepare themselves for better employment. This, to modify an ancient Chinese adage, is giving fish to the poor and teaching them to fish. By building schools for the poor, he committed the fledgling Christian movement to large sums of expensive investment.
Apart from attending to the immediate needs of the poor and investing in schools and education to help liberate those ensnared by poverty, Wesley’s influence extended beyond his own efforts. As a student at Oxford, John Wesley was a part of what was then known as the Holy Club, where members including his brother Charles would meet regularly for indoor spiritual exercises like prayer and Bible study, and outdoor social witness like visiting prisons. His involvement in visiting prisoners led not just to criminals being introduced to Christ, but also had an impact on prison officers who would bring reform to prison facilities and the way prisons were managed.
One person influenced by Wesley was Abel Dagge, an officer at Newgate Prison in Bristol, who initiated improvements to the jail and treatment of prisoners. Wesley also played a small part in the ending of the slave trade. He might not have been directly involved in it, as he had his plate full of spiritual and social issues which needed his attention. In truth, life has so many challenges which need more than one person or organisation to address. On the matter of slavery, a major social abomination in his time, the one who worked hard at abolishing such a practice was a Christian Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. In a letter to Wilberforce, Wesley encouraged him to oppose and work at ending “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature”.
Lessons for today
What may Wesley teach us today regarding Christian social responsibility and engagement? Let me suggest three lessons.
First, there is always a place for us to attend to the immediate needs of people struggling in life. Having been involved in Methodist Welfare Services (MWS), I have been reminded often of pockets of Singaporeans caught in the quagmire of poverty, illness and isolation. Regular giving is one of the easiest ways in which we may exercise Christian social concerns through active participation in bringing relief to “the last, the least and the lost”. We can and should learn to take out our cheque books or credit cards to give regular support to an agency like MWS, or a charity of your choice.
Secondly, we need people who can innovate and initiate projects to help those who are poor break out of systemic entrapment. This is a more demanding exercise which requires multi-disciplinary input and often heavy financial and time commitment. Surely we have suitably-qualified professionals and successful business people among Methodists who love God and care for societal well-being, and who would be willing to offer their services, financial support and other resources to develop schemes and projects to improve the lives of those struggling at the lowest rung of our socio-economic ladder.
Finally, we can continue to encourage the transformative work of others who are holding strategic positions in the public sector and the political sphere, just like Wesley encouraged Abel Dagge and William Wilberforce.
Christian social engagement should not be relegated to an obscure corner of our spiritual life and witness. It should be part and parcel of our Christian life and the way we think and act. This is a rich heritage of our Christian faith. It is a heritage which Methodists should keep alive.
Editor’s Note: This is a longer version of the article printed on P24 of MM Aug 2017, which had to be shortened due to space constraint. We thank the Rev Dr Koh for allowing us to share his fuller version online.
Oil on canvas by William Hamilton, 1788 © National Portrait Gallery, London. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) and accessed via http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw06700/John-Wesley
The Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon –
is Chairperson of the Methodist Welfare Services, the social service arm of The Methodist Church in Singapore. He is also a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel, and a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College.