John Wesley's Social Ethic

Marquardt begins by examining several areas of Wesley’s social praxis. They include slavery, economics and ethics, his work on aid to the poor, prison reform, and education. One of Wesley’s greatest strengths was his ability to organize. The Methodist Societies were established to provide forums in which the members could help one another in living the Christian life, and in which they could more effectively engage in social action.

It is important to note that the organizations developed by Wesley were not highly bureaucratic, but instead emphasized the role of the individual members. For example, aid to the poor was to be personally delivered by members rather than collected and delivered en masse. Marquardt notes, “Wesley...demand- ed that those active in the social work of his fellowship must deliver help to the poor, not merely send it. To him, the gulf between the strata of society appeared too great for the wealthier people to know the gravity of the poor’s actual situation.” Wesley was concerned that the normal methods used to dispense charity perpetuated the conditions the charity was meant to eliminate.

In most cases, Wesley appealed to people, either individually or as members of groups, to act out of love for God and for neighbor. He did not urge structural changes in either society or government, and usually did not urge passage of specific legislation. Marquardt describes Wesley as, “...a convinced Tory of the moderate (non-Jacobite) wing....” Wesley believed government authority was derived from God rather than from the people, so he supported the constitutional monarchy of Eighteenth Century England. While he was a strong advocate for the poor, he refused to align himself with many of the political reformers of the day. An important exception to this emphasized by Marquardt involves the issue of slavery. Wesley supported the efforts of Wilberforce and other anti-slavery leaders. In general, though, Wesley relied on the efforts of individuals as organized in societies and on the art of persuasion and exhortation to effect change.

The second part of the book focuses on the principles that supported Wesley’s social action. Marquardt briefly summarizes Wesley’s views and praxis on social action before and after his evangelical Aldersgate experience. Prior to Aldersgate, Wesley focused more on good works as a means to salvation; afterwards, good works as the result of salvation. Wesley was often accused of “works-righteousness” by the Calvinists of his day even though he consistently, post-Aldersgate at least, emphasized the priority of justification by faith. Marquardt states:

Nevertheless, Wesley’s simultaneous emphasis of justification by faith alone and the necessity of good works looked like a case of constant tightrope walking.... Using biblical passages and Augustine’s words, Wesley solidified his view that ethical passivity and justifying grace are mutually exclusive. This theological dialectic, which appropriately placed Paul and James side by side, made it possible for Wesley to emphasize equally the doctrines of justification by faith alone (against Anglican legalism, which accused him of fanaticism) and the necessity of good works (against any-mystical or pietistic quietism). It is through this synthesis that Wesley laid the foundation for his social ethics.

Wesley’s theology led to his social ethics. He rejected any notion of predestination, arguing that Christ’s atoning death and resurrection were available to all. As a result, the rich were not rich because of God’s election, and the poor were not poor because of God’s reprobation. Further, Wesley believed that justification was not merely imputed to the believer, but the individual was also renewed and the process of sanctification begun. An important part of sanctification was to follow Christ’s example and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The overall goal was the renewal of the individual believer, and the renewal of society through the actions of believers. Marquardt describes Wesley’s ethic as, “an ethic of responsibility and solidarity....”

I found the book very useful and interesting, although I think that some of Marquardt’s criticisms are incorrect. Marquardt argues that Wesley failed to push for structural change in society sufficiently, while I see Wesley’s emphasis on the individual and voluntary groups appropriate. He offers a good summary of many of Wesley’s views, especially as they relate to social action. He also points out some of Wesley’s contradictions–his distrust of democratic processes combined with a willingness to use natural law arguments on some occasions while ignoring them on others, for example.

Wesley’s views and practices could be adopted today and be more fruitful than the status quo. In particular, Wesley’s insistence on the importance of each person because the person is made in God’s image and is someone for whom Christ died is an ideal starting point for social concern. His focus on social change through redeemed people rather than by changing social structures should be considered seriously by Christians. Finally, Wesley’s use of reason and empirical evidence to analyze the sources of social problems and the potential effects of proposed solutions is needed today. The desire to do good for people does not imply that good actually gets done. What is needed is an analysis of the problems followed by proposed solutions.

Marquardt has written a book that analyzes the approach taken by a Christian leader known for his social action. Wesley’s views on this topic are worthy of our attention. Marquardt’s book offers a good starting point for thinking about social action, and for analyzing and evaluating the current programs intended to help the poor.