Holy Love: Wesley On Mercy and Justice

Wesley’s Conjunctive Work with the Poor

Many who have attempted to explain Wesley have highlighted his ministry to the poor. Citing various Wesley maxims and popular quotes they have pictured Wesley’s ministry to the poor as his central theme. Furthermore, it has been popular to emphasize the actions of the early Methodists without trying to understand their motivation. Such a portrayal is unbalanced, and it distorts Wesley’s important teachings on ministry to the poor. With this in mind and in order to understand Wesley’s holistic emphasis on the poor, I will ask three questions: What did Wesley do, why did he do it, and to what end?[1] As I will show from the answers to these questions, Wesley emphasized acts of mercy and justice in conjunction with and in subordination to inward religion.

I turn first to the actions of the Methodists. What did Wesley actually do to help the poor? The list of activities is quite long and includes an array of foci. On the one hand Wesley advocated for the temporal needs of the poor. He fed and clothed poor children, supplied jobs for the jobless, gave loans to those who were financially struggling, visited the sick and prisoners, and generally provided food, clothing, money, shelter, books, medicine, and other important rudiments to those in need.[2] Wesley also raised money for the poor. Some have named Wesley’s fundraising ‘begging’. Indeed Wesley did go from house to house asking his rich acquaintances for money, but his begging was not akin to holding a tin can on the street corner. Still, the early Methodists were engaged in a wide variety of ministries to the local poor. We must note, though, the communal or ecclesial nature of their activity. Not only did the rich members of the congregation (rich meaning that all their basic needs were met and they had some left over) spend time assisting the poor as a community, but the funds on which they operated came from the excess of the congregations savings.[3] In such a way, the early Methodists not only gave to the poor, but received spiritual freedom by giving of their own wealth.

On the other hand, Wesley and the Methodists sought to provide for the spiritual needs of the poor. Wesley observed that the poor not only needed clothing, food, and shelter, but redemption of their souls as well. Once the temporal needs of the poor were met, Wesley urged that the poor were to receive sermons and the option to receive the renewing work of Christ in their lives. Ministers were first and foremost working to save souls.[4] Like any other person, the poor man or woman was worthy of receiving the good new. Liberation from the guilt and power of sin was no more for the rich than for the poor.[5] Ultimately, the Early Methodists worked with diligence to provide for the temporal and spiritual needs of the poor in their community.

As I stated above, it is not enough to only survey the actions of the early Methodists. We must understand their motive to see the full scope of their works of mercy and justice. At the core of Wesleyan thought consists of holy love and vital religion. Works of mercy were less important to Wesley than, say, inward religion. This is not to diminish Wesley’s emphasis on works of mercy and justice, but to uplift in a clear way that Wesley’s motivation of virtue and obligation.[6] The Methodists believed that helping the poor was part of living a sanctified life and being sanctified oneself. In this way, Wesley warned of the danger of riches on one’s eternal soul. The rich were not evil in and of themselves, taught Wesley. Still, riches strike at the heart of true religion. Furthermore, amassing riches act as a hindrance to love of neighbor and grow a love of self. Such a disposition, wrote Wesley, stifle zeal for acts of mercy such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick.[7] Works of mercy naturally flowed out of the Wesleyan mandate to live simply for the state of one’s own soul and for the essential love of neighbor.

Second, the Methodists were motivated by their call to stewardship. Here I might throw in the famous Wesley maxim, “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can”. While Wesley wanted to give sound economic advice, he did so for three reasons. First, Christians should steward well, because God has given all in the first place. Second, stewardship must directly issue in love of neighbor. Finally, stewardship is good for the soul of the steward.[8] The Methodists were ultimately motivated by vital religion and holy love for their neighbors.

As we have seen, the Methodists participated in range of works to help the poor. They were motivated not only by a general love for neighbor, but also by love for God and with zeal for vital religion. Though works of mercy and justice did not encompass true Christianity, the Methodists affirmed that works of mercy and love of God and neighbor worked cyclically. “In other words, the love of God and neighbor issue in works of mercy which in turn enhance the love of God and neighbor”.[9] Ultimately, and as far as work of mercy were concerned, Wesley and the early Methodists strove to give material gifts as well as spiritual. Such work was evidence of the sanctifying graces of God in this world. At the center of all efforts was holy love, both for God and for neighbor.

[1] See Collins, pg. 1.
[2] For a discussion of how Wesley’s activities were abnormal for such a person in his day see Heitzenrater, pg. 49.
[3] Collins, pg. 12.
[4] Ibid. pg. 15.
[5] Ibid. pg. 16.
[6] See Heizenrater, pg. 52.
[7] Collins, pg. 4.
[8] Ibid. pg. 8.
[9] Ibid. pg. 18.