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Good News to the Poor

John Wesley's evangelical economics

Theodore W. Jennings Jnr  -  Abingdon 1990


This is one of the most disturbing books on Methodism I have ever read.   Jennings is an American Methodist theologian who admits that he once had an antipathy to the study of Wesley  -  he found 18th century Christianity unspeakably boring,  and the preoccupation with the founder of Methodism tedious in the extreme.   All this changed when he found himself teaching theology and Bible in the Methodist Seminary of Mexico in the centre of Mexico City.

The Seminary was populated by adolescent evangelists with no academic pretensions.   Their driving desire was to be Christian and to help others to be Christians.   They found in Wesley a kindred spirit.   Because they had a hunger to know what it might mean to be Methodist they found the study of Wesley appealing.   They also found that they were confronting their own situation in a new way,  overcoming the prejudice that there was an inherent contradiction between evangelical piety and social action.   Overcoming,  too,  an acquired belief in the gospel of wealth and success which encourages a contempt for the poor.   Jennings said that the more he worked on Wesley,  and the more experience he had of the grassroots church in Mexico,  the more apparent it became to him that Wesley provided an opening to engagement with the  'staggering reality of life in modern Mexico'.   In Wesley he found,  as his students had found,  a way of bringing together both the spiritual and the economic reality of the overwhelming mass of the people.

The book is worth reading simply for its analysis of Wesley's teaching on economics,  though Wesley never used the term.   Jennings calls Wesley's many and varied writings on this subject  'Wesley's Evangelical Economics',  and regards them as an essential element of Wesley's project of scriptural holiness.

Worldliness threatening holiness

Economics is the point at which worldliness most threatens holiness,  and holiness is not simply strict religious duty,  as it was and still is too often misunderstood.   It is not outward religion.   Religious observances are a means of grace,  not the goal of grace.   It is the task of holiness to render to God that which is God's. This means the whole of life,  and especially the economic sphere.   The love of,  and obsession with,  material success is,  for Wesley,  rebellion against God,  for it is the taking over of creation from the Creator.   Stewardship is the practice of the agents of the  new creation.   It is giving the creation back to the Creator.   Economics is the primary sphere of human activity.   It is here that we are most involved in working,  gaining,  spending,  and giving.   We may be driven by necessity,  but the one who is a new creation through Christ responds in a totally different way.

Finally it is here that the question of a real imitation of the divine love comes most concretely into question.   This love is the opposite of self-regard;  it is freely self-giving.   It is the opposite of the economic exchange of robbery,  or even an economics of strict accounting;  it is gracious,  generous.   It seeks the good of the other without seeking to preserve itself.   It chooses the least rather than the greatest.   It sides with the poor and becomes one of the poor.   The life of love,  then,  is a reversal of worldly economic values.   A love that does not reverse these values is a lie and illusion.     (p.155)

Demystifying wealth

Wesley demystifies wealth.   He utterly rejects the view of those who believe riches to be inherently a gift from God,  and therefore a legitimation of personal,  national,  or church policy.   In an early chapter Jennings summarizes a host of references that Wesley made to the poor.   For example,  in one of Wesley's  Appeals  he says:  'Only let us be alone with the poor,  the vulgar,  the base,  the outcasts of men.'   When Wesley was excluded from the churches of London he came to know intimately what outreach to the poor meant.   He found the poor to be his favourite audience:  'I love the poor;  in many of them I find pure,  genuine grace,  unmixed with paint,  folly,  and affectation.'   His consistent message was that of one who has entered into solidarity with the poor,  and who through long and intimate acquaintance knows the horrors of abject poverty.   There's not much mere sentiment in Wesley's siding with the poor.

He visited them.   He had done so from his earliest days at Oxford.   He believed it was far better to carry relief to the poor than to send it.   There was real,  personal engagement.   From his Journal:  'On Friday and Saturday I visited as many more  [of the poor]  as I could.   I found some in their cells underground;  others in their garrets,  half-starved,  both with cold and hunger,  added to weakness and pain.   But I found not one of them unemployed,  who was able to crawl about the room.   So wickedly,  so devilishly false is that common objection,  "They are poor,  only because they are idle."   If you saw these things with your own eyes,  could you lay out money in ornaments or superfluities?'



He begged for them.   He took collections up among the crowds who came to hear him.   That was the common practice in early Methodist worship services.   But he went further.   'At this season  [Christmas]  we usually distribute coals and bread among the poor of the society  [of London].   But I now considered,  they wanted clothes,  as well as food.   So,  on this,  and the four following days,  I walked through the town,  and begged two hundred pounds in order to clothe them that needed it most.   But it was hard work,  as most of the streets were filled with melting snow,  which often lay ankle deep;  so that my feet were steeped in snow-water nearly from morning till evening'.   Wesley was then 82!

He organised for them.   For example,  Wesley set up small employment cooperatives.   He set up a  'lending stock'  making loans of up to twenty shillings so that the poor could buy tools and materials to develop their own businesses.   He attempted to provide free health care for the poor with a clinic,  and through the publication of his  Primitive Physic,  a wonderful collection of practical medicine and quackery.   When he set up a poor house for destitute widows and children he arranged it so that he and other preachers would live with them in solidarity,  and share the same sort of food.


But there was an element of consciousness-raising in all this,  through his sermons and his more general writings,  all of which were widely published.   His cheap publishing ventures made a wide variety of literature available to the poor,  though it was,  of course,  of an improving nature.   He wrote on the unequal distribution of goods in a time of plenty.   He wrote opposing the distilling industry out of his concern for the effects of this business on the poor,  not from a narrow moralistic point of view.   He wrote opposing taxation to support wasteful government spending,  and he was in favour of taxing luxuries.   He attacked colonialism in its mercantile form  -  where the fortunes of merchants were founded on cheap labour.   He was among the very first to condemn slavery,  talking of the right of the Angolan to the same liberty that the Englishman enjoys.   He went so far as to suggest that whatever the  'law'  might say slavery was evil and unjust.

Jennings' study gives ample evidence of his intimate awareness of the writings of John Wesley,  and he brings together in relatively small compass  (the book is of 234 pages)  what must be all the significant references to the subject which are to be found in the complete works of John Wesley.   Here is another telling example of Jennings' writing:

[Wesley's]  denunciation of injustice takes the form of an attack on the powerful who exploit the poor in Wesley's own society as well as an exposure of the oppressive structures of colonialism and slavery.   Wesley has also shown a willingness to join in coalition with those who,  on other than strictly Methodist principles,  also oppose injustice.   Indeed,  his experience with the poor leads him to apply his view of human rights in such a way as to open the door to a solidarity with the oppressed that accepts the right to rebel against their oppression.   To be sure,  Wesley does not anticipate all the work that would be necessary to develop a theology of liberation applicable to the altered circumstances in which we,  and the world's poor,  now live.   A reading of Wesley does not absolve us from the theological and ethical tasks that confront any attempt at faithful witness today.   But Wesley does provide us with a provocation to take up this task in our own day and with something of the same energy and urgency that he exhibited in his.   As he was prepared to admit,  Wesley made many errors of judgment in his own work.   So will we.   His thought is not perfect,  but it is a serviceable instrument in the struggle to witness to the inbreaking of the divine reign of justice.   That is all we can ask,  either of him or ourselves.     (pp.95f)

Must Christianity inevitably undermine itself?

The book is a disturbing book.   It contains a quotation from a sermon Wesley wrote late in his life entitled  Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity.   In this he reflected on fifty years of experience of the embarrassing disparity between Christianity's claims and promises and its actual performance.   His remarks are primarily directed at Methodists.   He quotes his earlier dictum:  'Gain all you can;  save all you can;  give all you can.'   But he goes on to say:  'Does it not seem  (and yet this cannot be)  that Christianity,  true scriptural Christianity,  has a tendency in process of time to undermine and destroy itself?   For wherever true Christianity spreads it must cause diligence and frugality,  which,  in the natural course of things,  must beget riches.   And riches naturally beget pride,  love of the world,  and every temper that is destructive of Christianity.   Now if there be no way to prevent this,  Christianity is consistent with itself,  and of consequence cannot stand,  cannot continue long among any people;  since,  wherever it generally prevails,  it saps its own foundation.'   It is not possible to avoid the truth of that statement in 1997.   The strength of this whole book lies in that sort of honesty.

For anyone wishing to read further in this area there is another and more recent publication:  The Portion of the Poor:  Good News to the Poor in the Wesleyan Tradition  edited by M. Douglas Meeks  -  Kingswood Books 1995.   This comprises a series of eight essays,  with an introduction,  the essays being papers originally given at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies in the summer of 1992.   Theodore Jennings is a contributor.   Among others Victorio Araya Guillén from Costa Rica and Itumeleng Mosala from South Africa,  bring the perspective of their cultures,  while Rebecca Chopp speaks for a feminist liberation theology point of view.

Donald Phillipps



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