It is well known that early Methodism was especially concerned for the poor of society. The Methodist revival included field preaching to coalminers and the establishment of schools, employment opportunities, and special banks for the poor. Methodists felt compelled to reach out on a grande scale in ways unique to their movement. There are many reasons why Wesleyan spirituality was oriented toward the under-classes of society. The following are just 4 of those reasons.
1. Sin is the great equalizer—both the wealthy and the poor are affected.
The first reason Methodism so emphasized ministry to the poor is because sin is the great equalizer. Sin’s universal reach affects all people, and so neither the rich nor the poor are exempt from the effects of original sin. This meant that the lower classes which were increasingly ignored by the English church now had equal access to the gospel through field preaching and equal standing in the church due to the class meetings. The classes were a place they felt safe and valued.
2. A holistic view of the person empowers holistic ministry.
The second reason is that early Methodist teaching affirmed a holistic view of the person, resulting in a holistic view of salvation. This in turn empowered holistic ministry to persons. Indeed, John Wesley claimed that Christianity is “essentially a social religion, and . . . to turn it into a solitary religion indeed is to destroy it.” While this was primarily a reference to Wesley’s arrangement of Methodists into class meetings, it also points to the inherent relationality in his understanding of Christianity.
Methodism’s social orientation avoided a strong dualism in salvation and so provided the necessary foundation for their ministry to the poor. For Wesley this meant that all good works—works of piety as well as works of mercy—are “in some sense necessary to sanctification.” In at least five different places in “The Character of the Methodist” he equates love of neighbor and care for the poor with qualities of being a Methodist. He even goes so far as to suggest that works of mercy are a means of grace by which a person grows in sanctification. He regularly advised affluent people to visit the poor in order to “improve life” and “use their health.”
3. Earthly riches are dangerous.
A third, more sobering reason why Methodism was oriented toward the poor is that John Wesley, along with early Methodist leaders, affirmed that riches were dangerous. Though not to be equated with inherent sin, Wesley echoed Jesus words in saying, “What a hindrance are riches to the very first fruit of faith, namely, the love of God!”
Nevertheless, he believed that religious revivals can and should produce industry. Indeed, he hoped that the number of wealthy Christians would increase. But as the standard of living increases, so does love of the world. Amassing wealth in a society is regularly correlated to its decline in spirituality. Thus one of the purposes of the Methodist societies was to proclaim, “All my riches are above! All my treasure is thy love.”
4. Caring for felt needs opens the door to caring for spiritual needs.
Though this idea has fallen on hard times in the 21st century, John Wesley suggested that providing for the physical needs of the poor opens doors for spiritual ministry as well. In advising ministers on how to visit the poor, he suggested that the minister inquire of their physical needs which paves the way for things of “greater importance.” Of course, he meant tending to the soul of the person.
What about you? What vision of the kingdom compels your church’s ministry to the poor?