Heroes of Humanity #1: John Wesley
It occurs to me that far too often we define ourselves by what we are not. The old “A/not A” problem. If I tell you what I am not (not A), then you will know what I am (A). Unfortunately, the world doesn’t operate under an infinite number of dichotomous relationships. The opposite of Republican, believe it or not, is not Democrat. The opposite of Christian is not atheist. The opposite of dictatorship is not democracy. There are incredibly complex systems at work that define who and what we are.
In particular, atheism does not provide a comprehensive description of who I am. It simply proves an individual descriptor of one category I do not fall into: religious belief. I have read the writings of many atheists and agnostics, and know several personally. What strikes me is that there may be common threads, but we are not all the same.
And so, it is in this effort to not simply describe myself by what I am not that I want to take some time and talk about those individuals who have helped to shape me as a person, my “Heroes of Humanity,” if you will. These are the individuals whose stories and ideas have helped to shape me as a person. Many of them are atheists, some of them are not. Some are devout Christians. Some are liberals and some are conservatives. Some are American and some are Burmese. Some are alive now and some are long gone. Men and women, philosophers and psychologists, dictators and activists.
So who first? What individual should be the first to receive my praise? I’m going to go with John Wesley. For those of you who do not know, Wesley was the eighteenth century founder of the Methodist movement. He was a zealous Christian who is accredited with a great impact on English society. It is perhaps odd, then, that I recognize him as having a profound impact on the course of my life, eh? Though I disagree with many of his conclusions (and hypothesize that perhaps had he been born two hundred years later that many of them would be different), I value many of his principles, and resonate with many of his characteristics.
John Wesley was a man who valued social justice. Wesley was an incredibly involved man in the social issues of his day. This holiness preacher once declared, “There is no holiness but social holiness!” Wesley etched in the hearts and minds of his followers the need to provide for the poor. During his time at Oxford, he took courses in basic medicine and first aid. He proceeded to venture into London during much of his free time and work with the poor, providing medical aid where he could. Wesley and his Methodists worked hard to raise the money to provide food and clothing for the poor. One of his more innovative ideas, in my eyes, is that Wesley introduced interest-free loans to the poor in London, “rescuing them from lenders demanding extorinate interest that would have compunded their distress.” (Marquardt, 29). In addition, Wesley’s Methodists devoted themselves to helping the poor to find jobs. In a time and place in which many viewed poverty and sickness as an indicator of the worth of the individual, Wesley preached God’s love for all mankined and demanded unrestricted love for one’s neighbor.
Long before the Quakers introduced anti-slavery legislation to Parliament, Wesley was convinced that slavery was an atrocious blot upon mankind. In 1774, Wesley wrote Thoughts upon Slavery, presenting his case for abolition. Wesley’s staunch opposition to slavery heavily influenced abolitionist members of Parliament such as William Wilberforce. In addition, several Christian slaveholders, in direct response to Wesley, emancipated their slaves (Marquardt, 75). Any honest historian of the abolitionist movement in Britain, and later America, cannot deny the impact of John Wesley upon this abominable system.
I would be remiss if I left out Wesley’s view of money found in his famous “Sermon 50: The Use of Money.” In what quickly became known as the maxim: “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” Wesley demanded of his followers that they be good stewards of their wealth. In fact, Wesley had earned quite a bit of money from his published writings, and yet lived and died in poverty. Setting a cap on his yearly earnings early, Wesley never allowed himself to become more wealthy than he need be (i.e. Year 1: I make $10 dollars, but only need $8 to live. Thus, I shall give away $2 to charity. Year 10: I make $50, but only need $8 to live. Thus, I shall give away $42.).
John Wesley was a man who valued education. Wesley once declared himself “a man of one book.” That book, of course, was the Bible. At the same time, the man was incredibly well read for his time. Placing an extreme value on education, Wesley dedicated himself to reading philosophy, science, history and theology. He campaigned tirelessly for the education of the masses. Methodism was a center of elementary education for those who would otherwise not receive basic education.
John Wesley was a man of self-doubt. This may not be the most desirable of personal characteristics, but is one to which I can resonate. Wesley was a man with a great legacy. By the end of his life he had overseen the ordination of over 500 preachers and 150,000 Methodist converts. He was an activist for abolition, a supporter of education and a advocate for the poor. Yet, if you peruse his personal writings, you cannot miss the pervasive self-doubt that plagued him through his entire adult life. For one who so profoundly altered his culture, I find his humility (even if it was perhaps psychologically unhealthy) to be incredible.
For years I attended a Wesleyan-influenced church and still attend a Wesleyan school. I cannot deny that even after my de-conversion that John Wesley’s life and thought have continued to influence my perception of people and the world. If there are many who give Christianity a bad name, John Wesley–though an obviously flawed man–is a beacon of those Christians who represent the best of religious faith.
Marquardt, Manfred. John Wesley’s Social Ethics. 1992.
Collins, Kenneth J. John Wesley: A Theological Journey. 2003.
Tomkins, Steven. John Wesley: A Biography. 2003.
Sermons of John Wesley
Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection
This entry was posted on February 9, 2008 at 2:32 pm and is filed under Heroes of Humanity with tags Atheism, atheist, christian, Christianity, education, Ethics, john wesley, methodism, methodist, nazarene, poverty, social justice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.