Holy Living and Justice

by | Mar 13, 2024 | General

Original blog published March 21, 2022 on wesleyan.org, shared with permission.  

God’s call to be holy moves us beyond ourselves to act justly on behalf of others.

The experience of sanctification socialized the individual disposition and released in men the mystic power to make benevolent motives work.”

Reading these words written in 1930 from an anthropologist (Wellman Warner) researching the impact of “The Wesleyan Movement in the Industrial Revolution,” literally brings pause to my own soul. There is another force at work beyond our own human endeavors.

This coincides with John Wesley’s mantra “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”[1]

There are significant points in John Wesley’s life that contributed to this movement. The first being his “Aldersgate heartwarming experience.”

Wesley writes, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. … I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[2]

As a result of this, there was new fire in his preaching and life. This then led to his being removed from the popular Anglican pulpits of his day. Soon, he found himself in the fields preaching and with the poor and oppressed. As he began to mix with those from the margins of society, a new area of pastoral care and concern arose. Here he found his new converts working hard but being exploited by their employers.

Even more, the total disregard for poor children who were used in the coal mines to work long hours and placed in some of the most abhorrent places. This, of course, caused early death. There were no policies or protection for adults or children. As a result, Wesley and his followers began to support fair prices, a living wage and honest healthy employment for all. Ultimately, laws and policies were developed for adults and children, such as our child labor laws in existence today.

The social ills of England were many as well as the sharp divide between the rich and the poor. People who were in prison due to their debts were set free by Wesley’s followers paying their debts and giving them training in business. There were medical books written to assist people in their own health care as well as health clinics set up in the poorest areas of London. The poor were empowered to lead and assist in their own improvement. Literacy classes were taught throughout England and the list continues.

William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament, was converted under John Wesley’s influence in the Evangelical awakening. He began working feverishly to pass a law against the slave trade. Wesley had long held strong beliefs about the evil of the slave trade and preached it. As a result, in 1774 he issued a pamphlet entitled “Thoughts Upon Slavery.” In it he notes “that all slavery is as irreconcilable to justice as to mercy”.

The last letter John Wesley wrote before his death was to William Wilberforce in 1791. He encouraged him, “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” The slave trade was officially defeated by a victorious vote in the British Parliament in 1807 by a vote of 283 to 16 with overwhelming accolades to Wilberforce.[3]

The Second Great Awakening in the United States is led by Charles Finney. Here again, we see the evil of slavery engulfing the United States prior to the Civil War. Historians document that entire cities attended the preaching services of Charles Finney. People were called to follow Jesus and to be sanctified. From this people became abolitionist in response to the evil of slavery. They began to look at the plight of the poor and start various ministries. Timothy Smith in his book “Revivalism and Social Reform” says, “By the time of the Civil War the conviction had become commonplace that society must be reconstructed through the power of a sanctifying gospel and all the evils of cruelty, slavery, poverty, and greed by done away.”

As I contemplate this history and the Scriptures, the words of Amos capture holy living and doing the work of justice, “… let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24, NIV). It is at this nexus that transformation happens. As noted in the quote at the beginning of this article. Holy living results in destroying the systems that perpetuate evil and is a call of God throughout human history.

Jo Anne Lyon

Jo Anne Lyon

General Superintendent Emerita of The Wesleyan Church and founder of World Hope International.

Find our more about our work and about how you can be a part of programs that help develop and restore just practices and relationships. Read more about Development Work in the Way of Jesus.

[1] Wesley, John. “The Works of John Wesley,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), viii: 299.

[2] Wesley, John. “The Journal of John Wesley.” Ed. Percy Livingstone Parker (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1951).

[3] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “William Wilberforce.” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 20, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Wilberforce.

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