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When I taught United Methodist History last semester, I asked my students to search either the internet or denominational publications for articles which specifically interacted with John Wesley and appealed to him in order to make a point about the contemporary United Methodist Church. The assignment was for the students to research in depth what Wesley actually said about whatever the article addressed and determine whether the article had faithfully appropriated Wesley. The assignment ended up succeeding beyond my expectations for it. There were several students who found what they were looking for, or did not dive as deep as they could have into the Wesleyan corpus. However, there were many papers that reflected systematic investigation into what Wesley wrote about a particular topic. And best of all, there were a few instances of students who read Wesley so carefully and conscientiously that they allowed themselves to be surprised by him.

One of the motivations for the assignment was that popular writing about Wesley often reflects a shallow engagement with Wesley’s own writing and is a foil for saying what the person would have said if they were simply stating their opinion. I am not aiming this at a particular group or theological spectrum. I have seen too many instances all across the theological spectrum of prooftexting Wesley. Everyone who goes to seminary is taught not to prooftext the Bible (prooftexting means pulling a passage out of its context and using it to prove something that does not follow from the context it is found within). Most seminarians make a real effort to avoid doing this, and are happy to call others on it when they prooftext. And yet, prooftexting Wesley seems to be a beloved pastime.

The most recent example of this has been in response to comments by Glen Beck that suggested people should flee from churches that promote social justice. (I want to be clear, at this point, that this is not a disguised attempt to defend Beck. In fact, though this post is prompted by the response of others to Glen Beck, this post is not about Glen Beck at all. It is about John Wesley, whose thought I would rather spend my time and energy interacting with.) The main reason I became aware of the recent prooftext is because I actually quoted the passage that has been used in the discussion, so that my post has twice been linked to in relation to these conversations. Jeremy Smith, using good blogging etiquette, linked to my original post (which is nothing more than the quote from Wesley that Smith uses). However, a post by BaptistPlanet padded their argument by suggesting that I agreed with them, when – again – my original post was not making an argument, it was literally just the quote from Wesley. Here is what they attributed to me: “As Kevin Watson observed last year, their denominational devotion to social justice extends unbroken all the way back to John Wesley:” Please read my original post, and see if you think you can get that out of my original post.

At this point, some of you are probably wondering if I am going to actually mention the quote from Wesley that is the source of this. Here it is:

“Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

The move that Jeremy made in his initial post on this, which seems to be a frequent move, is to equate social holiness with social justice. I think this is questionable on its own merits (see for example this post and this post by Andrew Thompson – a Th.D. student at Duke who is studying with Randy Maddox and Richard Heitzenrater). However, what I think is indisputable is that it is not a valid move to make when interacting with the passage mentioned above, which Jeremy explicitly cites on his blog. (In fairness, my guess is that Jeremy googled something like “no holiness but social holiness” and came up with my post, which cites the single passage, and not the entire Preface. I will remedy that below by citing the entire Preface. Though I do think it is incumbent on all who appeal to Wesley to do this sort of investigation.)

The quote from Wesley comes from the 1739 Preface to his “Hymns and Sacred Poems”. As I mentioned, I am going to quote the Preface in its entirety at the end of this post. I urge you to read Wesley’s comments in their entirety, to put this quote back in its context. The passage is not that long, and if we are not willing to take the time to read Wesley in some depth, we should probably stop appealing to him.

As a student of Wesley and the history of Methodism, I think it is worth getting this right for its own sake. And as a pastor in The United Methodist Church, I think the rest of the Preface goes a long way towards explaining why there is apparent disagreement about conflating social justice and social holiness. I have never met a Christian (at least as far as I can remember) who has said, I don’t believe that Christians should help other people. I have met many Christians who are concerned that the desire to help other people has replaced the importance of faith in Jesus Christ. Christians are right to insist that only Christ can save us. Salvation is not something that we can earn by our effort. Thus, a few paragraphs before Wesley says “no holiness but social holiness” he writes, “Other foundation therefore can no man lay, without being an adversary to Christ and his gospel, than faith alone; faith, though necessarily producing both, yet not including either good works, or holiness.” Faith is prior, it is the foundation. Wesley wants us always to be explicit about this.

The other thing that is missed when Wesley’s words are pulled out of context is why he is writing this. The major contrast Wesley is making is “the manner of building up souls in Christ taught by St. Paul” from “that taught by the Mystics.” This is not explicit in the passage, but given what was going in the Fetter Lane Society, which Wesley was part of at the time, I think it seems likely that the target in his mind for these attacks was the Moravian quietists in Fetter Lane – the ones who said you should do nothing but wait for faith, by yourself without the means of grace. It is not hard to imagine this audience when Wesley writes, “For contemplation is, with them, the fulfilling of the law, even a contemplation that ‘consists in a cessation from all works.’”

It seems to me that when Wesley says “social holiness” what he means is that we do not grow in our relationship with God – we do not become holy – by ourselves. John Meunier’s comment on Jeremy’s original post comes closest to the point, “Wesley clearly meant by social holiness the idea that we have to be in connection and relationship with other Christians to be holy. You can’t sit in your closet and by holy. You have to be with other people to love them.” (This is comment #12. John frequently blogs here.)

Does this mean that Christians, particularly Methodists, should not care about helping others? Of course not! The Greatest Commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. The “General Rules” command Methodists to do no harm, do good, and practice the means of grace. But I am convinced that Wesley would be adamant that the foundation of our reaching out to help others has to be faith in Jesus Christ. I actually don’t think it is all that controversial amongst Methodists that Christians should help others. I have never heard a Methodist say they think we should stop going on mission trips to build houses or repair damaged churches. I have never heard the most conservative Christian say it is a bad idea to send food to starving people. They, rightly in my view, get impatient when they perceive that the church is becoming merely a social service agency. There is no holiness without social holiness. That is why Wesley created the society, class, and band structure. So Methodists could watch over one another in love and encourage each other to growth in holiness, of which good works are absolutely a part.

But social justice is not the same thing as social holiness. Our tendency to equate the two reflects just how impoverished our understanding of the holiness that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit invite us to is at the moment.

As promised, the entirety of Wesley’s Preface to the 1739 Hymns and Sacred Poems follows. I pulled this from the Duke Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, which is an excellent online resource, you should check it out.


1. Some verses, it may be observ’d, in the following
collection, were wrote upon the scheme of the mystic divines.
And these, ’tis own’d, we had once in great veneration, as the
best explainers of the gospel of Christ. But we are now
convinced that we therein “greatly err’d, not knowing the
Scriptures, neither the power of God.” And because this is an
error which many serious minds are sooner or later exposed to,
and which indeed most easily besets those who seek the Lord
Jesus in sincerity, we believe ourselves indispensably obliged, in
the presence of God, and angels, and men, to declare wherein
we apprehend those writers not to teach “the truth as it is in

2. And first, we apprehend them to lay another foundation.
They are carefull, indeed, to pull down our own works, and to
prove that “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
But why is this? Only “to establish our own righteousness” in
the place of our own works. They speak largely and well against
expecting to be accepted of God for our virtuous actions—and
then teach that we are to be accepted for our virtuous habits or
tempers. Still the ground of our acceptance is placed in
ourselves. The difference is only this: common writers suppose
we are to be justified for the sake of our outward righteousness.
These suppose we are to be justified for the sake of our inward
righteousness. Whereas in truth we are no more justified for the
sake of one than of the other. For neither our own inward nor
outward righteousness is the ground of our justification.
Holiness of heart, as well as holiness of life, is not the cause but
the effect ofit. The sole cause of our acceptance with God (or, that for the
sake of which, on the account of which we are accepted) is the
righteousness and the death of Christ, who fulfilled God’s law
and died in our stead. And even the condition of it is not (as they
suppose) our holiness either of heart or life, but our faith alone,
faith contradistinguish’d from holiness as well as from good
works. Other foundation therefore can no man lay, without being
an adversary to Christ and his gospel, than faith alone, faith,
though necessarily producing both, yet not including either good
works or holiness.

3. But supposing them to have laid the foundation right,
the manner of building thereon which they advise is quite
opposite to that prescribed by Christ. He commands to “build up
one another.” They advise, “To the desert, to the desert, and God
will build you up.” Numberless are the commendations that
occur in all their writings, not of retirement intermix’d with
conversation, but of an intire seclusion from men (perhaps for
months or years), in order to purify the soul. Whereas, according
to the judgment of our Lord and the writings of his apostles, it is
only when we are “knit together” that we “have nourishment
from him,” and “increase with the increase of God.” Neither is
there any time when the weakest member can say to the
strongest, or the strongest to the weakest, “I have no need of
thee.” Accordingly our blessed Lord, when his disciples were in
their weakest state, sent them forth, not alone but two by two.
When they were strengthened a little, not by solitude but by
abiding with him and one another, he commanded them to
“wait,” not separate but being assembled together, “for the
promise of the Father.” And “they were all with one accord in
one place” when they received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Express mention is made in the same chapter that when “there
were added unto them three thousand souls,” “all that believed
were together,” “and continued steadfastly” not only “in the
apostles” doctrine,” but also “in fellowship and in breaking of
bread,” and in praying “with one accord.”
Agreeable to which is the account the great Apostle gives of the
manner which he had been taught of God, “for the perfecting of
the saints,” “for the edifying of the body of Christ,” even to the
end of the world. And according to St. Paul, “all” who will ever
“come, in the unity of the faith, unto a perfect man, unto the
measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” must together
“grow up into him, from whom the whole body fitly join’d
together and compacted” (or strengthen’d) “by that which every
joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the
measure of every part, maketh increase of the body, unto the
edifying of itself in love.” Ephesians iv. 15, 16.

4. So widely distant is the manner of building up souls in
Christ taught by St. Paul from that taught by the mysticks! Nor
do they differ as to the foundation, or the manner of building
thereon, more than they do with regard to the superstructure. For
the religion these authors wou’d edify us in is
3Ori., “love”; corrected in 5th edn. (1756).
solitary religion. If thou wilt be perfect, say they,
trouble not thyself about outward works. It is better to
work virtues in the will. He hath attain’d the true
resignation who hath estranged himself from all outward
works, that God may work inwardly in him, without any
turning to outward things. These are the true worshippers,
who worship God in spirit and in truth.
For contemplation is with them the fulfilling of the law, even a
contemplation that “consists in a cessation of all works.”

5. Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary
religion is not to be found there. “Holy solitaries” is a phrase no
more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel
of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social
holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and
depth and height of Christian perfection. “This commandment
have we from Christ, that he who loveth3 God love his brother
also;” and that we manifest our love
“by doing good unto all men, especially to them that are of the
household of faith.” And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren
not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be “zealous
of good works.” He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire, of
spending and being spent for them. “My father,” will he say,
“worketh hitherto, and I work.” And at all possible opportunities
he is, like his Master, “going about doing good.”

6. This then is the way. Walk ye in it, whosoever ye are
that have believed in his name. Ye know, “Other foundation can
no man lay than that which is laid, even Jesus Christ.” Ye feel
that “by grace ye are saved through faith”; saved from sin by
Christ form’d “in your hearts,” and from fear by “his Spirit
bearing witness with your spirit, that ye are the sons of God.” Ye
are taught of God, “not to forsake the assembling of yourselves
together, as the manner of some is”; but to instruct, admonish,
exhort, reprove, comfort, confirm, and every way build up one
another. “Ye
have an unction from the Holy One” that teacheth you to
renounce any other or higher perfection than “faith working by
love,” faith “zealous of good works,” faith “as it hath
opportunity doing good unto all men.” “As ye have therefore
received Jesus Christ the Lord, so walk ye in him; rooted and
built up in him, and stablish’d in the faith, and abounding
therein” more and more. Only, “Beware lest any man spoil you
thro’ philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after
the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” For “ye are
complete in him.” “He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and
the ending, the first and the last.” Only “continue in” him,
“grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of
the gospel.” “And when Christ, who is our life, shall appear,
then shall ye also appear with him in glory!”