“Personal and social holiness.”
Wesley did not say this.
Andrew Thompson, who is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary, reminded me of this phrase that is often attributed to Wesley in a comment on my previous blog in this series. (Andrew also blogs here.)
Here is part of Thompson’s comment:
The one that gets me is the attribution of the phrase “personal and social holiness” to Wesley. There is no evidence I have ever seen that Wesley used this phrase. And in an article I did a couple of years ago, I looked as hard for it in Wesley as anyone ever has. Yet the phrase gets repeated ad nauseam, as if it is a given that Wesley used it. I would argue that it is neither historical to Wesley nor is it “Wesleyan,” in the sense that it bifurcates holiness in a way that Wesley was at pains to avoid (hence the use of the phrase, “no holiness but social holiness,” which is accurately Wesleyan).
At the end of his comment, Thompson cites the quote where Wesley does use the phrase “social holiness.” However, when social holiness is used by contemporary Methodists, it is almost always used in a way that is synonymous with social justice. And yet, in the only passage I know of where Wesley used the phrase “social holiness” he was talking not about justice, but about the importance of other people for growing in holiness. The passage “social holiness” occurs in is the preface to Wesley’s 1739 edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems. Here is the passage in its broader context:
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.
In this context, then, Wesley is explicitly rejecting “holy solitaries”, or the attempt to become holy in isolation from other Christians. And he is insisting on the importance of community for becoming Christ-like.
I have previously written about this quote and its broader context on this blog here. Andrew Thompson has written about “social holiness” on his blog here and here. He has also published an excellent academic essay on Methodist Review. The essay can be accessed through his personal website here.
You can add “personal and social holiness” to the other quotes that are stubbornly connected to John Wesley, despite the fact that there is no source that connects them to Wesley’s pen. Others I have previously written about are:
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” [Original post here.]
“I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” [Original post here.]
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.” [Original post here.]
Kevin M. Watson teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Connect with Kevin. Get future posts emailed to you.
“Personal and social holiness” is a construct grounded in the “public-private” split that is so prominent in our society. It is an artificial division that actually marginalizes the faith perspective. It creates a supposed common ground for people of faith and people of no faith to talk about the common good, and “faith” has, at best, only a bit part in that conversation. But everyone can assume that they’re all talking about the same thing when they use the phrase “social justice.”
David Evans said:
“In the only passage I know of where Wesley used the phrase “social holiness” he was talking not about justice, but about the importance of other people for growing in holiness… he is insisting on the importance of community for becoming Christ-like.” By this, you don’t mean to suggest that becoming Christ-like somehow excludes social justice do you? It always seemed to me that Wesleyan holiness upset the status quo not because it threatened powerful people to live with more integrity, but often because it literally challenged the systems and structures that supported their regimes.
Kevin Watson said:
You asked if I was suggesting if becoming Christ-like excludes social justice – of course not! (And thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt in the way you asked the question.)
I believe that holiness must include love for neighbor, which would include a concern for justice (including systemic injustice). The point the post intended to make is that Wesley’s insistence that holiness is social and not solitary is quite different than the way in which “social holiness” is often used as a synonym for social justice. The two are not synonymous in Wesley. Saying the two things are not the same thing is not at all saying that one is good and the other is bad, or one is necessary and the other is not.
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Federal Arminian said:
John Emory in Volume 7 of his “Works of the Late Reverend John Wesley” (1835) quotes point five of the (alleged) 1739 preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems: “Holy solitaries is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”
George Osborn’s “Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, Volume 1” (1868) runs this exact quotation from the (original) preface; “reprinted from the originals, with the last corrections of the authors.” His update is of the 1739 edition.
If the quotation does indeed come from the preface of the 1739 edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems, is it not reasonable to assume that John Wesley wrote it? Nearest I can tell, John Wesley himself wrote the introductions and prefaces to most, if not all, of his published works.
Kevin Watson said:
Federal Arminian, I think you may have missed what I was saying in the post. Wesley did not say “personal and social holiness.” He did write the quote that you mention, that I specifically say he wrote in the post. In that quote, however, Wesley only mentions social holiness. He does not use the phrase “personal holiness” there.
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It would seem there is confusion over social holiness and social justice in the UMC. There is an strong emphasis on the justice that does not necessarily reflect Christ. My understanding is that we need the holiness of community and unity before we even think that God’s justice will prevail.
Note: I have not seen such emphasis in other denominations such as the Wesleyans and the Nazarenes.
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I enjoyed this post and the comments. A simple clarification goes a long way. Thanks.
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Great post Kevin! Just come across this and as a Free Wesleyan in Tonga, I found it very very helpful.
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Bishop James Swanson, Sr. said:
So Kevin in essence your blog is proposing that Wesley’s emphasis was on “Holiness” and that Holiness could not be achieved without being in relationship with others.
Kevin M. Watson said:
That is a good summary of what I’m getting at, Bishop. Thank you.