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“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.