Last night Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton referenced her Methodist faith during her speech. Secretary Clinton said:
She made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
Is this an accurate expression of Methodist faith?
Immediately after she spoke these words a close friend said, “You’re about to be cited a lot.” And sure enough I started hearing from people via text message, Twitter, and Facebook. And my blog immediately got 1,500 hits due to people searching the phrase “Do all the good that you can.”
I wrote a blog post on April 29, 2013 that pointed out that Wesley did not actually say the full quote that is often misattributed to him:
“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.”
It was interesting that my post got so much attention last night; however, because Hillary Clinton did not say that John Wesley said the quote. (Sadly, the official twitter account for The United Methodist Church did immediately publish a tweet misattributing the quote to John Wesley.) It is all too rare to see a public figure use this kind of well-worn quote with care and nuance for historical accuracy. Hillary Clinton did that in her speech last night. She absolutely got it right!
Perhaps more interesting than whether Wesley did or did not say something is whether the phrase is an accurate expression of “our Methodist faith,” to use Secretary Clinton’s words. There has seemed to be an assumption online that because I have stubbornly insisted that John Wesley did not say this quote that I also do not think it is a Wesleyan sentiment. So, does “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can” accurately express Methodist faith? Of course it does!
This quote is an accurate summary of Methodist commitment to public service. The key place that I would connect this explicitly to John Wesley and early Methodism would be the “General Rules,” (though there are many ways where Wesley expresses similar sentiments) which was a short document that outlined the basic commitments that someone was expected to live by when they became a Methodist. The three rules were:
1. Do no harm.
2. Do good.
3. Attend upon the ordinances of God. (This meant practice the basics of the Christian faith regularly like worship, prayer, reading the Bible, receiving the Lord’s Supper, and fasting.)
The full version of the second rule is remarkably similar to “Do all the good that you can….” The rule states: “Secondly, By doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have opportunity doing good of every possible sort and as far as is possible to all men.” It continues with concrete acts of good: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison.
Outside of the context of a major political speech like Hillary Clinton gave last night, I would want to add that there is more to the second rule than acts of service to others. The second rule goes on to exhort doing good “to their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all they have any intercourse [conversation] with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine of devils, that ‘we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to do it.’ It also includes doing good “especially to them that are of the household of faith” and doing all of this with “all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.”
Finally, the second rule concludes with this:
By running with patience the race that is set before them; ‘denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily’; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should ‘say all manner of evil of them falsely, for their Lord’s sake’.
Put differently, Methodists do all the good that we can in order to become more like Jesus. Methodists are not pursuing a general notion of goodness divorced from the particularities of the gospel. We are pursuing goodness as it is seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.
Do you want to learn more about the Methodist commitment to doing all the good that we can and how this fits into the Methodist faith? Check out A Blueprint for Discipleship, which is an accessible introduction to the basics of the Methodist commitment to following Jesus by doing no harm, doing all the good that we can, and practicing our faith by committing to basic spiritual disciplines. Get it here.
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.