Within the religion of Christianity there exists the concept of sainthood, which teaches that certain individuals are venerated and honored for the holy lives that they lived and how they contributed to both the church and the society around them. And while Protestantism does not place the same emphasis upon the concept that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians do, there is still this idea that certain figures are worthy of honor and veneration because of their holy examples. One of these Protestant saints is John Wesley, an Anglican priest and one of the founders of Methodism. John (as well as his brother Charles) are highly honored by both the Methodist and Anglican traditions and are included in the Anglican Church’s Calendar of Saints. Had Wesley been a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox priest, there is a great possibility that he would have come to be canonized as recognition for his holy life and the good work that he did for the people, especially the poor.
Wesley was born in 1703 in Epworth, England. His father, Samuel Wesley, was an Anglican priest, and his mother, Susanna, was the daughter of a Dissenting minister. Both of his parents had joined the Church of England as young adults and raised their children within the Anglican tradition. Wesley received a college education at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1720 where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts before going on to receiving a Master of Arts. He would go on to become a deacon in 1725 before becoming a fellow and teacher at the university. After he received his Master of Arts he was ordained a priest in 1728, serving as a curate at his father’s parish in Epworth. A few years later, in 1736, Wesley sailed to the American colonies to serve the church in Georgia and help spread the gospel to the Native Americans there. This experience would ultimately be unproductive, as Wesley had little luck in the colonies due to some controversy generated around the fact that he had refused to give the Eucharist to a woman he once loved and her new husband and sailed back to England feeling like he was a failure.
Wesley, despite his rigorous religious devotion, had struggled with doubt for a number of years and the experience in Georgia only served to further send him into a depression. It was then he turned to the Moravians, a group of Christians within the Pietist. tradition, for support and guidance. This led him to one of their meetings at Aldersgate Street, London, where upon hearing Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans being read aloud he claimed to feel his heart strangely warmed by those words about how God forgives a sinner based on his faith in Jesus Christ. This is usually seen as Wesley’s “conversion experience” in which he moves from an outward form of religion where he felt he had to do good works in order to be accepted in God’s eyes toward a more inward form of religion where he began to do good works because his heart had been transformed by this experience he had with God.
Having experienced this transformative awakening, Wesley (along with his brother, Charles) would go on to start a revival movement within the Church of England. They started small groups that became known as “Methodist” communities, a pejorative term used to describe their set methods of religious living (which they soon embraced as positive term). The Methodist communities, though remaining part of the Church of England, soon took on a life of their own as they reached out to the poor and needy within society, helping them both spiritually via spreading the gospel as well as feeding the hungry and clothing the poor.
When discussing the subject of John Wesley’s view on how Christians should treat the less fortunate members of society, it is very pertinent to consider Wesley’s economic ethic. According to Wesley, everything ultimately belongs to God, resources are placed in our care to be used as God sees fit, God desires that we use part of these resources to meet our basic needs in life (providing food and shelter for ourselves and our families) and then finally to help other people in need. Thus, for Wesley, to spend our resources on luxuries while other people remain in need is actually robbing God. In having this attitude toward material possessions, Wesley was only echoing earlier Christian authors such as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great whose writings had influenced his views greatly. For him, if Christians have a habit of accumulating surplus wealth while others around are suffering due to a lack of basic needs, then something was not right. Adam Smith viewed the accumulation of wealth as being a foundation of economic well-being, but for Wesley it was a mortal sin. He would further articulate this idea in the last decade of his life by writing several warnings against this habit by suggesting that the increasing tendency of Methodists to retain wealth instead of sharing it with those in need was a direct correlation with the decline of their spiritual growth and the spread of the revival.
Wesley’s care for the less fortunate members of society (e.g. the widows, the orphans, and even the prisoners) developed during his early Oxford years. He contributed to the Gray-Coat School (a charity school) in town. He contributed to a school that William Morgan had started that enabled the early Methodists there to educate and look after at least twenty children. He gave much of his own personal resources to those in Oxford that lacked the necessities of life, as well as to debtors in the castle prison and Bocardo Jail. He also bought flax for the children in the workhouses to use, as well as buying food for families that could not afford to feed themselves. In all of this he was convinced that it would be wrong for him to enjoy the luxurious comforts of life if others around him were going without the necessities of life. How did John Wesley define what the necessities of life were? For him, the necessities were sufficient food, decent apparel, and proper housing. He was committed to the idea that all people, regardless of their social standing, should have the necessary means of living a content life, which he based upon Paul’s writings.
Furthermore, in addition to their material and spiritual needs, Wesley was also concerned with the personal health of his fellow human beings. To accomplish this task he instituted an office of people who would be visitors of sick whose responsibility it was to visit every sick person within their district at least three times a week. These visitors would then inquire about the sick person’s bodily and spiritual health, offering both advice and pain relief. To aid in this process, Wesley prepared and published a small pamphlet for the visitors entitled Collection of Receipts for the Use of the Poor, which was based on his own medical reading and experience. Wesley realized that the problem was larger than what he first thought, due to the fact that so many of the poor became sick and the cost and accessibility of medicines was beyond their reach. Wesley soon began researching whether hospital treatment might aid the problem, making inquiries of several physicians in the process that seemed unable to help him. He had seen so many poor people wasting away and families being ruined that he decided to take matters into his own hands. He finally decided that he would prepare to help the sick himself. In 1746 he opened several dispensaries in London and Bristol to treat greater numbers of people at little to no cost to the patient. He had obtained the assistance of an apothecary and an experience surgeon and resolved to never go out of his depth in treating the sick, leaving all the complex cases to well-trained physicians and treating only chronic as opposed to “acute” distempers. At these dispensaries, Methodists and non-members were treated alike in droves, being instructed to follow a prescribed regimen and medicine.
Part of Wesley’s desire for the spiritual and physical health of the poor was inspired by his clerical training as an Anglican priest. Throughout most of the eighteenth century this training also included the study of medicine and the church would dispense to its priests a license to practice physic, which was particularly valued in remote areas where access to medical treatment was often a rarity. Wesley also believed that many of these ailments that the poor were experiencing could be combated via natural remedies, which led him to expand his pamphlet into a large work entitled Primitive Physic, which contained a large list of known diseases and ailments, as well as their corresponding treatments that were arranged in alphabetical order. The work became so popular that the work went through twenty-three editions during Wesley’s lifetime (as medical knowledge advanced). His stated motivation for the work was to “set down cheap, safe, and easy medicines; easy to be known, easy to be procured, and easy to be applied by plain, unlettered men.”
During his long life Wesley took seriously the words of Jesus that said that his followers should love their neighbors as themselves, and based on all the evidence we have he seemed to have lived out that maxim to the best of his ability by continually helping those less-fortunate members of society to have some measure of comfort in this world. He worked hard to help those that were in need, often giving up much of his own resources in the process and spending hours asking wealthy members of society to contribute to the cause. He did his best to look after the material, physical, and spiritual needs of the people that he came into contact with, and established an organization of people that would continue his practices for centuries after he passed away. It is for these reasons, and more, that John Wesley has come to be seen as a saintly individual and has secured his place within the Protestant calendar of saints.
.Pietism was a 17th century religious movement originating in Germany that placed an emphasis on personal bible study and religious experience.
.Randy L. Maddox, “’Visit the Poor’ John Wesley, the Poor, and the Sanctification of Believers,” in The Wesleys and the Poor: The Legacy and Development of Methodist Attitudes to Poverty, 1729-1999 (2002), 62.
. Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Poor and the People Called Methodists, 1729-1999 (Nashville, TN: Kingswood Books, 2002), 25-26.
.He frequently quoted 1 Timothy 6:8 “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.”
.Deborah Madden, “Wesley as Advisor on Health and Healing” in The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, eds. Randy L. Maddox and Jason E. Vickers (Cambridge Companions to Religion) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 178-179.
.Physic is an old English term that refers to a medicine that purges.
.Madden, “Wesley as Advisor on Health and Healing,” 182.