From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley abhorred 'curse' of war
Tue, 18 Feb 2003 15:53:43 -0600
Feb. 18, 2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: This is a regular feature on Methodist history prepared especially for
distribution by United Methodist News Service. An artist's rendering of John
Wesley is available at http://umns.umc.org/photos/headshots.html.
A UMNS Feature
By John Singleton*
Methodism's witness for peace and social justice in these troubled times is
an imperative of the Gospel - just as it was for John Wesley, the founder of
the movement, in his own day.
At a time when there seemed to be no alternative to the use of the sword in
solving international disputes - and with only a handful of Quakers crying in
the wilderness - Wesley actually spoke out strongly against what he saw as
the sheer folly of war. Although he could not be described as a pacifist, he
nevertheless believed war to be the "foulest curse" on the face of humanity.
He described it as the denial - even the crucifixion - of all the higher
attributes of civilization; it was nothing short of rebellion against
humanity and God.
"War is a horrid reproach to the Christian name - yea, to the name of man, to
all reason and humanity," said Wesley. And when war broke out, he added, God
was forgotten. "So long as this monster stalks uncontrolled, where is reason,
virtue, humanity? They are utterly excluded," he said.
In 1758, the Seven Years' War being then at full tide - with France and
Austria fighting England and Prussia - the Wesley brothers, John and Charles,
published their "Hymns of Intercession for all Mankind." The following lines
reflect their viewpoint of armed conflict: "Our earth we now lament to see,/
With floods of wickedness o'erflowed./ Where men, like fiends, each other
tear,/ In all the hellish rage of war."
In 1759, Wesley walked to Knowle, near Bristol, to see a company of French
prisoners from the Seven Years' War. "About 1,100 of them, we are informed,
were confined in that little place, without anything to lie on but a little
dirty straw, or anything to cover them but a few foul, thin rags, (whether)
by day or night ... ," he reported. "I was much affected and preached in the
evening on 'Thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a
stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.'" (Exodus 23.9)
Wesley then set about raising money with which to purchase linen and wool
cloth to make into clothes, which were then distributed to the
prisoners-of-war in greatest need. It wasn't long before the city of
Bristol's governing body contributed a large quantity of mattresses and
blankets, and then gifts began to flow in from other parts of Britain as
well. The Methodists had started a chain reaction of compassion.
Later, when trouble with the American colonies escalated, Wesley wrote to
Thomas Rankin and some of his other preachers in America, imploring them to
use their influence for peace. In 1776, when the revolutionary war was at its
height, Wesley wrote his "Seasonable Address to the More Serious Part of the
Inhabitants of Great Britain Respecting the Unhappy Contest Between Us and
Our American Brethren." That treatise portrays vividly Wesley's utter
abhorrence of war.
Picturing the armies rushing against each other in conflict, he asked: "But
what are they going to do? To shoot each other through the head or heart, to
stab and butcher each other? ... Why so? What harm have they done to each
other? Why, none at all. Most of them are entire strangers to each other. But
a matter is in dispute relative to the mode of taxation. So these countrymen,
children of the same parents, are to murder each other with all possible
haste - to prove who is right. What an argument is this! What a method of
proof! What an amazing way of deciding controversies!"
Then, suggesting impartial arbitration instead of bloodshed, he inquires:
"Are there no wise men among us? None that are able to judge between
brethren? But brother goeth to war against brother, and that in the very
sight of the heathen. Surely this is a sore evil among us? How is wisdom
perished from the wise! What a flood of folly and madness has broke in upon
One thing was for sure: Wesley was not the kind of person who proffered
advice from afar without being prepared to put it into practice himself. He
consistently urged the early Methodists not to retaliate in the face of mob
intimidation, and when under attack personally, he always sought to maintain
a peaceable and nonviolent demeanor.
In his journal, he cited an incident - one of many - that occurred in 1743,
while he was on a preaching tour in the west of England.
"The mob of the town burst into the room and created much disturbance;
roaring and striking those that stood in the way as though Legion himself
possessed them," he wrote. "I would fain have persuaded our people to stand
still; but the zeal of some and the fear of others had no ears; so that
finding the uproar increase I went into the midst and brought the head of the
mob up with me to the desk. I received but one blow on the side of the head,
after which we reasoned the case till he grew milder and milder and at length
undertook to quiet his companions."
As the war clouds continue to gather over Iraq and many people across the
world speak up for peace, Methodists can take heart from Wesley. And as the
arrival of asylum-seekers from poorer countries continues to confront the
governments and churches of Western Europe with hard choices about human
lives, we can remember how Wesley was a friend to the stranger in his land.
The Methodist people are, after all, said to be the friend of all and the
enemy of none.
# # #
*Singleton, a writer with the weekly Methodist Recorder in London, is
administrator for the Methodist churches and social projects in the Tower
Hamlets area of East London. He can be contacted by e-mail at:
United Methodist News Service
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