At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley abhorred 'curse' of war
2/18/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
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*
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.
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.
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."
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 â€¦ ," 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? â€¦ 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!"
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 us!"
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
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
"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
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.
# # #
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:
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