News Archives

At the Roots of Methodism: Wesley abhorred 'curse' of war

2/18/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, 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

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.

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 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 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:

Back : News Archives 2003 Main

Contact Us

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add to your list of approved senders.