In-Sight: John Wesley and Emancipation

In solidarity with the message of emancipation which Juneteenth communicates, I offer this link to John Wesley’s championing of freedom for black people in his day….

Interestingly, in the midst of renewed racial turmoil in our country, Michael J. Gerson has recently pointed to John Wesley as someone who can shed light into our darkness and offer guidance on the path toward justice. [1] Wesley’s “ Thoughts on Slavery” was a prophetic writing for the 18th century, and many of his convictions are, as Gerson noted, needed and applicable in our time. In this post, I focus on only one.

By writing on the subject of slavery, and further championing its ending by supporting abolitionists like William Wilberforce [2], Wesley bore witness to the Christian conviction that conscience takes precedence over government. Wesley was a Tory,  and he held a high view of the monarchy—but not one of absolute allegiance. [3] The crown was not (and never is ) supreme—Jesus is Lord. Wesley declared that when we are forced, by bent of circumstance, to choose between the two, we choose Christ. [4] 

In taking this position, Wesley stood against the notion of the divine right of kings as an absolute value, and he opposed those who had fashioned monarchs as little messiahs. He was roundly rebuked for his anti-slavery stance, and Methodists were labeled as subverters of society. [5]  But he stayed the course, following the way of Jesus and the Gospel.

Wesley stood in the line of philosophers such as Aristotle and theologians such as Aquinas, who championed the common good based upon the belief in human dignity and equality rooted in the fact that all people are made in the image of God.  We are one human family, and even though Cain denied it, we are the caregivers of one another.  Indeed, as Paul wrote, when one person suffers, all suffer.  

Wesley bore witness to this conviction, urging that unjust laws must not be obeyed,  and related practices must be rejected. Slavery, Wesley wrote, was the vilest expression of injustice in his day. The laws which legalized it had to be overturned, and the practices of the slave trade had to be overthrown. Just as Jesus overturned the tables of those who had made the Temple a den of thieves, Wesley called on fellow Methodists, other Christians, and all people of good will to overturn the tables of those who made England (and elsewhere) a harbinger of the evil of racism.

Today, we celebrate Juneteenth as the reminder that emancipation is the message–the message still needed in our day. Emancipation is the aim of fundamental human decency and the goal of Christians who say through actions and words, “Christ has set us free for freedom” (Galatians 5:1). Subsequent to Wesley we find the same sentiment running into the present day through a host of abolitionist movements and spokespersons.  The Black Lives Matter movement is on point for the cause of emancipation.  It marches with other groups and leaders in the mission to overcome evil with good.  Michael Gerson is right to bring John Wesley into the picture, for if he were alive, he would be marching too.

[1] Gerson wrote his editorial on June 16th. You can find it on his facebook page or in Washington Post archives.

[2] Wesley’s last letter, written shortly before his death, was to Wilberforce encouraging him in the quest to end slavery.

[3] Here we can see the influence of the Non-Juror tradition at work in Wesley—a tradition that his mother, Susanna, embraced along with others who were good friends of his.  Simply put, the Non-Jurors refused to pledge unquestioning and unbridled allegiance to the King, and particularly so when they believed the King was unjust.

[4] Here is the fatal flaw that renders Christian Nationalism un-Christian.  It reinterprets the Christian message to make it appear to bless and support “the country do or die.”  Portraying Jesus as a patriot, Christian nationalists create a false gospel.

[5] The PBS Masterpiece series “Poldark” showed how Methodists in 18th century England were caricatured as enthusiasts and threats to the status quo.


About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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