John Wesley on slavery and human rights

I’ve been reading Theodore Runyon’s The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today, which aims to offer a synoptic account of Wesley’s thought and its relevance for the contemporary church. As the title suggests, Runyon argues that the notion of the renewal of creation is key to understanding Wesley’s theology. Specifically, it refers to the renewal of the image of God in humanity through the power of divine grace. Runyon offers the analogy of a mirror to help understand Wesley’s account of the “image of God.” It doesn’t refer to some inherent capacity of human nature, such as reason or freedom, but is a relational notion: we receive the love of God and we reflect it back to the world around us. Wesley was a genuine “evangelical catholic” who combined the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith with an equally strong belief that God’s grace would transform human life and, ultimately, the entire creation.

In the final chapter, “Wesley for Today,” Runyon discusses how Wesley’s theology might be applicable to some current pressing social and political issues. And in articulating Wesley’s approach to what we would now call human rights, Runyon draws extensively on Wesley’s ardent opposition to slavery, which I admit I wasn’t really aware of.

Here’s a pamphlet Wesley published on the question of slavery. An excerpt with Wesley’s response to certain pro-slavery arguments:

“But the furnishing us with slaves is necessary for the trade, and wealth, and glory of our nation” [says the defender of slavery]. Here are several mistakes. For, First, wealth is not necessary to the glory of any nation; but wisdom, virtue, justice, mercy, generosity, public spirit, love of our country. These are necessary to the real glory of a nation; but abundance of wealth is not. Men of understanding allow that the glory of England was full as high in Queen Elizabeth’s time as it is now; although our riches and trade were then as much smaller, as our virtue was greater. But, Secondly, it is not clear that we should have either less money or trade, (only less of that detestable trade of man-stealing,) if there was not a Negro in all our islands, or in all English America. It is demonstrable, white men, inured to it by degrees, can work as well as them; and they would do it, were Negroes out of the way, and proper encouragement given them. However, Thirdly, I come back to the same point: Better no trade, than trade procured by villany. It is far better to have no wealth, than to gain wealth at the expense of virtue. Better is honest poverty, than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat, and blood, of our fellow-creatures.

And here’s a letter–one of his last, written on his deathbed–to William Wilberforce, then a member of parliament:

Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God before you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Wesley, Runyon notes, is sometimes caricatured as a conservative, or even reactionary, “high-church Tory,” but according to Runyon this misunderstands his reasons for, e.g., supporting the monarchy. Wesley distrusted democracy precisely because he feard that it would ride roughshod over the liberty of the individual, particularly religious liberty. He had first-hand experience to draw on, as early Methodists were often attacked by angry mobs, sometimes whipped up by local authorities. Wesley saw “liberty under law” in the form of a constitutional monarchy as the best defense against mob rule. He also observed the hypocrisy of American colonists complaining about the “tyranny” of the crown while at the same time maintaining the institution of chattle-slavery. Had Wesley lived to see the establishment of genuine liberal democracy he might have changed his mind, but his opposition at the time was rooted in a concern for what we would today call human rights. And for Wesley, this inherent dignity was in turn based on the creative love of God.

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2 thoughts on “John Wesley on slavery and human rights

  1. Pingback: Wesley on religious experience | A Thinking Reed

  2. Slavery today is bigger than ever and it’s stamp is on clothes, foods, toys, office supplies and the gadget I’m using here. And it is worse, because most of the slaves get no sabbath day off at all.
    I’m here in Savannah and visit the little cove where John first set foot. I love his journal, but not just for religion. For me the walkabout of 18th century Britain is such a joy…how John enjoyed and noticed the ordinary life.
    I feel close to George Whitefield and love Bethesda. However the place and the church have become so worldly and insipid, it’s awful.

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