Friday, 28 August 2020

John Wesley; Faith and Politics


“How Far Is It the Duty of a Christian Minister to Preach Politics?” This was the title and the question posed in a short essay written by the Rev. John Wesley in 1782.  Like many people of his time John Wesley appears to have still been a believer in the “Divine Right of Kings” at a time when England was steadily moving into a state of Constitutional Monarchy.  In his sermon on Sunday 16th August, the Rev. John said; “Unfortunately, he (Wesley) confines the preaching of politics to defending the King, and the King’s ministers, against slanders and lies”.

History is sometimes unkind to the memory of certain historic figures and poor old King George 111 is one such maligned figure; with any mention of him quickly leading to stories of his “madness” and the loss of the American Colonies after the War of Independence from 1775 to 1783 during his reign.  But George 111 was actually a much more interesting King in changing times with problems like the threat of the Jacobites and Bonny Prince Charlie and France eager to retaliate against Great Britain following their defeat during the Seven Years' War.  There were also various conflicts against Napoleonic France which started in 1793 and led to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

In 1751 young George’s father died, making him the heir to his grandfather King George 11 who died in 1760.  George 111 was only 22 when he became King and he was the first of the Hanoverian kings to be born in England and call English his first language, although he spoke fluent German and also learned to speak French. 

He was one of Britain’s most cultured monarchs and he set a good example by loving and respecting his wife and taking no mistress.  George 111 and his wife Charlotte had 15 children with 13 surviving into adulthood. 

George 111 seems to have shared some of the interests that inspired the Rev. John Wesley and it is easy to understand that the King would have gained the approval of Wesley.  The King started a new royal collection of books and 65,000 of his books were later given to the British Museum, as the King’s Library and the nucleus of a national library.  He also had two other private book collections at Windsor which indicate the diversity of the King’s interests, like science, agriculture and farming.  He was nicknamed “Farmer George” for his great interest in agriculture.   George 111 studied science as part of his education and he had his own astronomical observatory.  The Science Museum now has a collection of some of his scientific instruments on display.  George 111 made accurate drawings and calculations of the Transit of Venus across the Sun on 23rd June, 1769 and accurately forecast further transits in 1874 and 2004.

To be fair, I should write something of the genetic illness called porphyria, long thought to be the cause of the mental instability and blindness that increasingly afflicted him with serious bouts of illness in 1788-89 and again in 1801.  It was not until 1810 that King George 111 became permanently deranged and was declared mentally unfit to rule.  His eldest son – who later ruled in his own right as George IV - acted as Prince Regent from 1811. As a result of new studies of King George 111’s letters and analyses of language and style of writing, there is growing belief the King may have been suffering from hypomania which is now called bipolar disorder as far as I can work out.  It appears that he was given arsenic poison to “cure” him and that could have made his situation so much worse.  I am so glad that I live in the 21st century aren’t you?

I should return to the Rev. John’s thoughts about John Wesley’s essay; “Three times in this short essay, he says that the chief business of the clergy is to preach Christ, and Christ crucified. That seems to sum up Wesley’s attitude toward the political system. That attitude is almost a hands-off one. Don’t bother with politics, except to set the record straight when people lie about the King or the King’s ministers.”

“Wesley did advise Methodist voters about voting. He told them they should vote morally, that is, they should not accept bribes or other favours in return for their votes. In addition, he said, they should vote for the candidate that “loves God”. If there were no candidate who loves God, then they should vote for the one who supports King George. That’s a pretty direct statement, in terms of telling people how to vote!”

There is no doubt that apart from basic moral advice, any advice on dealing with the political system and voting offered by the Rev. John Wesley would indeed have little relevance to the world today.  In the world we live in today politics seem to be freely discussed and are no longer considered “taboo” in polite society, but I still personally prefer to refrain from serious political discussions because each person is entitled to their own opinion and I would hate to restrict my list of dear friends to those who vote the same way that I do.  Although many people freely share their views, I would not even ask my children or grandchildren about their political leanings. 

As I look back and consider the formation of my childhood impressions about the social, political and religious issues of that time I realise that probably most children of the forties and fifties were as confused and ill-informed as I was.  There was still a great deal of discussion about, and residual poverty and pain from “the depression” and “the war”, although these two occurrences were never explained to young children at the time - and of course - having been born during the war, I had no personal memories to draw on. 

History seems to indicate that the decade before my birth was an age of confusing attitudes about “patriotism”, fear of the development of a distinctly Australian political identity, and a desperate clinging to the protection of “the Mother Country”.  As time passes and Australians become more generations removed from British ties and begin to mix with people of many other cultures these British traditions are perhaps harder for younger people to fully understand.  However, when I consider that the largest proportion of both mine and my husband’s great-grandparents were born in England, Scotland or Ireland this loyalty was not surprising. I could only remember the Liberal Party being in power and Robert Menzies being Australia’s Prime Minister (1949 to 1966) and he and Britain’s Winston Churchill were highly regarded by my parents although they never actually revealed their support in so many words.  With the passage of time most of us realise that perhaps history is not always reliable! As some bright spark quoted; “History is always written by the winners!”

However, I will give the Rev. John Wesley the last word with a quote from a letter he wrote on the 8th February 1772.  “I commend you for meddling with points of controversy as little as possible.  It is abundantly easier to lose our love in that rough field than to find truth.”  

Although I think I also need to point to the Rev. John’s summing up of John Wesley’s thoughts; “All through his life, Wesley leaned on the biblical idea of obedience to the powers that be. See Romans 13 for an expression of this idea. Wesley would also warn us to be humble about confusing our own political opinions with the will of God. And, incredibly important for a time when only a small majority of eligible voters actually do vote, Wesley would urge us to get to the polls!

Wesley would return us to Jesus. The same Jesus who calls us to our true, ultimate, and permanent citizenship. He makes that possible for us through his life, teaching, death, resurrection, and continuing presence with us. Our true citizenship will be at the heavenly banquet. The seating arrangements at the heavenly banquet are going to be interesting.

The ticket into the heavenly banquet is salvation, by grace, through faith. It is not connected to our works, either good or bad. It is a free gift from God. The passport to heaven is not something of this world. We receive it when we surrender to the love of God and claim Jesus as Saviour.”

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