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.”

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Thoughts upon God and Slavery


It is true that some cruel forms of slavery still flourish in many places in the “enlightened” world today.  This is a really hard thought for us to process in our democratic and comfortable society isn’t it?  It is inconceivable to most humans (we hope) that one person can own another person and be in total control of their lives – or indeed, whether they live or die.  However, when I consider slavery and it becomes clear that historically many slave owners professed Christianity and some even used quotes from the Bible as an “excuse” for their treatment of fellow humans, I feel desperately ashamed of their behaviour and sad to know just how many times over the centuries slavery has reared its ugliness and horror.

On Sunday 9th August the Rev. John told us that “Although the Rev. John Wesley claimed to have been opposed to slavery from the first time, he heard of it, …we do not know with certainty when he first heard of slavery. He might have come into contact with slaves in England.” 

However, we do know that; “In 1736-7, Wesley visited North America including Georgia, which was then a British colony, and there he came into contact with enslaved people. This experience left him with a loathing of slavery but at first, he felt unable to act on this.” 

In 1774, he wrote that tract called "Thoughts on Slavery" that went into four editions in two years.  In it, he attacked the Slave Trade and the slave-trader with considerable passion and proposed a boycott of slave-produced sugar and rum. In August 1787, he wrote to the Abolition Committee to express his support.  In 1788, when the abolition campaign was at its height, he preached a sermon in Bristol, one of the foremost slave trading ports. In those days, an anti-slavery sermon could not be preached without considerable personal risk to the preacher and a disturbance broke out.  He maintained an interest in the abolition movement until he died.”

Although John Wesley noted in his journal that he did not like a sentimental style of writing, he seems to have written his “Thoughts on Slavery” in a deliberately impassioned style in order to strengthen his moral, religious and economic arguments.  He made no apologies to those who are sensitive about the truths that he has written.  He has been credited with being the first advocate for the abolition of slavery to make his arguments with sentimental rhetoric, which became the model for the subsequent debates against slavery.

Wesley also famously said: "Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you, but by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion. Be gentle toward all men; and see that you invariably do with everyone as you would he should do unto you."

It is not easy reading, yet I feel compelled to share a few of John Wesley’s “Thoughts on Slavery” – with apologies for this shocking content.  The problems of greed and the lack of kindness, care, understanding and love have overwhelmed society and allowed unbelievable evil to overcome good often throughout history.  People like John and Charles Wesley, William Wilberforce, John Newton, Lord Mansfield and many others were the right people for their time and were willing to work together and be examples of the power of working with the love of God as your strength.  On 22 May 1787, the first meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade took place, bringing like-minded British Quakers and Anglicans together in the same organisation for the first time.  All the Abolitionist organisations working to free the slaves in America and the British and other colonies were making progress against the terrible problems of greed, dependence on slaves and the cruelty it brought to hundreds of thousands of the innocent victims were at last gaining momentum.

In his booklet, John Wesley gave DETAILED information from various sources about the orderly and calm nature and life of the inhabitants of the coast of Africa from which huge numbers of native people were seized, transported and sold as slaves.  He noted these details to quash the stories of the kidnappers that they were “saving” them from a terrible environment where few could survive!

“The Gold-Coast and Slave-Coast, all who have seen it agree, is exceeding fruitful and pleasant, producing vast quantities of rice and other grain, plenty of fruit and roots, palm-wine, and oil, and fish in great abundance, with much tame and wild cattle. The very same account is given us of the soil and produce of the kingdoms of Benin, Congo and Angol--From all which it appears, That Guinea in general, far from being an horrid, dreary, barren country, is one of the most fruitful, as well as the most pleasant countries in the known world. It is said indeed to be unhealthy. And so it is to strangers, but perfectly healthy to the native inhabitants.

Such is the country from which the negroes are brought. We come next to enquire, What sort of men they are, of what temper and behaviour, not in our plantations, but in their native country. And here likewise the surest way is to take our account from eye and ear witnesses. Now those who have lived in the Senegal country observe, it is inhabited by three nations, the Jaloss, Fulis, and Mandingos. The king of the Jaloss has under him several ministers, who assist in the exercise of justice. The chief justice goes in circuit through all his dominions, to hear complaints and determine controversies. And the viceroy goes with him, to inspect the behaviour of the Alkadi, or Governor of each village.

The Mandingos, says Mons. Brue, are rigid Mahometans, drinking neither wine nor brandy. They are industrious and laborious, keeping their ground well cultivated, and breeding a good flock of cattle. Every town has a governor, and he appoints the labour of the people. The men work the ground designed for corn; the women and girls, the rice-ground.  He afterwards divides the corn and rice among them: And decides all quarrels if any arise. All the Mahometan negroes constantly go to public prayers thrice a day: there being a priest in every village, who regularly calls them together:  And so the reports of the places and people go on.

We have now seen, what kind of country it is, from which the negroes are brought: And what sort of men (even whitemen being the judges) they were in their own country. Enquire we, Thirdly, In what manner are they generally procured, carried to, and treated in America.

First. In what manner are they procured? Part of them by fraud. Captains of ships from time to time, have invited negroes to come on board, and then carried them away. But far more have been procured by force. The Christians landing upon their coasts, seized as many as they found, men, women and children, and transported them to America. It was about 1551, that the English began trading to Guinea: At first, for gold and elephants teeth, but soon after, for men. In 1566, Sir John Hawkins sailed with two ships to Cape Verd, where he sent eighty men on shore to catch negroes. But the natives flying, they fell farther down, and there set the men on shore, "to burn their towns and take the inhabitants." But they met with such resistance, that they had seven men killed, and took but ten negroes. So they went still farther down, till having taken enough, they proceeded to the West-Indies, and sold them*.

It was some time before the Europeans found a more compendious way of procuring African slaves, by prevailing upon them to make war upon each other, and to sell their prisoners.  Till then they seldom had any wars: But were in general quiet and peaceable. But the white men first taught them drunkenness and avarice, and then hired them to sell one another. Nay, by this means, even their kings are induced to sell their own subjects.

Such is the manner wherein the Negroes are procured! Thus the Christians preach the gospel to the heathens!           

Thus they are procured. But in what numbers and in what manner are they carried to America?--Mr. Anderson in his History of trade and commerce, observes, "England supplies her American colonies with Negro slaves, amounting in number to about an hundred thousand every year." That is, so many are taken on board our ships; but at least ten thousand of them die in the voyage: About a fourth part more die at the different Islands, in what is called the Seasoning. So that at an average, in the passage and seasoning together, thirty thousand die: That is, properly are murdered. O earth, O Sea, cover not thou their blood!

When they are brought down to the shore in order to be sold, our surgeons thoroughly examine them, and that quite naked, women and men, without any distinction: Those that are approved are set on one side. In the mean time a burning iron, with the arms or name of the Company, lies in the fire, with which they are marked on the breast. Before they are put into the ships, their masters strip them of all they have on their backs: So that they come on board stark naked, women as well as men. It is common for several hundreds of them to be put on board one vessel; where they are stowed together in as little room, as it is possible for them to be crowded. It is easy to suppose what a condition they must soon be in, between heat, thirst, and stench of various kinds. So that it is no wonder, so many should die in the passage; but rather, that any survive it. 

I will not burden you with the horrendous laws that John Wesley wrote about in his Booklet – laws that were made for the punishments to be metered out to slaves.  However, he did record; “The author of the history of Jamaica, wrote about the year 1740, in his account of the sufferings of the negroes; The people of that island have indeed the severest ways of punishing; no country exceeds them in a barbarous treatment of their slaves, or in the cruel methods by which they are put to death.”

The Rev. John concluded his Sermon: “Slavery continues to flourish in our world today. People who are hungry, homeless, or otherwise vulnerable are lured into debt slavery because they are promised a better life. Some of them are forced into prostitution. Some are forced labourers. Some are illegal immigrants who pay large fees to an “agent,” who smuggles them into a nation, and then keeps them in virtual slavery because of the debts run up. Some are children sold as jockeys, as prostitutes, as labourers. Some are farm labourers whose parents passed on debts to them and they will, in turn, pass those debts on their children.”

“The greatest riches are spiritual and moral.  And they are produced by a Gospel-enlivened society organically rooted in stable marriages and families, chastity, sobriety, self-denial, thrift, hard work and moral responsibility.  These virtues and practices are rightly encouraged by churches, which are called to redeem the fallen, and governments, which are responsible for public order.”

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Was John Wesley "The man who saved England"?

Late in the year 2019 and before the arrival of the disruption to life in most countries with the Covid 19 Pandemic early in 2020, a small group of our Marsden Road church members had been involved in a study of a book called “John Wesley for the 21st Century” by John O. Gooch.  The Rev. John was asked if the Marsden Road Congregation could hold a series of services and further studies, a family tea and other “old fashioned traditional” events to remind us of the importance of community and spirituality of people who claim to live as Christians. This was all planned for August 2020 as “Wesley Weeks” and I suppose you could say that there was a yearning for the Wesley way of the old Methodist Churches and perhaps a longing and a social need for a new Revival. 

Despite the strict health rules and the constraints about meetings and gatherings as measures to keep people in Australia as safe as possible, it can be said that, at Marsden Road Church we are all living with these constraints as well as possible.  So we are proceeding with the “Wesley Weeks” plans with a few necessary changes.  The Rev. John is leading five more weekly studies for those who are able to attend via “Zoom” and he will be presenting specially focused sermons about John Wesley and some of his social work, causes and beliefs.  On Sunday the 2nd August the Rev. John’s sermon focused on the life and work of the Rev. John Wesley and his brother Charles, with special reference to John’s particular interest in science, which was the topic of the study via Zoom on the previous Wednesday evening. In this sermon, the Rev. John wrote; “An insatiable reader, Wesley read scientific works throughout his life, often from the back of his horse.” … “From his own reading and the advice of others, he developed short lists of scientific works for his correspondents, schools, and lay preachers. These collections included older works by John Ray, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards as well as current works by Benjamin Franklin, Charles Bonnet, John Hutchinson, and Oliver Goldsmith. Wesley followed the debates that swirled around the various interpretations of Newton's ideas.”

As usual the sermons are available in full on the Marsden Road Church website each week, so you can read them there.  There is also a wealth of information on the internet in the form of countless history articles and many excellent YouTube videos, so I am wondering what path can we follow for the weekly blogs?  

John Wesley certainly spoke up and recorded his views clearly in all his writings and 40,000 sermons which he is said to have preached - and his brother Charles certainly gave us wonderful hymns to sing in praise of God.  I wonder who among us doesn’t take a deep breath and approach a Charles Wesley hymn with enthusiasm and a degree of thoughtfulness?

Having had only one attempt to ride a horse and having to retreat to have a long soak in a hot bath because I could barely walk; I certainly admire John Wesley’s determination and strength when I read that in all he travelled on horseback for about 400,000 kilometres and used the time often to study and read.  Today’s piece of trivia is the note I saw in one article, that said John Wesley had “Ridden his horse to the moon.”

I became interested in the Wesley family as a whole many years ago now, when I became deeply involved in family history and I read notes written by ancestors who had known my maternal GGG grandfather the Rev. John Mayor personally.  I was fascinated to learn that the Methodist Church began in the heart of the Anglican Church and that some of my ancestors, including the father of the Rev. John Mayor were buried in the non-conformist Bunhill Fields Cemetery in London with the likes of Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles Wesley and many of the early Methodist ministers and followers. 

A young follower of John Wesley - Rev John Mayor of Shawbury
                                                   where he served as Minister for 45 years

The Rev. John Mayor entered Worcester College, Oxford in 1774 and was ordained Deacon there in 1778.  He began his ministry at Shawbury in Shropshire in June 1781 after what seems to have been a period of unrest and youthful enthusiasm - perhaps in an area where the “Methodist” Anglicans were not as well received.  He wrote that he was ordained as a Priest in September 1779 “Where I had some blessed seals to my ministry and violent opposition which ended in my quitting the curacy in a years time, Michaelmas 1780. It has been written by his family that the Rev. John Mayor was a great preacher and he was one of John Wesley's well known adherents and he became a leader in the Nonconformist Revival.  His niece wrote of him; “He was stirring up the Shrewsbury neighbourhood when Wesley was busy in Devon.”  In his will there is a bequest to his son of “my Psalter” and another book which were given to him by John Newton.  I feel this and some other more definite clues, support the stories of his long friendships and involvement with people who had been great workers and advocates for the “Wesley’s Revival”. 

The World Book Encyclopaedia records; “Methodism originated as a movement with groups of students at Oxford University in the late 1720's.  They helped each other to be disciplined and methodical in their study, spiritual devotions and practical good works.”  It has been well recorded that John Wesley and his brother Charles preached in the open air and the crowds were very large as they taught their listeners about “personal faith and practical good” and I believe Oxford University students continued to nurture the future generations of students to join in the revival.  When John and Charles Wesley realised that they and the few enthusiastic clergy working with them could not do all the work and provide all the spiritual support needed; John Wesley began, from 1739 on, to evaluate and approve men who had not been ordained as “local preachers” - and this proved to one of the catalysts for the growth of Methodism. 

Modern History study for the Leaving Certificate in the 1950’s began with the French Revolution and ended with the causes of World War 1.  I was captivated by all History, but then, I was fortunate that a wonderful teacher made it into a fascinating worldwide saga about the ways the “age of enlightenment” and the “twilight of princes” evolved; with reason replacing God as an explanation of the world.  With these changed religious and philosophical thoughts, more popular and nonspiritual art, inventions that led to innovations in trade, transport and technology and the huge social changes of the ensuing Industrial Revolution, came the first stirrings of the age of revolution of which the French Revolution in 1789 was only a part. 

The first Industrial Revolution began in Britain after 1750 because the country was prepared financially and already had solid financial institutions like a central bank in place to finance the new factories, and the development of new technologies to work with iron and steam power and other kinds of mass production.  The economic strength of Britain was sured-up through high taxes which were also collected from the almost boundless British Empire.  In the majority of circumstances, with little regard for the workers - these rapid changes were made to the culture and life of people who had worked on farms and in their homes and were forced to move into new industrial towns and big cities in order to work long hours for low wages and endure poor housing.  However, a few mills belonged to benevolent men who provided housing, schools and medical care.  The New Lanark Mill even had a school, a church and a Co-operative Store where prices were fair and the workers benefited from any profits.  I wonder if the owners knew John Wesley?  I am certainly sure they knew God!

The Lanark Cotton Mill was founded in 1785 and it is now a World Heritage Site

The ‘upper classes’ went ahead with the building of big new factories with expensive machines that could make even bigger fortunes for them as they exploited the poor British workers and foreign growers of spices, cotton and rich silk fabrics and every kind of exotic thing from the Empire on which it was claimed “the sun never sets.”

Is it any wonder that the “lower classes” were beginning to show dissatisfaction with their miserable lot and there were rumblings of Revolution in Britain as well as in most of Europe?  John Wesley and his Revivalists taught and encouraged their followers about the love of God, who could bring a better world for everyone if only everyone would live the Christian life.

There are those who believe that John Wesley and his Methodist Revivalists saved Britain from its own violent revolution by doing their best to bring hope into a seemingly hopeless world by their spiritual and social revival, education of the poor, the provision of food, clothing, fuel, medical help, tools and the basic needs of life in those difficult times.  They also clothed and fed prisoners and cared for the aged and helpless in need.  At Oxford, John Wesley had studied basic medicine and first aid.  So in 1746 he set up the first free medical dispensary for the poor.  His passion for helping the poor and needy was lived out by the Wesleys and their followers.  John Wesley wrote and “lived” this statement; “We give to God not by giving it to the church, but by giving it to the poor.”  He personally helped in many ways and he gave all of his own money from his prolific writing to help the poor; living only on his stipend of ₤28 per year.  “John Wesley the Man who saved England.”  If you have access to a computer, tablet or smartphone, and a spare half hour, you might find this YouTube video very interesting.  The speaker is Sydney Adventist Pastor Gary Kent.

I have “reflected” for long enough today, so I will have to catch up with the topic of slavery, that was the focus of the Rev. John’s service on Sunday 9th August, during the next week.