John Wesley on Homelessness and Poverty

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In this issue of the Viewpoint, which focuses on homelessness, we have asked Mark Mann, director of the PLNU Wesleyan Center, to provide some historical and theological perspective on the issue. In this essay, he especially addresses the theology and practices of John Wesley, who is a significant figure in the history of the Church of the Nazarene.

“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus foretells in Matt. 26:11. Thus far, history has proven Him correct. And the same goes for the homeless. At least since Jesus’ time, homelessness has been a problem that societies have sought to address but have never succeeded in solving.

Throughout history, the causes of homelessness have been manifold: poverty, war, migration, famine, unemployment, mental illness, urbanization – the same that we find in today’s world. If one were to walk the streets of San Diego, or any other major city in the United States, one would find immigrants from famine and war-stricken regions, veterans who could not fit back into society after serving their country, single mothers who cannot pay the rent after losing jobs in the recent recession, men and women suffering from various forms of mental illness.

But if the fact of and reasons for homelessness have generally remained the same, attitudes toward the problem, and especially toward the homeless themselves, have varied widely over time.

In ancient Rome, Cicero is notable for referring to the homeless as “‘the poverty stricken scum of the city,’ who should be ‘drained off to the colonies.’” 1 With the rise of the Christian church, attitudes toward the homeless changed drastically. No longer “scum,” the poor and homeless were people for whom God cared deeply and with whom He identified in profound ways. Rather than exclude them as pariahs, as the ancient Romans and Greeks had, they were to be embraced by the church, to be treated with care and charity.

Of course, Christian charity had its limits during the medieval era, especially during periods of great upheaval and dislocation, such as times of famine and war, which were rampant. The Black Plague, for instance, left countless women and children without means and in search of new lives and new homes at a time when none were to be found. Following times of war, roving bands of former soldiers might turn to banditry and violence. In such times, local authorities were actually more likely than not to act against those who threatened social stability, even to the point of, for instance, forcibly returning to their failing farms those who had come to towns and cities for work.

With the rise of modern nation states in Europe, governments once again took over responding to homelessness – sometimes in charitable ways but more often not. In early 17th century England, a series of “poor laws” were enacted that would serve to guide British dealings with “vagrancy” – as homelessness was called at the time – for the next two centuries. These laws sought to distinguish between criminal and non-criminal vagrants and to respond to each accordingly. Those deemed criminal (lazy and unwilling to work or find homes) might be imprisoned, beaten, branded with a “V,” or even executed. Those deemed not to be criminals (the truly destitute) were often placed in bridewells – hospital-type facilities where they could live, eat, and find work and education until regular work and housing might be found.

By the 1730s, when John Wesley’s ministry began, vagrancy in Great Britain had become increasingly criminalized and homelessness simply not tolerated. Those from the countryside seeking work in the cities (typically London) were arrested and forcibly returned to their home parishes to be dealt with by local authorities while those who had no other place to go were locked up in bridewells, which by this time had become more like prisons than the hospitals and work houses they had been intended to be. In fact, the one explicit reference to a bridewell we find in Wesley’s writings is a journal entry detailing his visit to the Bristol bridewell to visit a soldier awaiting execution in which Wesley also notes there being “several desolate ones that were confined in the same place.”2

During the 1700s, these practices were supported by a series of “vagrancy laws” that cast an increasingly wide net in defining who could be arrested for vagrancy. A 1714 law listed as vagrants not only wandering beggars and men who had left their families, but also even those considered a threat to leave home. A 1744 law went on to include all traveling actors, jugglers, and minstrels, as well as anyone found traveling with a dancing bear! This was the strange and troubling context in which John Wesley lived and sought to live out the call to fully love both God and neighbor.3

While there is nothing in Wesley’s writings that provides explicit reference to vagrancy, there is much that we may put together about his view of homelessness based upon his work among the poor and his writing about how his fellow Methodists should join him in response to their plight. Indeed, if we are to say one thing about Wesley and homelessness, it would be that one of his chief aims was to assist the poor in avoiding homelessness or vagrancy.

From his time as a university student at Oxford, Wesley felt called to work among and on behalf of the destitute. He would regularly visit local prisons, especially the infamous Newgate, where many were on death row. Wesley would often preach and read scripture to and pray with those awaiting their executions in this terrible place. He would also fast regularly, dedicating the money he would otherwise have used for dining – as well as all the money, food, and clothing he could solicit from others – for the poor, whom he would regularly visit. This was not the kind of behavior one expects from a university student but exactly the kind of radicalism that led to him being derided as a “Methodist” and “Holy Clubber” by fellow students.

Wesley would continue these personal commitments the rest of his life. When it came to money, he lived by the adage: “Earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” And earn, save, and give he did. One of the most recognizable figures in England through much of his adult life and a successful author and preacher, he perpetually lived on the verge of abject poverty. In fact, it is estimated that he gave away roughly $6 million (in current USD) over his lifetime while dying with less than $2,000 to his name!

He also regularly “begged” for the poor. Such was his continual insistence to fellow Methodists that they give more for the needy that his brother Charles complained that John would soon have them, too, numbering among those needing charity. Begging, for John, could also take on extreme forms. In his journal, he famously tells of five long, cold mid- winter days spent trudging all over London’s snowy, slush-filled streets begging for money to help clothe and feed the poor, stopping only once he had become quite sick. Wesley was 81 years old at the time and succeeded in raising the equivalent of $100,000.4

As leader of the Methodist movement, Wesley was also able to help develop larger programs for the poor. In 1738, he purchased an old, dilapidated munitions factory, later called the Foundry, which became the base of Methodist operations, especially on behalf of the poor. Out of the Foundry, the early Methodists provided much that a contemporary rescue mission might: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and even financial support in the form of small loans to those without work wanting to start their own businesses. Wesley also founded a home for poor widows, a home for orphans, and several schools aimed especially at the education of poor children.

Even more striking than Wesley’s own work on behalf of the poor were his teachings about why Christians should engage in such actions. Central to his teachings, Wesley believed that all Christians are called to lives of holiness, by which he meant hearts filled to overflowing with love for God and neighbor. Wesley also believed that God’s grace both empowers acts of love for God and neighbor and transforms our hearts and lives through such actions, which is why he would come to call any such actions “means of grace,” and actions directed toward the poor, the imprisoned, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan “acts of mercy” that were also “means of grace.”

Put a bit differently, according to Wesley, we are to act on behalf of the less fortunate for two deeply intertwined reasons: first, God calls us to do so and we should be obedient to God, and second, such acts of mercy are necessary for our own growth in grace. In other words, God’s grace works in such a way that when we seek to offer grace, love, and compassion to others, we are every bit as much the recipients of God’s grace, love, and compassion.

One of the pivotal passages of scripture that guided Wesley’s thinking on this matter was Matthew 25:31-46, often called the “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.” In this passage, Jesus defines the goats as those receiving judgment because they failed to provide Him food, drink, hospitality, shelter, or clothing, or failed to look after Him when He was sick or imprisoned, and the sheep as those who have succeeded in these ways. Both groups ask Jesus when they had failed or succeeded in loving Him in these ways, and Jesus replies: “Truly I tell you, whatever you have done (or not) unto the least of these you have done (or not) unto me” (v. 40, 45).

This was the main reason that Wesley continually encouraged the Methodists to give sacrificially to the poor and to seek out solidarity with the poor by spending time with them and fasting and begging on their behalf. If one wished to give to Christ, one needed to give to the poor; if one wished to spend time with Christ, one needed to spend time with the poor.

It is worth noting one additional reason Wesley advocated that the Methodists spend considerable time among “the least of these”: it would assist those with means from becoming too attached to their worldly belongings. Many of Wesley’s sermons concern the temptations of wealth and the appropriate use of money. Indeed, he believed, the more time one spends with the poor, the more likely one is to realize one’s own spiritual poverty and continual need for grace and the more likely one is to give freely of what one has been blessed to possess. This was, felt Wesley, the only reason any have been blessed by God with wealth – that it be given away freely to those in need.5

Throughout his ministry, Wesley felt that he was fighting an uphill battle in calling the bulk of his followers to the kind of radical poverty and solidarity with the poor that he modeled. He was oft to say that the Methodists had proven exceptional at following the first two parts of his essential teaching on wealth (earn all you can and save all you can) but an utter failure at the third (give all you can).

Late in life, he feared that whatever links of solidarity he had achieved in forging between Methodism and the poor would be completely lost after his death. In the end, his fears turned prophetic. Although Methodists would play a leading role in many of the important social reforms in 19th century Britain (including making slavery illegal, establishing child labor laws, and enacting laws that provided greater protection for miners, factory workers, etc.), Methodists would quickly move into the mainstream of middle and upper class society. This would especially be the case in America, where by the 1850s, the Methodist church had become the largest and wealthiest denomination in America.

The question that haunts me today is: to what extent do we in the church in the early 21st century embody the spirit of Wesley in our work with the poor? Ours is a society gripped by an addiction to success and wealth. Unfortunately, this addiction even fuels much of the theology and preaching of the church today. Many of the most popular preachers in America proclaim what has been called the gospel of wealth and success, which states that the chief sign that a person is “right with God” is that God has blessed that person with prosperity. And, such preachers argue, such blessings are intended for our own benefit and enjoyment.

Wesley would find this to be a sickening betrayal of the true gospel of Christ. For Wesley, material blessings are never given for one’s own enjoyment but only to be used for God’s kingdom and especially for the benefit of and in solidarity with the homeless and poor. Indeed, I don’t think it much of a stretch to imagine that Wesley’s chief concern about the church today would be that we, too, have done a great job of earning and saving all that we can but have miserably failed in giving all we can.

Dear God, have mercy on us all…

By Dr. Mark Mann

PLNU’s the Viewpoint publishes relevant and vital stories that grapple with life's profound questions from a uniquely Christian perspective. In addition to the content offered online, the Viewpoint print magazine is published three times a year in spring, summer, and fall.