Book Review: Learning from Charles Wesley’s writings on the poor

By Wes Magruder, Special Contributor…

Radical Grace: Justice for the Poor and Marginalized—Charles Wesley’s Views for the Twenty-First Century
S T Kimbrough Jr.
Cascade Books, 2013
Paperback, 154 pages

 

One of the great unsolved mysteries of Methodist history is precisely how a movement that began among the poor and disenfranchised of England morphed into a middle-class bourgeois church.

This happened despite the fact that John and Charles Wesley seemed to grasp clearly the significance of the marginalized for a proper understanding of Christ’s work, as well as of the church.

In Radical Grace, the Rev. S T Kimbrough Jr. takes a closer look at the sermons, poetry and personal writings of Charles in order to steer the existing church toward a more authentic Wesleyan posture concerning those in poverty and oppression.

Dr. Kimbrough discovers that his theology is marked by “radical grace”: “The word radical (meaning thorough, far-reaching, and fundamental) is used here in the sense that Charles Wesley’s views on life with the poor form an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of his theology, which in large measure were not embraced by the church and which require radical action, if they are to be embodied in Christian behavior and practice.”

What exactly did Charles think about “the poor”? In this survey of his poetry and prose, it is clear that he saw charity and acts of mercy done to— and for—the poor as incumbent upon the faithful Christian, for “in doing it to the least of these, we are doing it unto Christ.” Charles also viewed the poor as God’s chosen people and even as “stand ins” for Christ, as it were, in this world; “the poor supply thy place / deputed, Lord, by thee / to exercise our grace / our faith and charity / and what to thee in them is given / is laid up for ourselves in heaven,” reads a stanza from one of his hymns.

Dr. Kimbrough is impressed by Charles’ theological insight, but questions abound about Wesley’s apparent objectification of “the poor.” Throughout his writings, there is a disconcerting seeming distance from the poor. He generalizes about them—“the poor have generally a much larger degree of confidence than the rich and learned”—and he writes memorial hymns about Christians who have been kind and generous to them.

But as Dr. Kimbrough points out, Charles really did understand—and practice—genuine friendship with those who were down-and-out in 18th-century England. He moved in and among them with apparent ease. The early Methodist movement took place among precisely these types of people.

In other words, when Charles wrote about “the poor,” he was talking about his friends, his kind of people. They were not “other”; they were every bit as much a part of God’s family as he himself.

As soon as Methodists began to view the poor as a monolithic category separate from themselves—and as objects of acts of mercy for which one might amass treasure in heaven—the movement lost touch with the essential nature of the kingdom of God.

What needs to be recovered in the contemporary church, then, is a sense of solidarity with the poor. And this can only begin by making the poor our friends, Dr. Kimbrough writes. In some sense, Methodism must become again the church of the poor.

Of course, as a noted hymnologist and liturgist, Dr. Kimbrough is also convinced that congregational worship and song can trigger collective memories of Methodist solidarity with the marginalized. To that end, he includes several of Charles’ poems set to new tunes for congregational singing, as well as several pieces of liturgy utilizing Charles’ writings about justice.

However, it is hard to imagine the members of any contemporary big-steeple United Methodist Church belting out the first verse of this newly-refurbished Charles Wesley hymn:

You pastors hired who undertake
this aweful ministry
for lucre or ambition’s sake,
a nobler pattern see!

Who greedily your pay receive,
and adding cure to cure,
in splendid ease and pleasure’s live
by pillaging the poor.

The Rev. Magruder is senior associate pastor at First Rowlett UMC in Rowlett, Texas, and blogs at http://newmethofesto.com/.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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