Liberty and Loyalty: John Wesley's Political World

John Wesley’s political world was a global one since British politics in the long eighteenth century (1688-1815) were entangled in Britain’s development as an imperial power. From a rather insular country far from the centre of European power in the seventeenth century, England had become ‘Britain’ and Britain had become ‘Great.’ This came through a combination of its participation in global wars, the creation of a modern financial system (the Bank of England was founded in 1694), industrial innovation and growth, and a series of monarchs (especially in the case of George III) who insisted on taking an active role in foreign affairs in partnership with Parliament.

The major global conflicts of the century have been called collectively ‘the Second Hundred Years War’ and included the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the War of American Independence (1775-83), and the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815). All of this preparation and demobilization from one war to the next was an expensive business but it transformed Britain’s geopolitical position from a rather insular and provincial kingdom perched on the edge of Europe to a leading global power. But the wealth generated by this newfound prominence did not always ‘trickle down’ to the poorer elements of British society, sections of which had found a new sense of agency as a result of the Evangelical revival. The Methodist movement opened up a social, if not a political, revolution which gave large numbers of ordinary people a new type of agency based on a filial relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The person known and loved by God, and gifted with the Spirit of God, was not trapped in their circumstances, but through temperate living, honesty, thrift, and industry could make an impact on the world for their own and others’ good. This new world would flow into the nineteenth century, a century of both individual and collective action for representative democracy – ‘people power’ – and we live today on the other side of those revolutionary impulses.  

It is impossible to separate religious vitality from this greatness, since the eighteenth century was an era of religious renewal movements of which Methodism, even if the most conspicuous, was very far from the only participant. In spite of frequently claiming that politics was not the business of preachers, Wesley engaged vigorously in the political discourse of his era, just as he engaged his considerable intellectual powers on many other matters beside religion. Such is the tendency of polymaths. Not content to restrict his inquiring mind to a narrow field he took an interest in the natural sciences, in history, in economics, in languages. Why not, then, politics? The only area that did not seem to interest him in other than a passing way were the dramatic arts about which he had little to say other than to be dismissive of them as frivolous and morally questionable.      

A number of John Wesley’s social and political tracts between 1762 and 1778 dealt with issues of economy and trade and the impact of these upon the British population, and especially upon the poor. A Word to a Smuggler (1762) argued that it was better to starve than sin, a view that may seem to lack empathy for people who often relied on smuggled goods to supplement their meagre incomes. His Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions (1773) provides an interesting response to the impact on the poor of a downturn in economic conditions. In A Serious Address to the People of England, With Regard to the State of the Nation (1778) Wesley rejected claims that the country was facing financial ruin in an attempt to encourage the populace.[1] Both these last tracts show that while he was no economist, Wesley nonetheless understood the systemic impact of economic and trade practices on the general population. He had no objection to prosperous commercial enterprise (in fact he celebrated it as part of the strength of Protestant Britain’s maritime dominance of the Atlantic world) but he did argue against luxury among the wealthy, along with distilling, which he saw as leading causes of the inflation in prices, a rise in unemployment and a shortage of foodstuffs. His economic advice may have been naïve in some respects but he did at least offer practical solutions designed to ease pressure on the poor, including placing an export tax on horses destined for French chaises and placing a ceiling on the cost of farm leases.[2]            

Wesley’s the loyalty to the crown is a well-known feature of his political outlook; it was a loyalty, however, not simply to the king as one having ‘divine right.’ Rather, Wesley saw the constitutional arrangements of 1688 in which king, parliament, and people inhabited a relationship of trust as the surest guarantee of religious and civil liberty. This loyalty had a strongly personal element, for, like Jesus, the king was a person. Wesley preached a gospel that ‘offered Christ’ to miners, agricultural workers, artisans and the rising ‘middling sort,’ who knew little of doctrinal and liturgical niceties but whose instinct for religion proved strong and lasting. This offer was fully in keeping with the ‘turn to the person’ inherent in the Enlightenment project, an enthusiasm both rational and religious. When it came to politics, this personal approach was of a piece with his religious views. Did not the Scriptures teach devout believers to ‘fear God and honour the king’? Was the king not a loving father of his people? Republicanism, rioting, avoidance of taxes, and aspersions on the king’s good name were all acts of ingratitude unbecoming of those seeking perfection. This Methodist piety was not a selfish moralism, however, because the personal integrity it called for was exercised as part of a social contract held together by a compact of trust.

Wesley was somewhat discriminating in his support for monarchs. He was not a ‘royalist’ in the sense of giving all monarchs a free pass on their behaviour. Indeed he considered many to be moral degenerates. It was the king or queen who loved God and country who was deserving of unwavering support. No Stuart monarch could fit such a description because such a monarch was obligated by religious ties to papal, and thus foreign, power. Wesley’s views of the king’s sacred aura reflected the discourse about divine right that had been forged out of conflict between Tories and Whigs, opposition parties which eventually came to a considerable degree of common ground about the ideal monarch. Heredity alone was not enough to guarantee succession to the throne. There was a providential hand behind history guiding England to its enlightened status as a Protestant power. The king who best fitted into this providential plan was fit to rule regardless of hereditary claims.

The greater freedom given to expressions of political dissent during the reign of George III was alarming for Wesley partly because of his rejection of mob violence (something with which he had considerable personal experience) and because of the association of opposition politics with Dissenters. Unorthodox theological views such as Arianism and Unitarianism seemed strange bedfellows to one as deeply committed to the Anglican formularies as Wesley. It is not that there were no such views to be found in the Church of England but Wesley had a very distinct and tightly held set of beliefs about the ‘true religion’ that had been entrusted to the state church. For him the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive church, and the religion of the Church of England were of a piece.[3] Given that so many of the more republican voices of the era, such as Richard Price (1723-1791) and Joseph Towers (1737-1799), were Dissenters it is not hard to see how Wesley’s political sentiments may have been informed by his theological commitments. Being Anglican was by no means a sufficient buffer against seditious ideas, however, as is made clear in the controversy over the radical politician John Wilkes (1725-1797) which led to open rioting in the streets. Here the personal element is likely to have coloured Wesley’s political response. The morally bankrupt and sexually promiscuous Wilkes could hardly have drawn anything but censure from one as self-controlled and disciplined as John Wesley. That such a scurrilous rake as Wilkes should impugn the name of a godly king like George III and trumpet ideas that undermined the social contract of loyalty was simply beyond the pale. This is not to say that Wesley failed carefully to weigh up Wilkes’ political ideas before finding them wanting, but it does indicate the personal element in the disagreement. 

In rejecting the idea that political power originated with the ‘people,’ Wesley was attempting to ‘resist the patriot mob.’ The origin of all political power lay with God who had delegated it to certain representatives to whom due reverence and submission should be given. Wesley was adept in the ‘language of liberty’ that pervaded his era even if he took a different approach from that of a John Locke (1632-1704) or a Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Civil and religious liberty were highly prized for Wesley but cries that these were being withheld from the people by a despotic king and a corrupt and dictatorial ministry simply did not pass his test of veracity. He did not believe that the propaganda about George III had any foundation and thought that the questioning of the king’s motives masked a Cromwellian style plot to overthrow the ancient constitution. Should this happen all the current civil and religious liberties enjoyed by British subjects both at home and in America would be lost. Indeed, he believed this had already happened in the American colonies where a new form of tyranny had arisen – the tyranny of Congress which could brook no dissent and cruelly persecuted all who remained loyal to the crown.

Though Wesley had no opposition to trade or commerce, there is a profoundly social element to all of his writings on economic conditions. The national wealth should not be pursued as an end in itself but in order that there should be plenty of readily available goods to support the basic life needs of the population. Greed and luxury on the part of the wealthy were the chief causes of want among the poor. No economic benefit could ever justify the existence of slavery and a collapse of the entire British economy would be preferable, in Wesley’s thinking, to the continuation of the trade in human beings, a villainous practice that was contrary to all notions of natural liberty. Though Wesley came late to a formal written opposition to slavery, his arguments, even if, like so many of his other writings, heavily borrowed from others, made an important contribution to the anti-slavery cause. Coupled with his preaching, his personal correspondence, and his influence as the grand old man of Methodism, Wesley’s shadow was cast well into the nineteenth-century abolitionist campaign in both Britain and America.

Wesley’s opposition to the American Revolution is the best known feature of his political outlook. It was not because he did not share with Americans a concern for civil and religious liberty that he so staunchly opposed republican ideas. Indeed he initially showed sympathy for Americans who were disadvantaged by the ‘Intolerable Acts.’ Americans were, after all, his people – British, Protestant, and (increasingly) Evangelical. Only when their rhetoric shifted from liberty to independence did Wesley begin to lose his love for the Americans. His accusations of a long-held plot to throw off the yoke of the British crown were informed by Joseph Galloway (1731-1803) who had tried without success to keep the colonies united to George III. Galloway’s claim that the Revolution was rooted in principles of Dissent that could be traced to the original seventeenth-century establishment of the colonies further fed into Wesley’s suspicion of Dissenters.

Global political crises were in Wesley’s view opportunities for personal repentance. In virtually all of his political tracts, there is a call to respond with repentance and faith toward looming international crises. God was at work among the nations to sweep them out with a broom of destruction as an instrument of divine judgment. Should all the liberties enjoyed by British subjects be suddenly swept away what refuge would be left other than to be held in the bosom of a redeeming God? Wesley’s political world was characterised by this personal element and this should not surprise us since his field preaching constituted an appeal to ordinary people to see themselves as objects of Christ’s dying love, to seek refuge in his wounds, and as happy children to rush to the embrace of a crucified God. This may seem overly individualistic in an age like our own where political change is seen in terms of collective action but it reflects the emphasis on the agency of the person typical of the eighteenth century. Methodism was the religion of the first person personal pronoun, with a stress on personal agency that provided an avenue of individual choice that would lead in the nineteenth century to a wider participation of the ordinary person in the social sphere, including in the world of politics.      

Perhaps the most surprising element for many readers will be Wesley’s virtual determinism. More virulent an anti-Calvinist than any other eighteenth-century figure, Wesley nonetheless held a providential view of history in which God’s purposes for the nations could not be frustrated by any human action. His rejection of unconditional election and divine decrees of predestination on the personal level sat alongside a doctrine of God’s sovereignty over public affairs as seemingly deterministic as any Calvinist’s. This comes through most clearly in the hortatory exhortations to repentance that frequently appear at the end of his political tracts and in his eventual admission that the American Revolution (something he opposed for the entire duration of the war) was, in the end, an event permitted by Providence and thus something to be accepted as a new political reality. One section of the community of the people called ‘Methodist’ was now also an American people and their theological identity was for Wesley more determinative than the political arrangements under which they now lived. Reverent and passive submission to all constituted authority was the overarching biblical principle that Wesley affirmed. Such a principle would now be lived out for some Methodists under the conditions set in place under the American Constitution and for others under the king in parliament.  

Wesley was one of the most widely travelled people in eighteenth-century Britain and his published journals are a rollicking ride over hill and dale that provide us with a fascinating portrait of town and country life in the Georgian Age. This first-hand exposure to the lives and conditions of ordinary people gives Wesley’s reflections on the state of the nation, including its trade, levels of employment, and population demographics, a vivid authenticity not always found in estimates made at a cool distance. Though his love for the poor was genuine and his preference for their company was made clear in his itinerant lifestyle, at the same time there is in Wesley a moralism that can only be described as evincing a lack of sympathy for, and even victim blaming of the troubled poor. Those who bought smuggled goods, even if order to survive, had better starve than steal.[4] Employers should refuse work to anyone convicted of smuggling.[5] Some were rebuked who had no thought for God in good times and had now turned to repentance during their time of want. Others were asked whether their laziness might have had anything to do with their present poverty.[6] The bodies of suicides should be hung in the streets as a public warning against others tempted to the sin of self-murder.[7] These are jarring instances of a lack of compassion that stand out in all the more bold relief given Wesley’s usual compassionate stance.

When it came to practical solutions, Wesley was not satisfied with individual responsibility alone. He saw a place for government intervention through taxation and trade policies that might alleviate food shortages, and he advised the Prime Minister on such matters. He seemed to approve of the newer economic theories of Adam Smith including that a fixed price on goods was an outmoded approach in the face of market fluctuations, but like Smith he was keenly aware of the social dimensions of economic practices. No economist, he at least offered economic solutions to social problems which even if deemed impractical were driven by a genuine concern for struggling people. Again, though practical systemic solutions were offered, Wesley deemed the chief causes of want to be the gluttony and luxury of the wealthy so individual morality remained an important factor in addressing poverty.

Though Wesley was not the same kind of one-eyed English patriot as John Wilkes and though he was willing to see Britain’s empire crumble rather than depend on slavery, it is clear that he had a great love for his country and felt it the best constituted nation on earth. Britain was ‘Protestant, maritime, commercial, and free’ and thus exhibited qualities that made it, in Wesley’s mind, a bulwark against tyranny, isolation, and want. Wesley’s political ideas extended well into the nineteenth century as British Wesleyan Methodism developed into a vigorous and growing denomination. Though increasingly situated more in Nonconformity than Anglicanism it retained a degree of deference toward the Church of England and issued many attestations of loyalty to the crown. Wars with France in the Napoleonic era contributed to shoring up of this loyalty to the existing British political establishment as a safeguard against tyranny and revolution. Support for the ideals of the French Revolution on the part of many Dissenters was alarming to Wesleyans but such ideas penetrated the ranks of Methodism and cries for a more democratic ecclesial structure began to emerge. Attempts to silence such ‘seditious’ voices led inevitably to Methodist schisms, all of which can be seen as expressions of resentment at the lack of flexibility exhibited by central Conference authority. The rhetoric of liberty continued also in the American context where ‘Republican’ and ‘Protestant’ Methodists resisted Episcopal power as a betrayal of the ideals that had led to the founding of the United States. The right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness was not extended to slaves, however, and slavery would become the most disruptive element in American Methodism in the nineteenth century as it was indeed in American society more broadly. The abolition of the British slave trade can be seen as a natural extension of John Wesley’s opposition and important Methodist leaders such as Jabez Bunting (1779-1858) and Richard Watson (1781-1833) played a significant activist role. That British Wesleyans failed to support the various mid-century industrial and agricultural reform bills underscores their essentially conservative outlook. At the same time the labour movement drew much of its leadership as well as its organisational machinery from the minor Methodist churches. Most of the more democratic ideals of the minor Methodists were eventually adopted by Wesleyans leading the way open to reconciliation between the various branches of Methodism. If the nineteenth century was an era of Methodist splintering, the ecumenical twentieth century would prove to be one of Methodist convergence.

Liberty and loyalty are the twin themes that help crystalize John Wesley’s political outlook. Liberty was a divinely given capacity to which every person had as much right as breathing. While the origin of political power lay with God, human governments had the responsibility to provide both civil and religious liberty. The surest guarantee of such liberty was through the ‘ancient constitution’ given its purest embodiment in the constitutional arrangements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. A devout Protestant king would rule over a grateful people, while being held accountable to God and to the Parliament for his actions as a check on tyranny. This was a form of social contract and loyalty to that contract would check seditious and rebellious grabs for power. Sentiments expressed by republican voices in America masked more sinister ambitions – an overthrow of the ancient constitution of Britain to be replaced by a democracy of ‘the people.’ In the end, however, the hand of an all-wise Providence guided historical forces and the best response to political fluctuations was a personal one – to make God one’s friend through repentance and faith. John Wesley was not a politician or an economist or a military strategist. He was a priest and an evangelist, so that his political world ultimately existed as a subset of a world bounded by the cosmic drama of salvation.              

[1] J. Wesley, ‘A Serious Address to the People of England,’ Works 11:140-49.

[2] J. Wesley, Thoughts on the Present Scarcity ((London, 1773), 17-20.

[3] J. Wesley, Works (BCE), 3:586.

[4] J. Wesley, A Word to a Smuggler, 8; Works 11: 177-78.

[5] J. Wesley, Journal 17 August 1776, Works BCE, 23: 28-29.

[6] W. R. Ward and R.P. Heitzenrater, Works vol. 22, 350; J. Wesley, Serious Address to the People of England, 13-14; Works 11:144.

[7] J. Wesley to W. Pitt, Telford, Letters, 7: 234-6.

Associate Professor Glen O’Brien is the Research Coordinator at Eva Burrows College, University of Divinity.