Methodism and Social Reform in England
Updated: Jun 23
Soon after the Aldersgate experience, where John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed, he began preaching in the fields to those who did not always feel welcome in church - the miners, farm workers, and day laborers. Powered by Wesley’s passionate preaching on God’s love for all, the Methodist movement began to grow rapidly. These early converts were first organized into large Methodist societies, and then into small, intimate groups, or classes, that met weekly for encouragement and accountability.
John Wesley believed that faith was to be lived and shared in community. “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness,” he wrote. As such, the purpose of Methodist societies and classes was to pursue holiness of heart and life, so that faith was acted out in the daily practice of loving God and loving neighbor.
Because community was so significant, the first Methodist meeting house in Bristol, not only served as a gathering space for teaching and worship, but was also a center for the mission work carried out in the community such as feeding the poor, teaching children,and providing medical care. Under John’s teachings and leadership, Methodists became leaders in many areas of social justice including prison reform, enacting laws that provided protection for miners and factory workers, changing child labor laws, and building pharmacies and orphanages.
Methodists were also early advocates of education for children. A Methodist lay woman, Hannah Ball, started the first Sunday school in 1769, which began a movement that spread throughout England. After the Industrial Revolution in Britain, many children, especially the poor, were working long hours, 6 days a week, in factories. Sunday schools offered these children an opportunity to learn to read and write, as well as provided religious instruction. Sunday schools were the precursors to a national system of free education for children.
One of Wesley’s more passionate causes was the abolition of slavery. While a missionary in the American colonies, Wesley was appalled at the way slaves were treated on plantations in Georgia. In his 1774 writing, “Thoughts on Slavery,” Wesley outlined the brutality of all aspects of the slave trade and attacked the slave-trader and slave owner directly. He continued to write and preach against slavery, even at great personal risk, for the remainder of his life. Even after Wesley’s death, Methodists were united in their support of the abolition of slavery and relentlessly pressured Parliament with boycotts and petitions, resulting in England outlawing participation in the slave trade in 1807.
From advocating for better working conditions, to providing for the poor, to promoting free education for children, to fighting for the freedom and dignity of all people, Methodists have always strived to transform the world by making faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.