There is an implicit political theology within John Wesley’s claim that the purpose of Methodism was “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” Being more of a folk theologian (in the medieval sense theology in the vernacular) whose ad hoc writings addressed specific situations, Wesley never fully developed his ideas. Yet his basic Augustinianism created a nonconformist populism that was intent on renewing the people. While Wesleyanism did not always live up to its core commitments, the heart of its political theology resides in a fusion of Wesleyan Augustinianism with nonconformist populism.
The Augustinian ground of Wesley’s thought resides in his claim that there is a structure to the human person and that thoughts, will, and liberty are central to this structure. Within this structure, the affections form volitional movements, representing both the shape and flow of the will. In humanity’s original constitution, love fully ordered this natural image as its governing principle by harmonizing the thoughts and will or affections and orienting them to God as their final end. The original state of humanity consisted of an internal order that itself reflected the created order and the internal life of the Triune God.
While love established this order, justice was its full realization. Justice is the regulative harmony of all things that flows from recognizing and rendering to each aspect of the created order its place in the divine design. To render something its due is to understand the morality governing its nature and purpose within creation. Rather than preceding love, justice flows from the structure of the natural image as love orders the whole person. Such an understanding of justice as fittingness means that it is eschatological. Humans are rational precisely because of the structure of the soul, and this rationality involves the whole heart as thought, will, and liberty.
Wesley also ascribed a moral and political image to humans, each of which derives from the natural image. The proper governance of the created order expressed through the political image requires right relation to God and creation. Moreover, the righteousness and holiness of the moral image necessitate the ordering by love that is part of the natural image at its original creation. While the natural image highlights the structure of the soul, the moral image points toward its proper order. These two distinct ways of examining the image of God inform Wesley’s thoughts on religious and civil liberty. Apart from the freedom to follow the dictates of conscience (religious liberty) or to pursue human flourishing (civil liberty), the individual cannot fully express the moral and political dimensions of the image. To deprive persons of religious and civil liberty is to deprive them of their humanity.
All of this points toward a commitment to the natural law. When Wesley refers to the “original law of God,” he has in mind two expressions of this law at once. First, the law of God is the structure of the human person because this law “was coeval with his nature.” The law of nature means the ontological structure of the human person revealed in the natural image of God. It is this design that forms the basis for all human flourishing, orienting humanity toward God as the final end. Yet, because the law of God is also co-extensive with the divine nature expressed in and through “supreme and unchangeable reason,” Wesley thinks of it Christologically. There is a Christological shape to the structure of the human person. When he describes the law of God as “an incorruptible picture of the high and holy One” that serves the “everlasting fitness of all things that were ever created,” he is mirroring Augustine’s view that the eternal reasons form the patterns for all living things, being scattered abroad through the seminal reasons and finding their ultimate expression in and through the eternal Logos. Human rationality reflects divine rationality.
The Christological shape to the natural image prevents Wesley from embracing certain Enlightenment claims that nature was mechanistic, mathematical, and self-contained. Humans are not simply open and biased toward the good; they participate in it from the outset. This is why Wesley thinks that conscience, strictly speaking, is a supernatural gift of God rather than something “natural.” Conscience is the voice of God because it expresses the Christological structure of the natural image both in its original and restored constitution. At the same time, Wesley also claims that the Spirit is interior to every human heart. Whereas the Christological dimension provides the structure to human rationality realized in the pattern of justice, the pneumatological entails the infusion of love in all rational creatures from the moment of their creation. Conscience is both Christologically shaped and pneumatologically infused. This informs Wesley’s understanding of a supernatural order within all human existence that he labels “preventing grace.” Despite fallenness, the Spirit works from within conscience to restore a measure of the initial order patterned on the divine Logos with the goal of the full realization of this pattern through holiness. While nature and grace remain distinct, there is no nature apart from grace.
Foundational to these ideas is the view that humans realize the full freedom of the image through the exercise of liberty by which they realize human flourishing. Distinct from understanding and will, liberty involves the free consent or not of the person. There is a parallel between Wesley’s view of understanding, will, and liberty and the medieval Augustinian triad of intelligentia, voluntas, and liberum arbitrium one finds in twelfth-century thinkers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh of St. Victor. Liberty is Wesley’s shorthand for free choice through voluntary consent. The purpose of religious and civil liberty is to protect the voluntary consent rendered by liberty of choice that is essential to the exercise of freedom and foundational to the nature of the human person.
Wesley’s tempered Augustinian view of the human person formed the basis for the populism unleashed by his use of the laity to facilitate a program of reform in church and society. All forms of populism trade on conflict between “the people” and establishment groups that wield political and cultural power. This conflict emerges from the disparity between prevailing norms and the particular set of concerns represented by the people. Unlike Jeffersonian optimism, however, Wesleyanism grounds reform in the relationship between the natural and supernatural orders. Moral conversion to the true and the good remains possible because, through the prevenient operation of the Spirit, the Christological structure of the human person continues to function in the sense of consenting or not to internal movements of affection and desire over which conscience would render a verdict. Humans grow in the moral life becoming more virtuous or regress by searing their consciences and becoming vitious. The call to holiness is a call to protect the moral and political development of the human person as well as a call for the believer to allow love to reorder the interior life with the proximate end of attaining entire sanctification.
In the American context, nonconformity became a crucial element of Wesleyan populism over against Wesley’s establishment Anglicanism. It sowed the seeds of a radicalism that pushed against institutionalization and routinization, all of which could lead to what Donald Dayton described as embourgeoisement. Establishment from this angle smacked as cultural compromise. As a renewal movement in church and society, Wesleyanism served the fledgling nation by facilitating the moral life through advancing holiness in all persons, building mediating institutions to serve the common good, and challenging establishment existence in religious and civil institutions.
To advance holiness in the church and the nation meant a revival of the human heart. Facilitating such a revival required that Wesleyans develop mediating institutions that served alongside the church. It was a natural extension of Methodist societies and chapels that voluntary associations be built through which spiritual and material needs could be attended to. Given the nonconformity that came to define Wesleyanism, such mediating institutions became the way holiness advanced because they allowed for dissent over against social and ecclesial institutional norms that may no longer reflect moral commitments. Camp meeting associations, schools, orphanages, and healing homes were merely a few of the mediating institutions that Wesleyans created to facilitate holiness. These institutions served as a conduit not only between religion and society, but also between the church and the people. They became a catalyst for institutional renewal that furthered the interests of advancing holiness in and through culture.
The emphasis on holiness also led to a new culture, meaning that mission was about culture formation at the level of the folk. Because Wesleyanism remained closely aligned with the people, seeking to preserve their religious and civil liberty, the movement cultivated a preference for folk cultures, regionalism, and localism as crucial support structures. Mission unfolds as nothing less than the remaking of human patterns of life and existence around a new story with cosmic implications. Pentecost, populism, and non-conformity required a renewal of folk culture in such a way as to redeem it. Folk culture stems from the people of a particular region, their association with and affection for the land, and the familial and religious bonds that form the central threads of that region. Thus, the songs, stories, festivals, and artistic expressions of the people in their particularity are at the roots of any folk culture. Wesleyans have always utilized and transformed these forms of folk culture in their effort to create a new way of being in the world.
The commitment to forming mediating institutions that preserved, transmitted, and transformed folk culture required that Wesleyans protect religious and civil liberty by removing obstacles that prevented human flourishing and pursuit of the moral life. Abolitionism and first-wave feminism stemmed from this Wesleyan ethos precisely because of the moral concerns that Wesleyans had. The failure of the Methodist Episcopal Church to support fully these causes came from a failure to interpret properly the limits of conscience in relationship to the integrity of the natural image. As Orange Scott and Frederick Douglass argued, slaveholding violated the natural image of slaves, preventing them from pursuing moral and political life, and thus could not be reduced to a matter of individual conscience. One might add that slavery attempted to prevent the formation of a folk culture that expressed and embodied human liberty. One can see how these challenges to slavery wedded dissent and institutional renewal to the basic Augustinianism of Wesley’s focus on the natural image.
Finally, while Wesleyanism retained an optimism about reform and the human person through its commitment to a graced understanding of nature, this optimism remained tempered by a kind of political realism. For Wesleyans, this realism emerged from a basic commitment to human liberty and an interventionist account of divine providence. The work of grace in nature created both the freedom to pursue the moral life, but also the capacity to sear the conscience. The experience of the debate over slavery within Methodism reinforced this fundamental belief that a commitment to holiness did not prevent individuals or associations of individuals from warping their affections and desires and so closing off conscience to the truth. Coupled with this was an insistence that God must divinely work on conscience through the Spirit for it to be renewed again. Such a divine intervention was also needed at the level of society. There could be no “arc of justice” absent conversion through a dramatic in-breaking of the Spirit. Justice is eschatological. This must be true of society as well as the person.
This realism chastens a Wesleyan political theology from relying too much on human progress. It is a form of Augustinian realism centered on an apocalyptic understanding of Christian existence in the polis coupled with the way persons could sear their conscience. If the Spirit must infuse love in the human heart to restore the Christological structure of the human person, then the Spirit must complete this work of love that results in justice within society. Despite the connections between the supernatural and natural orders, their full expression awaits an apocalyptic event that every revival points toward. Until that day, revival fires and populist dissent are the mechanisms to advance holiness in a way that renews folk cultures and the mediating institutions that channel them.