The situation in 18th century England was different than our own. While there were refugees from continental Europe coming to England, most of the migration was internal. Lands were being “enclosed,” and families that had lived on those lands for generations were made to leave. The economy was also rapidly changing. The result was that large numbers of persons abandoned a way of life they had known for centuries and moved to the cities to work in the factories or coal mines.
They found themselves in a strange new community whose ways they did not know. They were poor, often illiterate, and frequently afflicted by disease. They were also vulnerable to persons who would take advantage of them.
But their plight did not escape the notice of Wesley’s Methodists. Having been forgiven of their sins and received a new life in Christ, these Methodists were now growing in their love for God and neighbor.
Their awareness of the desperate conditions of the newcomers led many Methodists to take action, and they did so by forming Strangers’ Friends Societies in major cities.
Steve Rankin, Chaplain at Southern Methodist University, tells the story of the founder of the Strangers’ Friends Society in Manchester in a book I edited called From Aldersgate to Azusa Street (Wipf and Stock, 2010, pages 40-42). He was a grocer named Thomas Fildes. A member of the Methodist Society, he was alarmed by the conditions of the newcomers in his city.
Manchester had grown from a city of 2000 in 1800 to around 100,000 by 1900. Most of the new residents had come to work in the cotton industry. Some lived in hastily built dwellings, others in basement apartments “below the level of the street, with raw sewage running in the ditches outside a solitary window opening with no way to close it.” They were “infested with vermin and all kinds
“The Strangers’ Friends Society,” Rankin notes, “raised money to provide clean bedding, food, medicine and sometimes large items like furniture for people suffering these afflictions. They also shared the Gospel with the people they visited, combining attempts to tend to both material and spiritual needs.”
Fildes “once found a family of thirteen living in one room. Nine of them had fevers.” Fildes was able to provide them with the medicine they needed, leading to their full recovery.
From its founding 1791 to “the end of 1803, the Strangers’ Friends Society distributed more than 6,400 pounds in aid to approximately sixty thousand people,” roughly 14,000 dollars today.
While we are more globally connected today, what has not changed is the desperate conditions faced by so many in our world. As with the early Methodists, love impels us to find ways to alleviate suffering and be a friend to the stranger.