Wesley in the World Today
By Hal Knight
From colonial times to the present America has struggled with race. It was self-evident to most white Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that African Americans and Native Americans were racially inferior. Even some who opposed slavery nonetheless believed in white superiority. Early Methodism at first stood out for its more egalitarian approach, but as it grew exponentially it also began to reflect cultural norms rather than challenge them.
In America today most (though sadly, not all) people no longer believe in racial superiority nor do they have hatred for persons of other races. But racism persists in the assumptions we have about persons of other races or ethnicities, and in the almost instinctive patterns of behavior we exhibit to persons who are racially or ethnically different.
John Wesley is helpful to us in providing a Christian foundation for thinking about these problems. In his Thoughts Upon Slavery Wesley not only exposed the almost unbelievingly inhumane conditions on board slave ships, the often brutal treatment of slaves by their owners, and the degradation of slavery itself, both for slaves and masters. He also argued that Africans are in all respects equal to Europeans. Differences were the result of their respective cultures, not to racial inequality. “Certainly,” Wesley argued, “the African is in no respect inferior to the European.”
Wesley grounded his argument on four deeply Christian assumptions. First, all persons are created in the image of God. We are all part of a common humanity.
Second, all persons are recipients of the grace of God. Unlike some Calvinists who believed God’s grace is only given to the predestined elect, Wesley insisted God’s grace is universal. This teaching of prevenient grace became a hallmark of Methodism. Charles Wesley put it this way:
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bid all humankind.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, #339)
Third, all persons are equally fallen into sin, but all persons can also receive salvation. We all can be forgiven of their sins through what Christ has done for us, and inwardly renewed in love by the work of the Holy Spirit in us.
Finally, the ultimate ground for human equality is God’s love for everyone. Again, Charles Wesley expressed it most powerfully:
pure, Universal Love thou art.
To me, to all, thou mercies move;
thy nature and thy name is love. (#386)
May God’s love fill our hearts and govern our lives, that we may faithfully reflect the image in which we were created.