Social reform as we conceive of it today would have been impossible in Wesley’s time. Society in England during the eighteenth century was rigidly structured, and the only means of advancing from one class to another was preferment, the support of a wealthy benefactor. The nobility, the city and country gentry, and the tradesmen were sharply differentiated from servants, the poor, and slaves, in that order. If you were born, for example, in the servant class, chances were you remained there the rest of your life.

Wesley and his followers did not challenge the order and hierarchy of society. They were not revolutionaries. Rather, within each class they worked to enrich the spiritual dimensions of individual men’s and women’s lives. There was one exception to Wesley’s willingness to accept the status quo—that was slavery. Wesley’s journals record his interest in the movement to abolish slavery. Serfdom, or life bondage to the land, was abolished systematically in Europe during this period; slavery was largely abolished during the next century. Late in his career Wesley agreed with Wilberforce, the voice of the antislavery movement—slavery must end. (See “Wesley to Wilberforce”)

Wesley and his men and women went into the prisons, hospitals, and work houses to bring the message of salvation. The reform they sought was like that brought to the repentant thief on the cross. They tried to turn people in a hopeless situation to Christ for the sake of their immortality. This was scarcely easy, for prisoners felt themselves irrevocably condemned and ruined. There was no possibility of a life of honor if ever they were released. The sick were taught that illness was a form of God’s judgment, and this compounded their despondency at being ...

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