When John Wesley began his ministry in 1738, morality and religion had collapsed in England. In May of that year, Wesley had his Aldersgate experience and went out to minister to the multitudes in the open fields. A century later, the social and moral climate of England had changed dramatically. Queen Victoria was on the throne and "Victorian" became a synonym for piety and morality. Conditions can change for the better. It has happened.
The Fight Begins
Of the many moral and social reforms resulting from the spiritual awakening of the eighteenth century, perhaps the abolition of slavery was the most conspicuous. In 1772 England freed her slaves. This was partly the work of Granville Sharp, who pressed the "King's Bench" (England's Supreme Court) to make the decision that liberated slaves in England--but not in British colonies. His Lordship Judge Mansfield noted that the court did so because slavery is contrary to God's law.
Great Strides in England
A couple of years later, Wesley wrote his famous essay on slavery, in which he said: "Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right and wrong is wrong still." Soon thereafter, a gifted young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, took up the abolitionist cause. Just a few days before he died in 1791, Wesley wrote his last letter to this Christian statesman, urging him to continue the fight. It was an almost impossible assignment, but in 1807, Wilberforce did get the government to forbid British ships to engage in the lucrative slave trade. Wilberforce died in 1833, one month before Parliament passed the law liberating all slaves in the British Empire.
In his book Saints and Society, Dr. Earle E. Cairns wrote that English evangelicals accomplished more for good than any reform movement in history. That is a precious part of our heritage. Why do so few Christians today know about these great achievements?
The Cause in America
The American Wesleyan Church came into being in 1843 because the mainline denominations refused to take a stand on the issue of slavery. Presidents Washington and Jefferson had been apologetic for the ancient evil and wished it to go away. Indeed, another Virginia slave holder, Colonel George Mason, urged the Founding Fathers to abolish slavery when they were drafting the U.S. Constitution in 1787, and he warned them that God would judge the nation if they failed to do so.
By the 1830s, the South had begun to justify its "peculiar institution." Defenders of slavery claimed that the Bible actually approved of that practice, and it was not expedient to disagree with them. The situation was not much better in the North. In 1837, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who published an antislavery newspaper, was killed in Illinois. William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of The Liberator, was dragged down the street in Boston with a rope around his body and would probably have been hanged if he had not been rescued and lodged in jail for his own safety.
Our Great Heritage
This was the atmosphere in which a few courageous Christians, including Orange Scott and Luther Lee, founded our church. Their purpose was both to spread "scriptural holiness over these lands" and to secure justice for their fellow human beings. "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ," Paul wrote (Romans 1:16). In the same way, let us be thankful for our Wesleyan heritage.