24 February, 1791
Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as “Athanasius against the world,” I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.
Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by the circumstance, that a man who has a black skin being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress; it being a LAW in all of our Colonies that the OATH of a black man against a white goes for nothing. What villainy is this!
That He who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things is the prayer of, dear sir,
Your affectionate servant, John Wesley
The last letter John Wesley wrote before he died was to the young William Wilberforce, a parliamentarian whose life’s work was to abolish slavery in the British colonies. Wesley had recently read the life’s work of Gustavus Vassa, (the European name given to Olaudah Equiano), an African sold into slavery in Barbados and later freed. Wesley was moved by Vassa’s outcry that the word of a black man stood for nothing against the testimony of a white man.
In his old age, Wesley had become an abolitionist, writing one of the more influential tracts of his time, Against Slavery. His final letter commends Wilberforce’s work, and compares Wilberforce to St. Athanasius, a church father who stood for the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ, at a time when popular Christianity insisted differently. What was at stake in the incarnation of God in Christ was the transformative belief that spirit AND flesh matter.
Popular Christianity always has a way of separating spirit and flesh, of emphasizing the soul’s salvation but dehumanizing the whole person. The faithful who cry out for justice for both soul AND body always seem so alone. But they stand with Mother Mary as she sings her Magnificat…where God’s mercy is shown to all even as God scatters the proud and gives food to the hungry while sending the rich away empty. What mercy is there is sending the rich away empty?
One of Wesley’s late-in-life sermons, Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity, (1789), proposed that it is exactly the wealth and luxury of so many Christians that prevents us from the humility that tends to seek justice for all. Rich Christians concerned with the salvation of souls but not with the well-being of the whole person are blinded to our own sin, our own “luxury and lust of gain” as Vassa puts it. We sing Mary’s Magnificat in our beautiful buildings and then go out to lunch with friends, too busy to concern ourselves with the hard work of defending the lowly we just sang about.
For all of you who feel alone in the hard work of incarnational Christianity, remember Wilberforce. His diligent efforts surrounded by the support of so many others led to the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, three days before he died. Find which of your politicians are fighting to make incarnational change, and write them a letter of support today.
PS. The title for today’s comic comes from a favorite song of mine by the Wood Brothers. Listen to it here.