England, at the turn of the 19th century, was a mess. We like to imagine a verdant land full of Mr. Darcy look a likes and an insufferable teenage queen who wants to marry Rufus Sewell. However, that’s not the case. Unjust laws, crippling poverty, and economic devastation from decades of European war are decimating town and country. The same social and economic conditions which spurred John Wesley’s mid-18th century missions to the poor had only worsened by the mid 19th century. Read any Charles Dickens novel. As such, the exacerbation of the vast economic disparities in England’s large urban centers which both Wesley’s noticed are some of the very same ones which motivated Manchester’s Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx to write the Communist Manifesto. Methodism and Marxism arise out of the same historic, economic, and social crisis: the British Empire’s failure to answer the religious, economic, and political needs of the common people. Marxism, like Methodism, began in the English Midlands long before Vladimir Lenin and continental revolutionaries ever took it Berlin, Moscow, or points east. From this perspective, Methodism and Marxism are cousins. They are Wesleyan brothers from another mother.
What about religion? Aren’t we (people like us) the “opiate of the masses”? There are volumes upon volumes about the contextual meaning of Marx’s understanding of religion. State churches, in his contention, made it impossible for common people to receive the political freedom they deserved. I happen to agree. State churches are a bad idea. That’s one widely help interpretation. On this point, both Marx and Wesley agree. Wesley thought the Church of England and Christianity in general were fallen, off track, and doing more harm than good.
In 1745 Wesley published, “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” (the title even sounds Marxist, almost like something the late Christopher Hitchens might have written). In this tract he outlined how the church was not what it was intended to be. However, through his own Methodist movement, people could still be benevolent and charitable to each other. Wesley provided a way around the established church. If people were numb (say on an opiate) to what God was doing, John Wesley would wake them up. Isn’t that what reformers do? Isn’t this a question to ask ourselves today? Do we want to form the equivalent of a state religion (in 2018)? Or might we want to be in the process of perpetual reform?
So on this May Day, you don’t have to remember Marx, Engels, Lenin or any of your Communist cousins. If you want, you can wave a red flag and remember your Methodist ancestors like Comrade John and Comrade Charles who laid the groundwork for the bearded bunch who came later. Methodists of the World Unite!
Richard Lowell Bryant