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John Wesley’s pastoral care for pious ‘lady of fortune’

MISS March received more than 40 letters from John Wesley between March 4, 1760 and Dec 10, 1777. She was well-educated, cultured and a “lady of fortune and piety”. She dressed plainly and devoted her life and resources to doing good.

Wesley’s letters to her in general showed a maturing of his theology and philosophy of ministry. Although he was still insistent on the primary faith issues and spiritual principles, he was no longer uptight about the secondary issues. He was more open to diversity. Surprisingly, he started off their 17 years of correspondence with “freedom”.

He wrote: “Certainly, the more freedom you use, the more advantage you will find … It is a great thing to spend all our time to the glory of God. But you need not be scrupulous as to the precise time of reading and praying; I mean, as to dividing it between one and the other. A few minutes one way or the other are of no great importance.”

In a later letter to her, he wrote: “Undoubtedly, there are various kinds and various degrees of communion with God. You cannot confine to one only.” Wesley recognised that God was bigger than theology: “God is tied down to no rules; He frequently works a great work in a little time.” Thus, Miss March was not to pigeon-hole God.

Furthermore, Wesley advocated that “the dealings of God with man are infinitely varied, and cannot be confined to any general rule; both in justification and sanctification. He often acts in a manner we cannot account for.” There was simply no set formula to be legalistically applied. Wesley’s principle can be summed up as follows: In things essential, unity; in things non-essential, diversity; in all things, charity.

Wesley exhorted her to consecrate her life to God: “to devote all our thoughts and actions to God, this is our highest wisdom; and so far as we inwardly or outwardly swerve from this, we walk as fools, not as wise”.

In another letter, he wrote: “Entire resignation implies entire love. Give Him your will, and you give Him your heart. Still let your eye be single; aim at one point, retain and increase your communion with God!” He also exhorted her as he exhorted the other ladies to “speak for God without either fear or shame”.

Wesley, in response to her question about perfection, wrote: “Thus much is certain: they that love God with all their heart and all men as themselves are scripturally perfect.”

More than a year later, he wrote on June 24, 1764 that he considered her perfect and she need not raise her standard unnecessarily. “You were in a measure a living witness of the perfection I believe and preach … to carry perfection higher is to sap the foundation of it and to destroy it from the face of the earth.” Ten years later, Wesley’s admonition to her was still the same. He wrote on June 3, 1774: “You are a living witness … that setting perfection too high is the ready way to drive it out of the world.”

Wesley’s greatest emphasis, as shown in six of his letters to Miss March, was his evangelical economics for the poor. Charity began with oneself. Miss March was able to save on herself, and would have more in order to share with the poor.

Wesley also insisted that the Methodists should present the donations to the poor personally.

Hence, Wesley commissioned her to “go and see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels (small, squalid dwelling)”. He wanted her “to converse more … with the poorest of the people … Creep in among these in spite of dirt and a hundred disgusting circumstances … Do not confine your conversation to genteel (refined) and elegant people”.

Wesley himself showed her the way by his example.

Even at the advanced age of 82 years old, he was seen begging for the poor …

Wesley’s model of caring for the poor provided the moral authority for him to commission and encourage Miss March and the early Methodists to go and do likewise.

The Rev Gabriel Liew is a Pastor at Toa Payoh Methodist Church.