The Reformation of Manners refers to several religious movements throughout history where leaders urged a realignment between daily living practices and the scriptures. In his Sermon 52, 1762, John Wesley preached Reformation of Manners as a shunning of wickedness and return to holiness (“Who will rise up with me against the wicked?”).
Wesley called the true Church to hold themselves to a higher standard. The Church is the “light of the world,” that “city upon a hill,” and the world was (still is) watching:
Accordingly, this ought to be the constant care and endeavour of all those who are united together in these kingdoms . . . [T]hey are united together for this very end, to oppose the devil and all his works, and to wage war against the world and the flesh, his constant and faithful allies. But do they, in fact, answer the end of their union? Are all who style themselves ‘members of the Church . . . heartily engaged in opposing the works of the devil, and fighting against the world and the flesh? Alas! We cannot say this. So far from it, that a great part, I fear the greater part of them, are themselves the world, — the people that know not God to any saving purpose; are indulging, day by day, instead of ‘mortifying the flesh, with its affections and desires;’ and doing, themselves, those works of the devil, which they are peculiarly engaged to destroy.
There is, therefore, still need, even in this Christian county…of some to ‘rise up against the wicked,’ and join together ‘against the evil doers.’ Nay, there was never more need than there is at this day, for them “that fear the Lord to speak often together” on this very head, how they may ‘lift up a standard against the iniquity’ which overflows the land. There is abundant cause for all the servants of God to join together against the works of the devil; with united hearts and counsels and endeavours to make a stand for God, and to repress, as much as in them lies, these ‘floods of ungodliness.’
Wesley termed this call to holiness the “Reformation of Manners.” Over the next hundred years, more Christian “agitators” followed in Wesley’s footsteps, preaching holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord.” Those men argued that holy living required not only personal holiness, but social holiness.
Social Holiness & the Abolition of Slavery: The ‘Agitator’ Orange Scott
In the 1830s, a man named Orange Scott felt conviction that, according to the Bible, the Methodists’ approach to slavery was wrong. Scott tried to convince his fellow Methodists that slavery was evil, and he mailed copies of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, to 100 Methodist leaders. While most of those leaders believed slavery was wrong, they did not want to be “agitators.” They feared being too bold against slavery would cause a rift and lose them Southern membership.
But Scott preached there was no way to separate conversion, sanctification, and holiness from the abolition of slavery. Even though Scott was called a “reckless incendiary,” he stood by the Bible. In 1942, Scott left the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined other abolitionists to form a separate Wesleyan church. That church preached conversion, sanctification, and holiness; and it also boldly barred slavery and slaveholders.
A Modern ‘Reformation of Manners’ & Civil Rights
In the article, Holiness and the ‘Reformation of Manners,’ the author argues Christians within the Wesleyan-holiness tradition balance their focus on personal holiness with a Bible-based advocacy for social justice. Really, the argument is about social holiness:
“Unless evangelicals become alert, articulate, and more concerned than they have been hitherto, that another embarrassing chapter will have been written into American church history books. In the forefront of those who demand equal rights for all citizens, irrespective of race, origin, or ancestry, should be those who profess perfect love to God and their fellow men. None should be more determined that social righteousness should characterize our nation than those who profess to love God with all their hearts.”
Was this article published among a flurry of recent #MeToo articles? No. This article was published nearly 50 years ago during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Yet, in our modern culture, admist the social and political climate, the call from Wesley, Scott, and this author–a call for both personal and social holiness–is still relevant. Holiness-preaching Evangelicals must not lose sight of its mission. It must ‘reform manners’ to align with scriptures, not the world. It must shine the light of Jesus to the world.
In recent months we’ve heard from sexual assault survivors like Jules Woodson and Rachael Denhollander who’ve called Evangelical Christian churches to action. The author above said holiness churches should be at the forefront of desegregation; likewise, Denhollander said such churches should be at the forefront calling out sexual violence and protecting victims. Are these issues part of liberalism–a political agenda? No.
These issues are part of God’s agenda. We should be standing beside victims of abuse simply because, as the little children’s song says, “The Bible tells [us] so.”
At the present writing it is the liberals among the churches who are most identified with the current struggle for human rights. It is good that the liberals are involved, but evangelicals have an even greater reason to be involved, especially those in the Arminian-Wesleyan tradition. To do so should not be to adopt a polity of me-too-ism, or jumping belatedly on the bandwagon of civil rights. It should arise, rather, out of a deep conviction based upon the Scriptures, that the concern of the Gospel is to preach deliverance to the captive and the recovering of sight to the blind, upon developing each individual to his ultimate capacity in grace and in usefulness. With the present state of affairs, public schools, theatres, and bars will be desegregated long before churches are [Yikes! Prophetic, isn’t it?]. Some churches are social clubs rather than a haven where the distraught can find guidance and grace regardless of his color or background. Most churches seem to be seeking to save their own souls by neutralism; few are willing to lose their souls in social redemption. Not only Scripture but emerging history will demonstrate and is demonstrating that ‘he that loseth his life shall find it, while he that seeketh to save it will lose it.’
‘Reformation of Manners’ & the Modern #MeToo Movement
It is almost eerie to read these words from two generations ago in light of our current cultural, political, and national state of affairs. Well before the #MeToo movement, a holiness minister identified “me-too-ism” and distinguished it from social holiness. The call to holiness people is as real as it ever was:
Holiness people have always been alert and wary of varied forms of ‘worldliness.’ The concept of worldliness should not be narrowed but widened to include moral cowardice , which prefers a false peace or neutralism when sin, however subtly disguised, is threatening to stifle truth and justice. The real peril in this nation is that minority groups will conclude that Christian forbearance, patience, and love will not assure to them and their children their legitimate rights, and they will resort to hatred, resentment, and the use of force as urged by more radical, less Christian, leaders…the temptation for white moderates is to remain inarticulate and neutral on moral issues such as equal rights for all. If the president of these United States can declare himself unequivocally in behalf of justice for minorities in the face of segregationist scorn, should Christian clergymen and other leaders do less? If churches and pulpits exist merely to maintain the status quo, to perpetuate themselves, they cease to justify their existence. They now have a belated opportunity to help ‘reform the nation’ by practicing the norms of scriptural holiness.
The urgency is upon us. There is a call for repentance for our sins of omission in bringing practice into line with pronouncements. On the mission frontiers the Gospel is being challenged as it has not been since the seventh century Moslem advance, by secularism, ancient religions revitalized, and militant Communism. One of the greatest hindrances abroad to missionary advance is racial discrimination at the home base. When nationals learn that color can make a person unwelcome in our ‘good’ churches here he turns from our gospel message with scorn and resentment. The courage of the missionary is too often unmatched by leaders in the home church who ignore the problem of race prejudice. Many gladly send money to help evangelize Africa who would refuse to worship beside a Christian of African origin at the local church…
The transition from silent sympathy to unequivocal witness, and from witness to action calls for patience, tact and courage. But the summons for creative thought, speech and action has now become imperative.
There’s a reason Jesus connected the first great commandment to “love the Lord thy God” with all “heart,” “soul,” and “mind” and the second to love our neighbors as ourselves. In order to love God with all heart, soul, and mind, we MUST love our neighbors. Our neighbors are God’s creatures, created in His image. They are His children as much as we are. By loving our neighbors, we show love to God. Thus, social justice and human rights aren’t merely tenets of liberalism. No, if we love God as we should, our concern for social justice and human rights should naturally flow from inside-out holiness. Inside holiness is personal; outside holiness is social:
“Once to ever man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some new decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.”
James Russell Lowell (1845)
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