Wesley the Environmentalist?

Howard A. Snyder

At the level of basic principles, a Wesleyan environmental ethic should be fairly obvious and straightforward—right? Wesley’s accent on love for God and neighbor means loving all that God has made (including the created order) and everything that impinges on human wellbeing (as the health of the environment certainly does). Wesley’s insistence on “disinterested love for all” certainly carries creation stewardship implications. His emphases on the image of God and “the wisdom of God in creation” likewise are relevant.

In Search of a Wesleyan Environmental Ethic

Why then has little been done to articulate a Wesleyan environmental ethic? There are two big reasons. First and most obviously, environmental issues were not yet on the radar screen in Wesley’s day. Foul air was polluting neighborhoods around coal-burning factories, but few saw this as a moral issue. Moreover, those affected were mostly the poor.

Based on coal, the emerging Industrial Revolution would eventually pump vast amounts of carbon into the air, poisoning and threatening earth’s whole environment two centuries later. Wesley and his compatriots could not yet see this.

Slavery provides a useful analogy, however. Slavery existed in America well before Wesley’s birth. At first Wesley was hardly aware of it. Throughout life he became more and more aware, however. Finally toward the end of his life Wesley called slavery “the sum of all villainies” and advocated the end of the slave trade.

Big ethical struggles always involve two aspects: the problem itself, and awareness of the problem, especially by those who can solve it. The antislavery campaign is a case study in growing awareness of a major social evil and in mobilizing social and political capital to tackle it. The abolition of the slave trade in England in the 1800s resulted from a growing coalition of political leaders (William Wilberforce and others) with access to the levers of Parliamentary power. Perhaps equally important was growing public sentiment against this evil, bolstered in part by Methodism’s growing numbers.

This is instructive for creation care today. The environmental stewardship debate is about where the antislavery campaign was at Wesley’s death. Within fifty years slavery was being abolished, though in the U.S. it led to war. Today we may hope the environmental crisis can be addressed in time to save the planet and avoid wars over diminishing resources.

The first reason, then, Wesleyans have not addressed environmental issues is a matter of historical timing. But a second reason is perhaps equally weighty, and this concerns worldview.

Tendencies to devalue the theological and ethical significance of the physical environment have long been present in Christian theology. Wesley was heir to these tendencies. Though he showed unusual compassion for animals and abhorrence at their suffering, especially at human hands, there was a strain of Neo-Platonism in his theology, as in many of Charles’ hymns. John Wesley’s pronounced emphasis on love tended to counteract that Neo-Platonism; love meant concern for all people and all creatures as an expression of all “outward” as well as all “inward” holiness (a favorite Wesley pairing). Wesley’s love ethic was grounded in God’s nature and in the human experience of God’s love. However, it was not much connected with any sense of the unique worth of the created order in God’s sight.

Neo-Platonism was reinforced by two other factors: Enlightenment thought that increasingly saw the “natural” order as purely instrumental for human use, and rising capitalism that saw “natural resources” simply as fuel for industry and commerce. The created order had become desacralized, secularized, with no deep spiritual significance. Thus neither Christians nor non-Christians had much reason for an ethic of creation care. Ironically, the rich often delighted in creating beautiful artificial ecosystems on their elaborate estates—something that did not escape Wesley’s notice.

As a man of his time, Wesley was heir to these tendencies that placed ecological matters outside the sphere of ethical concern—in effect, outside the accepted worldview.

Wesley’s “Environmental” Trajectory

But there is another story here. Wesley was not oblivious to the created order, but he seemed ambivalent about it. Wesley often pondered the relation of humans to the physical world—part of the larger question, of course, of the relation of spirit and matter. Wesley manifests a kind of tension here which perhaps helps explain his eschatological speculations late in life. These speculations seem to have been prompted both by the scientific discoveries and debates of his day and by his increasingly reflective mood as he entered his eighties. Note especially the remarkable series of sermons numbered 54-64, beginning with “On Eternity,” and ending with “The New Creation.” Here Wesley is thinking systematically, but in a narrative mode. He steps back from half a century’s leadership in Methodism to ponder the larger picture.

Wesley was vitally interested in the scientific debates of his day. Randy Maddox has demonstrated that Wesley followed these discussions at a deeper level than has often been supposed (“John Wesley’s Precedent for Theological Engagement with the Natural Sciences,” unpublished manuscript [2008]). Wesley’s interest in paranormal phenomena for instance, far from being a symptom of prescientific superstition, was tied to larger scientific debates about “natural philosophy”—that is, the natural sciences.

In his later years, Wesley was engaged in a double reflection: on the history and future of Methodism, and on larger worldview issues. Wesley was rethinking his whole philosophy in light of all the data then available to him, and of course in light of his faith and his commitment to biblical revelation.

This double reflection explains the speculative nature of Wesley’s most daring late sermons, such as “The New Creation” and “The Great Deliverance.” Wesley’s optimistic vision of new creation is the final fruit of a long trajectory dating back to his earliest spiritual awakening. Nourished by mystics like William Law, Wesley initially thought a devout and holy life meant living in strict separation from the world, other people, and human passions. Note, for example, his conflicts as a young man over whether marriage was compatible with holiness. He soon learned that holiness required community. It was social, not solitary.

Wesley enjoyed the beauty of art and architecture and well-tended gardens, but nearly always felt compelled to remark on the transience of all earthly beauty. This sense of the beauty but impermanence of creation shaped his reflections on Christian perfection. Yet the more he learned about the wonders of the world—“the wisdom of God in creation”—the more he began to envision the New Creation as physical and material, not just spiritual or ethereal. We might call this Wesley’s “environmental trajectory.”

Toward a Wesleyan Ethic of Creation Care

What happens if we extend Wesley’s trajectory to the present? Today, we have a fuller grasp of the intricacies and vulnerabilities of the created order, plus the legacy of Wesley’s exploration of “the wisdom of God in creation.” We have as well the resources of Wesley’s remarkable ethic of love, of “disinterested benevolence.”

Exploring this Wesleyan legacy yields numerous ethical insights. I suggest four “ecological” principles that Wesleyans can own as they contribute to larger discussions about environmental stewardship.

First, love for God and neighbor extends to all creation. Both directions of the love command are relevant: We respect and guard the creation because God made it, loves it, pronounces it good, has covenanted with it (Gen 9), and also because the well-being of our local and global neighbors depends upon environmental health. We cannot love our neighbors near and far without concern for their environment—physical as well as social, economic, and spiritual; all are interrelated.

Here Wesley’s emphasis on the image of God comes into new focus. Many Christians restrict the imago dei to humans only. Wesley was clear as to human uniqueness, but he did not make the radical break between humanity and the rest of creation that characterizes most Christian theology. He saw all creation as bearing God’s image in a secondary sense.

This is theologically significant. God’s image may be restored in all creation, not just in humans—as Wesley speculates in “The Great Deliverance.” (The background here is the philosophical notion of the “Great Chain of Being,” but Wesley’s primary focus is Scripture. Today the “Chain of Being” can be replaced by the empirically documented fact of ecological interdependence.)

Second, linked with love is the call to stewardship. The created order is given us in trust. In “The Good Steward” Wesley maintained, “no character more exactly agrees with the present state of man than that of a steward.” This commission is especially pointed for Christians who are taught and by the Spirit enabled to love and care for all that God has entrusted to us.

A prime ethical agenda for Wesleyans is to practice creation care in multiple ways, beginning with recycling and energy conservation and extending to advocacy for ecological sustainability worldwide.

Third, Wesley’s emphasis on “social Christianity” and “social holiness” carries creation-care implications. For Wesley, the word “social” implied interdependence and mutual responsibility. The empirical interdependence of humans and the rest of the physical created order thus becomes an ethical consideration.

Wesley’s Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation shows his deep sense of the interdependence of humans and the created order. Science since Wesley has fully verified this interdependence. It is contrary to social holiness to care for people while despoiling the created environment upon which human flourishing depends.

Fourth, Wesley’s economic sensitivity has creation-care implications. Theodore Jennings Jr. argues that Wesley practiced an “evangelical economics” that “demystified wealth” through an ethic of love and focus on the gospel for the poor (Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics [Abingdon, 1990]). Wesley critiqued wealth accumulation when its effect was to exploit the poor. Jennings shows that Wesley advocated an economics of justice based ultimately in God’s beneficence and the Christian call to universal love.

Nothing is clearer today than the interplay between economic and ecological realities. Hence the increasingly recognized need for what Herman Daly and others call “ecological economics” (H.E. Daly, and J. Farley, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications [Island, 2004]). Wesley’s economic sensitivity points in the direction of such an ecological economics. Wesleyans should support local and global economic arrangements that work for human wellbeing. Given the interdependence of the human and the nonhuman physical environment, sustainable economics is possible only within a responsible creation-care ethic.


Wesleyan scholars are beginning to explore the environmental ethical implications of Wesley’s theological vision (in addition to those previously cited, see R.L. Maddox’s “Anticipating the New Creation: Wesleyan Foundations for Holistic Mission,” The Asbury Journal 62 [2007] 49-66, and “Nurturing the New Creation: Reflections on a Wesleyan Trajectory,” in Wesleyan Perspectives on the New Creation [ed. M.D. Meeks; Kingswood, 2004] 21–52; R.O. Randolph’s “John Wesley’s Contributions to a Contemporary Christian Environmental Ethics,” Lecture, Wesleyan Theological Society, 2005; H.A. Snyder’s EarthCurrents: The Struggle for the World’s Soul [Abingdon, 1995] and “Salvation Means Creation Healed: Creation, Cross, Kingdom, and Mission,” The Asbury Journal 62 [2007] 9-47). Already these efforts indicate multiple ways in which Wesley’s theology and practice are relevant to environmental ethics today.

The point that is becoming most clear is simply this: Creation care is the logical ethical extension of elements already present in Wesley. In multiple ways, an effective ethic of environmental stewardship today has Wesleyan roots.

Posted Feb 01, 2009