“From Societies to Society: The Shift from Holiness to Justice in the Wesleyan Tradition”

Andrew C. Thompson


John Wesley’s phrase “social holiness” is often employed in contemporary discourse by those within the Wesleyan tradition, though usually with only the most general reference to the way in which Wesley himself understood it. This problem is compounded by the fact that “social holiness” only appears once in Wesley’s published writing, the Preface to the 1739 edition of Hymns and Sacred Poems. Contemporary commentators typically utilize “social holiness” either as a synonym for “social justice” or as one half of the broader phrase, “personal and social holiness.” Both of these contemporary usages are revealed to contain significant conceptual problems when the framework in which Wesley’s own use of the term is examined, not the least of which is a distortion of the nature of sanctification within the Wesleyan via salutis. This essay argues that “social holiness” is properly understood to represent the environmental context in which “holiness of heart and life” is manifest in the Christian life. It thereby seeks to elucidate a key theological concept within the Wesleyan tradition to better inform that tradition’s practitioners in the present.


John Wesley; Social Holiness; Social Justice; Sanctification; Social Ethics; Via Salutis; United Methodist Church; Means of Grace; American Methodism; Wesleyan Tradition

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