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As If We Could “Overcome Evil with Good”

The Wesleys’ renewal movement within the Anglican Church was an audacious, if imperfect effort to proclaim, to embody, and to advance what is truly good. Starting with Jesus Christ, himself, and his righteousness, those Methodists went on to change individual lives by the hundreds of thousands on multiple continents, along with everything they could manage to do to reform the societies on those continents. The Wesleys and the early Methodist movement can be seen as a colossal effort by “the people called Methodists” to fulfill this Pauline injunction: “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” This bold, double directive, located in Rom 12:21, is exceedingly difficult to obey, which makes it all the more remarkable that early Methodists behaved as if they could actually do so.

What was it about those early Methodists that made them think they could and should stand apart from the everyday practices of others, critique the radical shortcomings of their own denominational body, and try prayerfully to reform it from within, while also transforming the world around them? Take, for instance, John Wesley’s announcement, and his associated behavior, to the effect that his calling was to serve a world parish, rather than merely a local one prescribed by his bishop. What caused him to think it was his proper role, not only to preach Jesus near and far, but also to combat the evils of slavery and the excesses of the liquor trade, launch schools and clinics to fight illiteracy and disease, and help to fund business start-ups among the poor?

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