A United Methodist blogger I have great respect for wrote the following in a comment on his blog recently:
Young/early Wesley was all about personal holiness; later/mature Wesley was about social holiness. His shift from faith as belief to faith as life is one well worth exploring today.
This is a variation on something I hear and read quite often in United Methodist circles. It goes hand-in-hand with an identification of the term “social holiness” with our concept “social justice.”
Now, I’ve read nearly all of John Wesley’s sermons and I am nearly done with his journals. I’ve read most of his letters and a fair amount of his other writings. I’ve read a dozen books on his theology. And nowhere do I see support for the claim that Wesley’s theology underwent radical change in his mature years.
I don’t see a big shift from the young/early Wesley to the mature/later Wesley. And I do not see him shifting his concern away from personal holiness toward social holiness, and certainly not what we would call social justice. He did lots of things that we might call social justice: setting up schools, engaging in microfinance, advocating against slavery, caring for prisoners, even French soldiers. But these things were never set against personal holiness, and he did them when he was young and old.
He preached about justification by faith and personal salvation into his very last years. The nation was reformed, he believed by the spread of true Scriptural Christianity, which was always a matter of changing individual lives. When people came to saving faith, they would set about doing works of mercy. They would learn to live at peace with their neighbors (social holiness). They would cease to do evil, which would reform the society one village or town at a time.
In all this, Wesley never abandoned or “outgrew” his early insistence on personal holiness and the importance of individual Christians being convicted and converted. Indeed, he insisted over and over again that the doctrines he taught in his old age were the same ones he had taught for his entire life.
This all seems so plain to me from reading his works.
I do not understand why he is so often represented as going through changes that he himself denied.