Impacting the World through Education from Wesley’s Point of View

John Wesley

During a recent visit to a church, one high school senior said to me, “I do not want to attend Ohio Christian because I want a real-world education.” I’m sure he has his own definition of what constitutes a “real-world education,” but his statement concerned me. Today’s Christian parents must be alert to the fact that many higher education institutions present godless content and philosophies that can cause students to stray from their faith.  Now, I am not so naive as to think one cannot be a proponent of Christian education while supporting the education processes of local public entities. In fact, I firmly believe there are many great public institutions with great purposes, such as research in the areas of medicine and engineering, from which we all certainly benefit. Yet, I am passionate about Christian education and submit that, for my family, it is the only option in the developing years, including the early years of college. I purport this because of my concern for a biblical worldview. I do not intend to bash public education; instead, I hope to present a balanced perspective on the importance of Christian education and our role in supporting it.

Should we as Christians reconsider how we view education?

For decades, many in our Wesleyan circles misinterpreted John Wesley’s message regarding education. He valued education, but was always concerned that education for its own sake would promote the sin of pride. This mindset became the basis of the “ignorance is bliss” philosophy, which led some to justify their lack of educational pursuits. Our present society abhors ignorance, demands degrees, and expects an education. How must we approach a solution?

A historical review suggests that education in Wesley’s day was not a highly developed concept in the minds of people. Families were poor, and children were required to work to support the family unit.  Children were not treated with respect. In fact, according to Herbert Byrne, writer of John Wesley and Learning, “the wealthy looked upon their children somewhat as a disease, and schools were used as boarding schools to get rid of the little nuisances that abounded” (Byrne 1983, p. 125). But an interesting change occurred.

“Toward the end of the century, a more serious spirit permeated society, and parents began to feel greater responsibility for their children” (p. 125). Wesley was one of the leaders who helped foster a better understanding of the value of children.

The children of the eighteenth century suffered immensely as the cold theological hand of Calvinism lay heavily upon the Church of England. Children were considered desperately wicked mortals who could only be saved by incessant punishment and coercion. While many people of the Wesleyan persuasion looked at children in this same way, John Wesley did not preach such lurid doctrines. He believed that children were born with inherited depravity, but he also emphasized love, not just incessant punishment (Byrne, p. 127).

Wesley was convinced that education could change the woes of his day, as suggested in Volume 3 of his works, “I preached on the education of children wherein we are extremely wanting. Many were deeply convinced of this. I hope that they will not stifle that conviction” (Wesley, p. 270).  Wesley believed deeply that children should be well-mannered, and educated according to God’s principles. He understood that children were created by God for future service to the kingdom.

As an educational leader of his day, John Wesley valued not only the education of children, but higher education as well. The two most prominent universities of his era were Oxford and Cambridge. These schools focused on deistic rationalism. Wesley, who was a university graduate, emphasized that education apart from God was flawed education. He even utilized the universities of his day to teach his message of “piety and purity.”

During Wesley’s lifetime, he served at Lincoln College, Oxford, for about 25 years in a fellowship role. He was a Greek lecturer and teacher of the classics. Wesley’s strong belief in the plight of the poor encouraged him to found schools in Savannah, Georgia, and Bristol, London (Byrne, p.138). 

Thus we conclude that the concept of Christian education stems from one of our great church leaders of the past. As we continue to ponder the importance of education, we ask, “Where will the next century of Wesleyan educators be developed?” The question gives reason for pause, as we note a prevalent tendency to de-emphasize the whole process of Christian education. I believe we must actively engage our efforts to change this trend.

We must clearly understand that uneducated church leaders will have little impact upon society in the twenty-first century.

I personally agree with a typical Wesleyan (and I might add biblical) viewpoint that education for the sake of education promotes pride, but I take heart in recognizing that even Mr. Wesley did not forsake education because of this concern. He chose to emphasize the loftiness of God rather than the loftiness of man in the education process.

As I have reflected upon our past, it has become increasingly clear to me that our ministries and organizations need educational leaders. Relating to the next century, Patricia Carrow-Muffet declares, “We will need leaders who are change agents, who have vision and purpose, and who understand the big picture. We will need leaders who are able to set direction and facilitate those involved in working cooperatively to meet the challenges of a diverse world” (Muffet, 1993, p. 58).  If Wesley were alive today, I believe he would challenge his ministers to obtain all the education they could, establish Christian schools, and impact the world through Christ-centered leadership.

Within the scope of our educational leadership, I believe we can carry forth the Wesleyan message of heart purity to our world. We must:

  • Emphasize the value of Christian education
  • Promote Christian education from every pulpit
  • Educate young men and women to be the future leaders of our Wesleyan institutions
  • Create new passion for the call to Christian education
  • Teach and mentor young men and women in understanding Wesley’s message of heart purity

Education, as a process, is vanity. Solomon, the wise king, warned, “Vanity of vanities -- all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2).  As we move forward, let us remember that Christian education, principles of right living, and the messages of Christian character and heart purity are not vain pursuits. As summarized in Wesley’s message, these messages must be proclaimed! And what better places to proclaim them than educational institutions like Ohio Christian University?