John Wesley on the Pride Cycle

Re-reading the second half of Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity last week, I ran across this interesting commentary penned by John Wesley. Here’s what he wrote sometime in the late 18th century (quoted at page 368; emphasis added):

I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any renewal of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger and the love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit as swiftly vanishes away. Is there no way to prevent this — the continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and save all they can: that is, in effect, to grow rich.

Wesley locates this process or progression — practicing “pure religion” leads to industry and frugality [which produces riches] which induces pride — in the life of individual believers, which is where I think it occurs, when and if it occurs. Pride is a characteristic of individuals, not of societies. The recent surge in LDS commentary discussing “the pride cycle” as some sort of social dynamic doesn’t seem to recognize that the concept, as applied to societies as a whole, is largely incoherent. Wesley’s quote seems like a nice way to enrich an LDS discussion of the topic. I wish we got material like this in LDS manuals instead of recycled quotes from the middle of the last century.

Note: I corrected the last paragraph to add riches to Wesley’s progression from religion to pride.

11 comments for “John Wesley on the Pride Cycle

  1. November 9, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I don’t see the same emphasis on individual believers from this passage that you find. Wesley is talking about Methodists as a group, a society in its own right and a subset of the larger society to which it belongs. While pride is a quality of an individual, the propensity to develop that quality is affected in part by external circumstances, including the temporal status and values of the society to which one belongs.

  2. November 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Very interesting passage.

    …practicing “pure religion” leads to industry and frugality which induces pride

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you here, but I don’t see how industry and frugality “induces” pride. Wesley, like most of our church rhetoric, says industry and frugality produce riches, which induce pride.

    Like Rachel, I don’t see the individuality in Wesley’s lament. Of course, pride is an individual character flaw, but it’s universal enough to be a flaw we all, collectively, need to be aware of.

    I also find it interesting in the LDS view how the riches some not just from industry and frugality, but as blessings from God for being righteous. And in the blessing, comes a further test.

  3. Bob
    November 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    I fully see the Mormon Church and a lot of it’s members in the prideful state of that John Westley pointed to. I hear it in the song “Firm as the Mountains around us”, etc.
    I disagree with Rachel that Mormons see a difference between ‘Me’ and ‘We’ (Mormons). I think the taxi signs reads “I am Mormon”.
    I can’t think of any other church that takes so much open pride in it’s successfulness , or members who take so much pride in being a part of that Group.

  4. Craig H.
    November 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    I see a couple of possibilities, both no doubt impractical or unpopular. One, stop promoting industry and frugality as virtues (among many Christians of earlier centuries, frugality was something of a sin, reflecting selfishness). Two, if everyone’s rich, it’s harder to be proud. Of course if everyone is rich, maybe no one is rich. But again, at least it’s harder to be proud, so maybe it’s worth it. The implied solution of Wesley, and many Christians, is to be frugal and industrious and grow rich but don’t grow proud. Maybe it’s harder than it looks.

  5. November 9, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    You’re right, Alison — I left a step out. What Wesley was saying was the industry and frugality produce riches which then begets pride. Can’t leave out the riches.

    Wesley might be saying that Methodists are more likely to display a progression of industry-riches-pride, but he isn’t saying it is correlated across the group or society, it is just something that happens asynchronously to Methodists. He is not saying, “In the twelfth year of the reign of King George the Third, the Methodists began to prosper and pride began to appear among the people.” That sort of claim implies a mechanism that correlates in time the emergence of riches and pride across the group. It’s that claim of social or group correlation that is a problem.

    You can argue that in an agricultural society, weather and crop success or failure would be a correlating process. But in agricultural societies there isn’t really a financial technology that allows the accumulation of wealth (“riches”). Famines can appear in agricultural societies, but business cycles — short-term fluctuations in overall prosperity — only emerge when there is substantial trade, manufacturing, and finance.

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    November 9, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    It is the same problem that King Benjamin spoke to. He is reminding us that, no matter how much material wealth we have, we are all still “beggars” in our dependence on God for our daily breath, let alone our daily bread, and none of the material wealth of this world is convertible into a medium that can be of any value to us in our post-mortal existence, unless we use it to aid our neighbors. He calls on the people to give up their careers as selfish “natural men” and become submissive to God, recognizing that all we possess really belongs to God.

    So donating tithes and offerings is a discipline that reminds us of who the real owner of “our” wealth is. And giving unpaid service realigns our thinking to recognize the value of service above the wealth we could earn using the same amount of time and effort for our own benefit.

    Bob: The “I’m a Mormon” campaign ain’t bragging; it is not an exercise in Stuart Smiley self-affirmation; nor is it a claim that Mormons are personally superior to other people in our intelligence, beauty, skill, or any other feature. It is just the opposite: an effort to show that we are LIKE other people, of other faiths, in our diversity of ethnic, national, financial, educational, recreational, professional, and family characteristics. If YOU perceive this as presenting people who are chock full of desirable characteristics, that induce envy in others, I can only offer the explanation that Mormonism makes “good people better”, can help them “be all that they can be” (just like the US Army, and for many of the same reasons–self-discipline, education, unity, sacrifice for a greater good). Do you think the advertising for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines demonstrates wicked “pride”? Or is it telling people that these are groups who are accomplishing important things with their lives, and they can join, if they are up to the challenge?

    The ads don’t pile on about the sacrifices Mormons make to help each other on a weekly basis, giving unpaid service; the efforts they give to help others in distress during natural disasters; or the sacrifices made by missionaries. The ads don’t brag about the outstanding (relatively) spiritual orientation of Mormon youth, which caused the author of “Almost Christian” to title a chapter “Mormon Envy”. The point of the ads is not to say “We are different from you” but rather “We are very much like you.” It is in the service of combatting the ostracism that greets many Mormons in their professional and social lives in the wake of silly claims that Mormons are a “cult”–one that is full of people of all ages, mostly in multi-generation families, with increasing trends in education and accomplishment in all walks of life, that makes no person rich, and improves the lives of its members in every measurable way.

    Are we supposed to let our light shine, to glorify God, or hide it under a bushel?

  7. J.A.T.
    November 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Deja vu

    Brigham Young:
    “The worst fear I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and His people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty, and all manner of persecution and be true. But my greatest fear is that they cannot stand wealth” (quoted in Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, 48).From

    I find it interesting that we hear relatively very few stern warnings from the GAs about today’s materialism. This is an era of McMansions! We observe astounding greed which scars the global environment at an unprecedented scale. The gap between the world’s impoverished and the wealthiest is growing at an alarming rate. In recent years we’ve experiencing record amounts of corporate fraud conducted not just by individuals and small groups (Madoff), but as the Occupy Wall Street group would argue- by entire systems, entities and organizations. (Wow, lamenting is fun!)

    Objectively, we could look at the sociodemographics of the church which point to a bulk of middle to upper class families. Nonetheless, we are well represented within the Fortune 500 and among the world’s wealthier brackets. Collectively, do LDS saints have nothing to be concerned about in regards to Wesley and Brigham’s hypothesis?

    Yet Conference after conference goes by without stern rebukes or admonishments of retrenchment. Quite the contrary, the general tone seems to me to be ‘keep going, good job everyone’. With the prosperity doctrine, provident living and providing are more culturally valued than ethical principles which could lead to breaks in financial streams. I’m not sure what to make of the silence- of the unsaid. Perhaps Allison is right, Brigham was a worry wart who lacked the perspective of this particular era and Wesley’s postulate is flawed.

  8. Bradley
    November 9, 2011 at 10:38 pm

    #7: Maybe they just have bigger fish to fry. But I notice it too. There’s a natural encroachment of pride that needs to be beaten back like crabgrass on a lawn.

    By comparison, Jacob 2:13-17 hits like a sledgehammer. Do we “persecute our brethren because we suppose that we are better than they”? Resisting the urge to drop an “F bomb”, I can only say YES! It’s not us, it’s our culture. Rampant consumerism, the prison industry, the war industry, etc. It’s just who we are.

    Dealing successfully with the pride issue would make a lot of other problems go away. We need to change who we are, to say to the world “we are not you” so that “I am a Mormon” really means something.

  9. Bob
    November 9, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    I have nothing agained Romney, but he takes pride in his successfulness and wants more. It appears(?) a great number of Church members wish this for him too. They also seems to feel they will somehow will share in his success(?)
    Raymond says “the “I’m a Mormon” campaign ain’t bragging”. IMO__it is.
    It’s showing the successfulness of being Mormon. I know of no other Church that shows such pride in itself and it’s success.
    I think Wesley was talking about success leading to pride, not just money.

  10. Cameron N
    November 9, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    How is the pride cycle concept incoherent when applied to societies as a whole? What applies on the individual level is reflected at the group level. It’s like micro and macro economics.

  11. November 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Cameron (#10), I follow what you are saying, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Even your analogy, going from individual demand to market demand in microeconomics, is not straightforward. That’s the aggregation problem, and in economic theory it is a problem to be explained, not a solution to be invoked. How one goes from individual demand for a specific good or service to market demand, much less to aggregate demand for the entire economy (a macro concept), is not simple at all.

    And — to support my point — that process requires that individual preferences be *independent* of each other. If individual preferences that flow into the religion-industry-riches-pride progression are independent, you won’t get entire societies veering from humility to pride to humility in lockstep. The variation across individuals would, I think, act to smooth out the impact across society as a whole.

    My impression is that the pride cycle, as the term is used in LDS discourse, is more a reflection of the religious view that society is going to hell in a handbasket (that’s pretty much how LDS have been viewing society for the last 50 years) and the pride cycle is just a handy way to do verbal finger-wagging.

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