Is Cleanliness really next to Godliness?

Is Cleanliness really next to Godliness?

CleaningI’d like to start this week’s blog post by thanking all of you for the help you gave me for our Christian Movies article. I knew that you’d all pitch in with some ideas, but I had no idea how varied your suggestions would be! It turns out that I have quite the congregation of movie buffs and I had a wonderful time working my way through all your faith-affirming movies.

Now, onto this week’s subject: is cleanliness really next to Godliness?

This is a saying that has been uttered by many a school master, no doubt many of you will remember. For those of you who didn’t have to suffer the endless chores that came hand in hand with boarding schools, I’m sure your parents would often use the saying as a reason for you to clean your hands, or your hands or clothes.

It’s easy to accept this saying blindly as it is so well-worn – but why should we? Is it’s source from a Holy text? If God really does want us to be clean, what does this say about those who do not prize cleanliness so highly?

Firstly, I think it’s important to make one thing clear. This popular, religious based phrase does not appear in any version of the Bible that I could find. By all means, you could take the words of the Gospel out of context and twist them to fit a similar notion but that could about many other things. I know you are all too familiar with my feelings towards those who turn the words of the Bible to suit their own needs.

So if the source of this saying isn’t Biblical, then just where does it come from and is it a mantra that we should still be living by? After all, it’s a good thing to be clean, right?

Well that was certainly the thoughts of John Wesley, prominent 18th Century Cleric and founder of the Methodist Church. In a sermon given in 1786, later recorded in his book The Works of John Wesley, he said:

‘Slovenliness is no part of religion.’Cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness.’

Wesley makes a good point here. It’s hard to think of any religion that openly encourages slovenliness. Still, it would appear that Wesley is paraphrasing from yet another source. Deeper and deeper, the rabbit hole goes!

I’m no Historian, but it would appear that the earliest recording I can find of this phrase comes from the 14th Century. This is where the pieces of the puzzle start to fit into place. During this time in England, the Black Plague was running a bloody scythe throughout the population. With limited medical knowledge, the clergy and politicians could only fall back on one logical notion: filth breeds disease, so it would follow that disease is evil. Reverse this thought pattern and you find the conception that cleanliness is akin to good health. So that, logically, with good health comes goodness or godliness.

black-death-alaNow this is all very well for the 14th Century. They were trying to save lives and it was easier for the ruling classes to openly criticise the suffering poor for being so filthy. But is this a notion that we should be living by in the 21st Century, especially considering that its etymology is very much rooted in the Zeitgeist of 14th Century England?

Let’s take this idea and force it into a modern day scenario. You’ve been invited to a dinner party. When you arrive you’re given a tour of the house and it culminates with some drinks in the kitchen. You notice, as your host is checking on the food, that the oven is filthy. Completely covered in food residue and baked on beyond reprieve, the food you will be eating is being prepared in that oven. Should you think less of these people? Should you apply Wesley’s favoured doctrine and declare them slovenly?

Far be it for me to tell you how to think. But maybe it’s not entirely fair to damn your gracious hosts with criticisms, least of all declare them unclean and therefore far from ‘Godliness’. After all, maybe they are less fortunate than you and cannot afford the oven cleaning service that they so desperately need. Perhaps they are simply too busy dealing with other things to even consider the cleanliness of their oven.

maputoNow consider the Third World. Consider Maputo in Mozambique. This is a country that has long been devoted to the Christian faith. Indeed we support them yearly with our Beetle Drives and Cake Sales. Here is a country that cannot afford to clean its streets, or clear its refuse in an orderly way. Who are we to claim that they are far from Godliness, simply because they don’t have the resources to focus on cleaning as well as feeding themselves?

Let us all remember that strength and faith in God is not something that can be assessed by the state of our cleanliness. It’s not the 14th Century anymore however, there are still those that live in similar conditions suffered by our forebears. The state of our dress, no matter what John Wesley said, does not dictate our faith. Our homes, our skin, our bodies. These are physical manifestations of our being that have no effect on our ability to praise God.

This week, let us think on how we view and judge others, including those that are not of our faith. Let’s remember to thank God that we are clean. That we live good and honest lives. Most importantly let us remember that:

To be devout is not to be better than someone else, simply more fortunate.