From the days of the Holy Club in Oxford the Wesleys and their Methodist followers showed sympathy and practical concern for the poor, including those imprisoned for debt. In his later ministry John Wesley found time to beg for the destitute and to provide medical and other help for them. In the 1780s he encouraged and supported the establishment of the Strangers' Friend Societies, whose focus was on the 'deserving poor', not on indiscriminate giving. Characteristic of the views of both society as a whole and of Methodism itself was the hierarchical assumption that the individual's place in society was divinely appointed and therefore to be one's accepted lot.
Nevertheless, Wesley's preference for the life and company of the poor has continued as an irritant within Methodism. In the twentieth century, the rise of Central Missions and Central Halls in the cities and the persistence of street-corner chapels in poor areas continued until World War II. Since then most Central Halls have closed and most street-corner chapels have succumbed to outward and upward mobility. In 1973 the Conference appointed an Inner City Committee, which led to the Mission Alongside the Poor. Methodism, largely now a middle-class phenomenon, still manifests itself in small, often innovative congregations in inner cities and deprived housing estates, though the 1984 Conference received a report on 'Rural Deprivation and Poverty'. Some middle-class Methodists see in the 'preferential option for the poor' of Liberation Theology a return to at least some of Wesley's 'preference'.
'Just how did Wesley deal with poverty and the poor? In short, Wesley declassified the concept of poverty, identified the breadth of the problem, and univeralized the responsibility for dealing with it… Wesley reclassified poverty, moving away from the absolute economic values established by the government and using instead a relative scale of human wealth and need. Instead of viewing the £30 per year benchmark as the poverty line, Wesley used the graduated terms of superfluities, conveniences, necessities and extremities.'
Richard P. Heitzenrater, in The Poor and the People Called Methodists (2002) p. 28