This faithful shepherd constantly warned his flock about the danger of accumulating wealth without distributing it properly to their less favored brethren. The following entries from his journal reveal how much this subject lay on his heart:
“[Oct. 1760]—On the three following days I spoke severally to the members of the society [at Bristol]. As many of them increase in worldly goods, the great danger I apprehend now is they’re relapsing into the spirit of the world; and then their religion is but a dream.” (Vol.4, p. 417)
“Sun. 18 [Sept. 18, 1763]—On Monday evening I gave our brethren a solemn caution not to ‘love the world, neither the things of the world.’ This will be their great danger; as they are industrious and frugal, they must needs increase in goods. This appears already. In London, Bristol, and most other trading towns, those who are in business have increased in substance sevenfold, some of them twenty, yea, a hundredfold. What need, then, have these of the strongest warnings, lest they be entangled therein, and perish.” (Vol. 5, pg. 31)
“Wed. 11 [July 1764]—I gave all our brethren a solemn warning not to love the world or the things of the world. This is one way whereby Satan will surely endeavor to overthrow the present work of God. Riches swiftly increase on many Methodists, so called. What but the mighty power of God can hinder their setting their hearts upon them? And if so, the life of God vanishes away.” (Vol. 5, p. 83)
“Sat. 20 [Nov. 1764]—The following week I made a little tour through part of Kent and Sussex, where some of our brethren swiftly increase the goods. Do they increase in grace too? If not, let them take care that their money do not perish with them.” (Vol. 5, p. 101)
“Sun. 13 [Dec. 1767]—I was desired to preach a funeral sermon for William Osgood. He came to London near thirty years ago, and, from nothing, increased more and more, till he was worth several thousand pounds. He was a good man, and died in peace. Nevertheless, I believe his money was a great clog to him, and kept him in a poor, low state all his days, making no such advance as he might have done, either in holiness or happiness.” (Vol. 5, p. 245)
[From a letter dated June 27, 1769] “Riches increased; which not only led you, step by step, into more conformity to the world, but insensibly instilled self-importance, unwillingness to be contradicted, and an overbearing temper. And hence you were, of course, disgusted at those who did not yield to this temper, and blamed that conformity…Can you be too sensible how hardly they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven? Yea, or into the kingdom of an inward heaven? Into the whole spirit of the gospel? How hard is it for those (whether you do or no) not to conform too much to the world? How hard not to be a little overbearing, especially to inferiors!” (Vol. 5, p. 324)
“Fri. 24 [Sept. 1779]—James Gerissh, jun., of Road, near Frome, was for several years zealous for God; but he too became rich, and grew lukewarm, till he was seized with a consumption. At the approach of death he was ‘horribly afraid’; he was ‘in the lowest darkness, and in the deep.’ But ‘he cried unto God in his trouble,’ and was ‘delivered out of his distress.’ He was filled with peace and joy unspeakable, and so continued till he went to God.” (Vol. 6, p. 255)
“Mon. 3 [April 1780]—I returned to Manchester, and, Tuesday the 4th, strongly applied ‘What could I have done more to my vineyard that I have not done?’ At present there are many here that ‘bring forth good grapes.’ But many swiftly increase in goods; and I fear very few sufficiently watch and pray that they may not set their hearts upon them.” (Vol. 6, p. 271)
“Mon. 25 [April 1785]…But the society here [Aughrim, in Ireland], as well as that at Tyrrell’s pass, is well-nigh shrunk into nothing! Such is the baleful influence of riches! The same effect we find in every place. The more men increase in goods (very few excepted) the more they decrease in grace.” (Vol. 7, p. 71)
“Sat. 31 [March 1787]—I went to Macclesfield, and found a people still alive to God, in spite of swiftly increasing riches. If they continue so, it will be the only instance I have known, in about half a century. I warned them in the strongest terms I could, and believe some of them had ears to hear.” (Vol. 7, p. 256)
“He [Wesley] wrote from Bristol to Walter Churchey (Works, vol. Xii p. 439), and on the 21st he dated the searching sermon on ‘If riches increase, set not thine heart upon them.’ The Methodists were increasing in wealth and respectability. Wesley dreaded the result, and left as part of his last legacy many solemn words of warning. Tyerman has pointed out, filling several pages with quotations, the significance of Wesley’s last pulpit instructions and warnings.” (Vol. 8, p. 96, ed. Note)
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And what shall we say about his own life? He truly set the example so that his teaching was not at variance with his living. One of his sisters, being in need and hearing of a recent legacy which had been made out to her brother, wrote asking for aid. John wrote back saying that he had already distributed the recent gift. She was too late in her request.
An extract from the life of John Wesley states that the commissioners had passed a law taxing silver plate. They knew Wesley had quite an income, so they wrote him: “The commissioners cannot doubt that you have silver plate of which you neglected to make entry. They have directed me to inform you that they expect you at this time to make entry of your silver plate.”
And this is Mr. Wesley’s reply: “I have two silver teaspoons at London and two in Bristol. That is all the plate I have at present, nor shall I buy more while so many around me want bread. I am, sir, your most obedient servant. John Wesley.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
“God loaned me coins I may not spend
For any wasteful, selfish end.
They are a trust that I must hold
As sacred. All the world’s bright gold
Belongs to Him, and in my spending
I must repay His gracious lending.”
—Grace Noll Crowell
“All vices are indeed summed, and all their forces consummated, in that simple acceptance of the authority of gold instead of the authority of God, and preference of gain, or the increase of gold, to godliness, or the peace of God.”
“The sin of the whole world is essentially the sin of Judas—men do not disbelieve their Christ; but they sell Him.” –Ruskin
“If money be not thy servant it will become thy master. The covetous man cannot so properly be said to possess wealth as it may be said to possess him.” – Charcon
“It is not the fact that a man has riches which keeps him from the kingdom of heaven, but the fact that the riches have him.” – David Caird
“A genuine impulse of generosity is the stirring of what is divine within us—the uplifting force of the soul. Our well being depends upon strengthening it by exercise. Woe to the soul that crushes it! It is a germ of Paradise.”
“Riches are the baggage of virtue, which always hindereth the march.”
Noble Talent or Unrighteous Mammon: The Economic Thought of John Wesley
Wesley’s basic tenets concerning money were “the Divine proprietorship of all wealth, property, and privilege, and the responsible stewardship of men.” Wesley himself stated that of all models for understanding Christian duty, “no character more exactly agrees with the present state of man, than that of a steward.” The economic side of this stewardship implies two Wesleyan doctrines: that money is not evil but “an excellent gift of God,” a means “of doing all manner of good”; and that no money can legitimately be kept as one’s own, but only used in God’s work. Money itself is important; Christians too seldom “consider…the use of this excellent talent.”
On the other hand, Wesley can speak of money as a corrupting ‘hot potato’: “It must indeed pass through my hands, but I will take care (God being my helper) that the mammon of unrighteousness shall only pass through; it shall not rest there.” This doctrine contains an implicit challenge to the entire concept of private property. An individual’s money should be regarded as a fund of God, to be distributed for the needs of His people, and the owner’s only advantages of are that distribution starts at home, and that giving is itself a blessing.”
Perhaps as important as his attitude toward money was Wesley’s attitude toward the rich and the poor. The latter “have a peculiar right to have the Gospel preached unto them…If any, we are to except the rich.” In a journal entry, while approving some of the rich and noble are “called,” Wesley says he would prefer “if it were done by the ministry of others. If I might choose, I should still (as I have done hitherto) ‘preach the gospel to the poor.’
There is no innocent way of pursuing riches, and in Wesley’s exegesis, 1 Timothy 6:9 condemns all “who desire [or] endeavor after more than…the necessities and conveniences of life.” Those who have excess money lose their humility, meekness, and patience; they are overly concerned with their own comfort, causing “softness of mind if not of body”; they are less happy, less disciplined, less eager for good; they tend to avoid the needy and destitute for fear of spoiling their nice clothes. From several references throughout his journal, it appears that Wesley truly preferred the company of the poor and felt uncomfortable around rich people, no matter how religious or generous they were.
Wesley’s Three Rules
Gain All You Can
In fleshing out his economic attitudes, Wesley prescribed three basic rules for his people to follow toward money, all of which he detailed precisely in teaching and example.
The first was to gain all one could. All Christians must apply themselves “to the business of their calling…sloth being inconsistent with religion.” Because he viewed business as one’s calling, Wesley encouraged diligence and faithful pursuit of business—the so-called “Protestant work ethic.” The ethical centrality of gaining all one can many not be immediately obvious, but Wesley taught that one should not seek God’s will in the abstract, but rather “what will make me most useful.”
Obviously, in light of Wesley’s high view of usefulness of money, this included economic gain. Nor was such gain an absolute, for he restricted it to worthwhile labor. Christians must avoid employment which harms health (including long hours and toxic factory conditions), which impoverishes another (pawn-broking to competitive selling of goods), which hurts another’s health (primarily the sale of liquor and tobacco products), or which might undermine morality (from taverns to opera houses). A Christian transacting worldly business does so to please God, and therefore applies not only diligence but justice, mercy, and even prayer to common affairs of gaining money.
Save All You Can
Wesley’s second rule, another, which might fit under the prudence of economic self-interest, is to save all one can. Wesley’s chief concern here, however, is the avoidance of waste and luxury. (Wesley himself made a point of keeping only two spoons.) To set aside money for the future, which many Christians regard as pious prudence, means to Wesley nothing less than to ‘lay up treasures on earth’—a thing as expressly and clearly forbidden by our Lord, as either adultery or murder.
Wesley’s saving, like gaining, was merely recognition that money was a valuable resource belonging to the Lord. Moreover, as money spent for one’s self (beyond the “necessities and conveniences”) tends only to corrupt, the thriftiness of one’s life-style is directly related to virtue. Wesley’s prohibition of physical indulgence, decoration, and vanity (the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the pride of life) are linked to thrift. Pursuing pleasures would be a waste of “so precious a talent” as money. “Despise delicacy and variety,” Wesley continues, as a “reputable kind of sensuality (which) cannot be maintained without considerable expense.” In the same way, unnecessary adornments of dress or house, and spending calculated “to gain the admiration or praise of men,” is sinful precisely because it involves squandering money. True, vanity, indulgence, and gluttony are harmful in themselves. Yet the economic argument is important to Wesley:
If you could be as humble when you choose costly as when you choose plain apparel, (which I frankly deny) yet you could not be as beneficent—as plenteous in good works. Every shilling which you save from your own apparel, you may expend in clothing the naked.
Give All You Can
This of course brings up Wesley’s third rule, to give all that one can; and this rule is the reason for the other two. Wellman J. Warner sums this up by saying that “The sole justification for the…pursuit of economic goods was that one might be enabled to supply the needs of others…The economic and the philanthropic theory of the revival were a unit.” This practical application of Wesley’s attitude toward stewardship was radical and uncompromising. After gaining all they can and (providing for the barest needs of themselves and their dependents) saving all they can, Christians should give not a tithe but all of their income to meet the needs of others.
Wesley used his own life as an example: “I gain all I can” in profitable labor, “I save all I can” by frugal living, and “by giving all I can, I am effectually secured from ‘laying up treasures on earth.’” These were no idle boasts: as Wesley’s royalty earnings grew, his self-imposed annual personal budget stayed at thirty pounds, until 98% of his income was given away. He lived up to his promise that “If I leave behind me ten pounds…you and all mankind bear witness against me that ‘I lived and died a thief and a robber.’”
…Unfortunately, during Wesley’s lifetime the societies had lost sight of their original emphasis, and Wesley wrote that of all their shortcomings this was the most weighty. Drawn from the lower classes, on becoming Methodists they “grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionably increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, in the desire of the eyes, and in the pride of life.”
In an admonishing sermon, Wesley charges that his people “are not so teachable as you were, not so advisable; you are not so easy to be convinced; not so easy to be persuaded: you have a much better opinion of your own judgment, and are more attached to your own will.” There is a general rule that “whenever riches have increased…the essence of religion…has decreased in the same proportion,” and this rule can only be circumvented in one way: by giving it away.
How happy is the pilgrim’s lot!
How free from every anxious thought,
From worldly hope and fear!
Confined to neither court nor cell,
His soul disdains on earth to dwell,
He only sojourns here.
His happiness in part is mine,
Already saved from low design,
From every creature-love;
Blest with scorn of finite good,
My soul is lighten’d of its load,
And seeks the things above.
The things eternal I pursue;
A happiness beyond the view
Of those that basely pant
For things by nature felt and seen;
Their honors, wealth, and pleasures mean
I neither have nor want.
continued on page 24
No foot of land do I possess,
No cottage in the wilderness;
A poor wayfaring man,
I lodge awhile in tents below;
Or gladly wander to and fro,
Till I may Canaan gain.
Nothing on earth I call my own;
A stranger to the world unknown,
I all their goods despise;
I trample on their whole delight
And seek a country out of sight
A country in the skies.
There is my house and portion fair;
My treasure and my heart are there,
And my abiding home;
For me my elder brethren stay
And angels beckon me away;
And Jesus bids me come.
Used by permission.