What Wesley Practiced and Preached About Money
Most of us know that John Wesley was used of God to revive 18th-century England and to start the Methodist Church. We know him as a great preacher and a greater organizer. But few of us realize that Wesley made enormous sums from preaching--the sale of his writings made him one of England’s wealthiest men. In an age when a single man could live comfortably on 30 pounds a year, his annual income reached 1,400. With such an income he had the opportunities to put his ideas on money into practice. What did he say about money? And what did he do with his own?
John Wesley knew grinding poverty as a child. His father, Samuel Wesley, was the Anglican priest in one of England’s lowest-paying parishes. He had nine children to support and was rarely out of debt. Once John saw his father being marched off to debtor’s prison. So when John followed his father into the ministry, he had no illusions about financial rewards.
It probably came as a surprise to John Wesley that while God had called him to follow his father’s vocation, he had not also called him to be poor like his father. Instead of becoming a parish priest, John felt God's direction to teach at Oxford University. There he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, and his financial status changed dramatically. His position usually paid him at least thirty pounds a year, more than enough money for a single man to live on. John seems to have enjoyed his relative prosperity. He spent his money on playing cards, tobacco and brandy.
While at Oxford, an incident changed his perspective on money. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward”? Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy!--Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?
Perhaps as a result of this incident, in 1731 Wesley began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds.
Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.
Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.
This practice, begun at Oxford, continued throughout his life. Even when his income rose into the thousands of pounds sterling, he lived simply, and he quickly gave away his surplus money.
One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds. Because he had no family to care for, he had no need for savings. He was afraid of laying up treasures on earth, so the money went out in charity as quickly as it came in. He reports that he never had 100 pounds at any one time.
Wesley limited his expenditures by not purchasing the kinds of things thought essential for a man in his station of life. In 1776 the English tax commissioners inspected his return and wrote him the following: “[We] cannot doubt but you have plate for which you have hitherto neglected to make an entry.”
They were saying a man of his prominence certainly must have some silver plate in his house and were accusing him of failing to pay excise tax on it. Wesley wrote back: “I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.”
John Wesley's teaching on money offered simple, practical guidelines for every believer.
His first rule about money was Gain all you can. Despite its potential for misuse, money in itself is something good. There is no end to the good it can do: “In the hands of (God’s) children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked. It gives to the traveler and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of a husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless. We may be a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain. It may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame: yea, a lifter up from the gates of death!”
Wesley added that in gaining all they can, Christians must be careful not to damage their own souls, minds, or bodies, or the souls, minds or bodies of anyone else. He thus prohibited gaining money through industries that pollute the environment or endanger workers.
Wesley’s second rule for the right use of money was Save all you can. He urged his hearers not to spend money merely to gratify the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eye, or the pride of life. He cried out against expensive food, fancy clothes, and elegant furniture: “Despise delicacy and variety and be content with what plain nature requires.”
Wesley had two reasons for telling Christians to buy only necessities. The obvious one was so they would not waste money. The second was so they would not increase their desires.
The old preacher wisely pointed out that when people spend money on things they do not really need, they begin to want more things they do not need. Instead of satisfying their desires, they only increase them.
Wesley’s third rule was Give all you can. One’s giving should begin with the tithe. He told the one who does not tithe, “Thou dost undoubtedly set thy heart upon thy gold” and warned, “It will ‘eat thy flesh as fire!’”
But one’s giving should not end at the tithe. All of the Christian’s money belongs to God, not just the first tenth. Believers must use 100 percent of their income as God directs.
And how has God directed Christians to use their incomes? Wesley listed four scriptural principles:
- Provide things needful for yourself and your family (I Tim. 5:8). The believer should make sure the family has “a sufficiency of plain, wholesome food to eat, and clean raiment to put on” as well as a place to live and enough to live on if something were to happen to the breadwinner.
- “Having food and raiment, let us be therewith content” (I Tim. 6:8) . “Whoever has sufficient food to eat, and raiment to put on, with a place to lay his head, and something over, is rich,” he said.
- “Provide things honest in the sight of all men” (Rom. 12:17) and “Owe no man anything” (Rom. 13:8). Wesley said the next claim on a Christian’s money is the creditors’. He adds that those who are in business for themselves need to have adequate tools, stock, or capital for the carrying on of that business.
- “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). After the Christian has provided for the family, the creditors, and the business, the next obligation is to use any money that is left to meet the needs of others.
In giving these four biblical principles, Wesley recognized some situations were not clear-cut. He accordingly offered four questions to help his hearers decide how to spend money:
- In spending this money, am I acting like I own it, or am I acting like the Lord’s trustee?
- What Scripture requires me to spend this money this way?
- Can I offer up this purchase as a sacrifice to the Lord?
- Will God reward me for this expenditure at the resurrection of the just?
In 1744 Wesley wrote, “When I die if I leave behind me ten pounds...you and all mankind can bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.” When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was the miscellaneous coins to be found in his pockets and dresser drawers. Most of the 30,000 pounds he had earned in his lifetime he had given away. As Wesley said, “I cannot help leaving my books behind me whenever God calls me hence; but in every other respect, my own hands will be my executors.”
--This article was adapted from Leadership magazine, Winter 1987. At that time, Charles Edward White was an assistant professor of Christian thought and history at Spring Arbor College in Michigan.