John Wesley’s Focus on Money

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John and Charles Wesley preaching in Bristol

It would probably go too far to say that John Wesley was obsessed with money during the last decade of his life.  But I think it’s fair to say that money became one of the dominating themes of his final years.

Surveying his published sermons during his last ten years, one finds such titles as “The Danger of Riches” (1780); “On God’s Vineyard” (1787); and, in his last published sermon, “The Danger of Increasing Riches” (1790).  All these sermons focus on the way money affects people—and specifically its growing effects on the people called Methodists.

Wesley summarized these effects in a tract he wrote on the state of Methodism a few years before his death.  This tract, Thoughts Upon Methodism, opens up with the lines: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America.  But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect.”

After summarizing the short history of the Methodist movement, Wesley concludes his tract by circling back to the source of his worry for the future.  “I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long.”  So, while Wesley rejoiced in the maturing of so many within the Methodist movement, his fear was that they would become victims of their own success.

Methodists had developed virtues like honesty and a disciplined work ethic.  They were being promoted to managers and administrators.  It was inevitable, given their practices of thrift and sobriety, that they would also become owners of businesses.  Wesley’s fear about this financial success was grounded in what he was already seeing among certain Methodists.

He observed in some of his later sermons how he saw people in the early Methodist movement “warm in their first love, magnifying the Lord, and rejoicing in God their Saviour.”  And yet, several decades later, Wesley observes that, as these same people gained possessions over the years, their concern turned to “laying up treasures on earth” instead of restoring the poor to God.  The possession of riches had brought forth “ pride…self-indulgence of every kind….It brought forth prejudice,…judging and condemning one another….It brought forth anger, hatred, malice, revenge, and every evil word and work” (“On God’s Vineyard”).

Wesley concludes his tract Thoughts Upon Methodism with a rhetorical question: “Is there any way to prevent this?”  He notes that we shouldn’t forbid one another to be diligent and frugal.  Indeed, we must continue to encourage our fellow Christians “to gain all they can, and to save all they can.”  But what can we do to prevent our money from ultimately dragging us “to the nethermost hell?”

Wesley urges that “there is only one way!”   And that one way is, for those who make and save all they can, to “likewise give all they can.”  So, Wesley’s famous saying, “Make all you can; save all you can; give all you can” is not just a nice catchphrase for him.  He sees it as absolutely vital if Christians are to have any hope of escaping the spiritually destructive effects of worldly possessions.

Of course, one needs accountability groups if one is to be regularly challenged to reflect on what one “can” give.  And Wesley had a lot to say about accountability groups.

If Wesley isn’t well-known today for placing such an emphasis on what we do with our money, the reason is not that he didn’t talk about it very much.  Wesley’s last published sermon was titled “The Danger of Increasing Riches.”  The title says it all.

Albert Outler comments on this “lesser” known sermon from Wesley: “It would be his last sermon to be published in the Arminian Magazine that he had founded; his successors would deliberatively leave this fact unnoted.  There is here an irony: the patriarch’s last word turns out to have been his least heeded.”[1]  Interesting.

 

[1] Albert Outler, ed., The Works of John Wesley, Sermons, 4 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987) 4:177.

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Kevin Kinghorn serves as editor of the Faith and Work Collective blog. He is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. His undergraduate work (Emory) was in economics and political science. His graduate work (Asbury; Yale; Oxford) and current teaching has focused on topics within philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. He lives in Mt. Sterling, KY, where he and his wife Barbara work toward community transformation, providing music and art opportunities for children.

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