John Wesley’s Christian Economics

John Wesley (d. 1791)

The following is going to be a summary and interpretation of two writings: 1. Robert Kingdon’s “Laissez-Faire or Government Control: A Problem for John Wesley,” and 2. John Wesley’s A Serious Address to the People of England, with Regard to the State of the Nation (1778). While there are other sermons by Wesley that could be taken into account, such as “The Use of Money” (1760), “The Danger of Riches” (1780), “On Riches” (1788), and “On the Danger of Increasing Riches” (1790), that would call for another article or two. But Kingdon did touch on some thoughts in “The Use of Money.” To dig deeper, take a look at Kathleen MacArthur’s The Economic Ethics of John Wesley (1936).

Unlike Jonathan Edwards, Wesley Saw Hard Work and Frugality As Virtues,
But Only When the Proper Economic Morals Are Followed

Like Edwards, John Wesley held to the Puritan tradition of preaching against financial sins. This was his primary consideration when it came to economics, mainly because, as a Christian leader, he was preoccupied with saving souls from Hell. But the love of God also led him to care about people’s earthly needs. From time to time, this led him to read about economic ideas, much further, I’d say, than Edwards did. Wesley had a slightly broader view of economic concepts than Edwards. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations came out in 1776: incidentally the same year as the Declaration of Independence; and although there is no sign that Wesley read this book, it could have had an indirect philosophical influence on him through Rev. Josiah Tucker’s The State of the Nation (1777). British economic philosophy was starting to become less Puritan and more secular and scientific, as a result of Smith and others like him; and this may explain why Wesley was a little bit more developed in his economic views than Jonathan Edwards, who wrote about financial issues from 1730 to 1750. But Wesley didn’t just preach against financial sins; he also said things like, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” and he saw hard work as a virtue, and saw careful–not wasteful–financial management as a virtue, at one point favorably quoting from Tucker: “the hands of the diligent and frugal are the only hands which make a nation rich.” Edwards warned that lukewarm, materialistic Christians leaned on the principles of hard work and frugal financial management as cover-ups for materialism (prioritizing physical things over spiritual things). Wesley also preached that materialism and greed are damnable sins, and often preached against buying luxury items, but he didn’t preach against hard work and thrift, simply saying that they were always cover-ups for greed. When controlled by Biblical financial virtues, hard work and financial carefulness were also considered Biblical virtues: in fact, they were seen as the only virtues that contribute to personal and national economic growth. Again: hard work + financial carefulness = economic growth.

Financial Virtues to Prevent Economic Growth From Turning Into Greed

Personal financial growth is a monster, if not Biblically controlled; it can be like working on power lines. You need to use rubber gloves when handling live electrical objects, otherwise you will die. So, the analogy to economics: money is power, but if you have no respect for that power, then you will lose your soul. You will die and go to Hell (Luke 16). The protective rubber gloves in the case of personal economics, would be Biblical financial ethics. Taking to heart all of those Biblical commandments and warnings about jobs and money; and so bring your economic philosophy under the lordship of Christ. Otherwise, if you do not hold to a Biblical Christian view of economics, the only other alternative is to think like Adam Smith and other capitalistic philosophers who only have benign secular considerations like the origin of money, fair market value, wages, properties, loans, hard work, saving, investing in stocks, population, industry categories, business taxes, national debts, and business organization models. A fully Christian economics says, “Yes, these benign subjects need to be seriously considered, but that’s still not good enough. We need to also apply Biblical financial ethics to the worker’s personal life in order to keep the providential blessings of God on his side.” The Puritan belief in providence is what is lacking in today’s modern view of economics. It exists in a warped way in the prosperity gospel televangelists and Word of Faith Pentecostals, because they twist it around to mean that when God financially blesses Christians for their hard work, then it is okay to buy luxury items, and consecrate them as blessings from God. Wesley and Edwards would have never allowed for that.

1. Faith in God’s Providence and Obedience to His Moral Laws. This was the view that God provides supernatural financial help for those who obey and fear God. This providence may not always turn out the way Christians want it to though, especially if some business venture fails (see Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Christian Theology, p. 359). God’s primary concern is for the salvation of souls; and in so doing, He may direct His universe-managing providence to bring the Christian through trials, tribulations, poverty, sickness, wealth, and health, and back again, in order to solidify the Christian’s faith in His all-seeing, micromanaging government and care for our lives (Php. 4:11-13). This is not to say that we don’t do our part. But to say that, in financial matters, God does respond to our economic activity; and it especially shows itself when we are financially desperate.

Deuteronomy 8 has quite a bit to say about this: “Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase (v. 1)…Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands (v. 2)…He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (v. 3)…Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you (v. 5)…Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to Him and revering Him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills (vv. 6-9)…When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe His commands, His laws and His decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God (vv. 10-14)…You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth (vv. 17-18)…If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God” (vv. 19-20).

In the articles I examined, Wesley did not refer to Deuteronomy 8. I actually took this from Gary North’s view in Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views of Economics.  Several important financial views here should be taken under serious consideration by any Christian economist: 1. Obedience to God’s law is tied to the providential blessing of economic growth. 2. Financial hardship in the Christian’s life means that God is humbling and testing the Christian’s heart, to see if he truly is going to obey God’s law no matter what: this is meant to be viewed as God the Father disciplining His children. 3. Strange, supernatural provisions of money and food are basically the modern equivalents of manna in the wilderness. This is meant to teach the Christian man that God is his financial source, not himself. 4. Beautiful private property, even land with fruit trees and creeks, is in the mind of God when blessing His people with economic growth (the promised land). This assumes living in the country most likely; and not in the city. 5. When we eat good food, we should thank and praise God for His blessings, and acknowledge these financial benefits as gifts from God, and as rewards for obedience to His law. 6. After experiencing economic growth, the Christian is warned against becoming worldly-minded and secular, as the natural human tendency is to forget God, to be materialistic, to disregard mysticism and spirituality, and to turn either to atheism, practical atheism (living your life as if there is no God), agnosticism, deism, liberal Christianity, or even the New Age movement. All of these views would allow the man the liberty to feel proud, forget God, and abandon the Gospel of Jesus Christ, taking comfort in his wealth and worldly pleasures. 7. The pride of wealth stems from the naturalistic view that “my power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” This financial pride stems from forgetting all of those manna experiences that happened years ago; and comes from forgetting that it is God “who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” 8. If this self-centered, prideful view of economic growth is maintained, and left unrepented of, then God promises that “you will surely be destroyed.” How so? Killed, it looks like: actual physical death. Moses said, “Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.” Destroyed in the sense of killed. The wrath of God will see to it that you die an untimely death. But it may also mean living with financial ruin, since we do live under the age of New Testament grace. Either outcome would be very negative.

So, back to the power lines and the rubber gloves. The power lines are the power to get wealth: this comes from God. The rubber gloves are obedience to God’s law, that is, the moral law in the New Testament, under the faith of the Gospel. Christians are not bound by Jewish ceremonial laws in the Old Testament. If we bring our economic views under the rule of New Testament; and we acknowledge that our money comes from God, when these rules are obeyed, and that the economic activity that we are engaging in, is in conformity with these rules, and we have confidence that we are not pursuing dishonest or ill-gotten gain, then we can know that God will look out for us economically.

Fear of job loss and worrying too much about paying our bills can make us compromise our Christian ethics on the job. So often, once a Christian enters the workplace in Corporate America, he is socially pressured to build rapport with his worldly coworkers, who, as Wesley said, “daily curse and swear, and blaspheme the Most High, merely by way of diversion.” Wesley believed that God would exact revenge on that kind of behavior. Remember what Isaiah said, when in the throne room of God: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then a seraphim flew to him “with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar,” and with it he touched Isaiah’s mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isa. 6:5-7). Isaiah was a cusser; and God couldn’t use him as a prophet until those cuss words were removed from his mind, his heart, and his mouth. Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25-27). That God wants us not to worry about our finances, and have faith in His providential care, is no small thing! Modern capitalism (classical liberalism) totally ignores this; and this is why there are so many non-Christians, atheists, agnostics, and deists in this school of thought. Regarding them, Wesley referred to Psalm 10:4: “God is not in all their thoughts.” Wesley would have us to be Biblically balanced: to mix theology with economics, especially Puritan moral theology, and as a result, come out with a well-rounded view of Christian economics or Biblical capitalism.

2. Hard work is a virtue that generates money. Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” Proverbs: 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” Proverbs 14:23: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

3. Frugality is a virtue: careful, penny-pinching financial management. John 6:12: “When they had all had enough to eat, He said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’” Proverbs 13:11: “Whoever gathers money little by little makes it grow.” Proverbs 21:20: “The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down.”

4. Avoidance of luxury items: they are signs of greed and bankruptcy. Matthew 6:19: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” James 5:1, 2, 3, 5: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days…You have lived on earth in luxuryand self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” Revelation 18:7: “Give her as much torment and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself.”

5. Philanthropy is a virtue: giving to the poor and needy. James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distressand to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Proverbs 19:17: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward them for what they have done.” Luke 16:19-25, KJV: “There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. It came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in Hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. He cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented.’”

Wesley on Honesty, Loyalty, Business Investments, 
Inheritance, Price Reduction, Pensions, Taxes, and Democracy

In addition to the five major financial ethics mentioned above, from reading Kingdon’s article and Wesley’s Serious Address, it also came out that the normal Christian virtues of honesty and loyalty came to be an advantage for early Methodist employees, and led to their promotions as managers in factories. Apparently Wesley was okay with the idea of temporarily opting out of philanthropy, so that the Christian’s extra money could be used on investing in his own Christian business. This falls in line with the “charity begins at home” idea. An inheritance was only meant to be given to godly and frugal children, who would not squander their parents’ money wastefully and selfishly. National economic depressions, like the Great Depression, Wesley believed could be alleviated by several things: widespread hard work, widespread frugal financial management, and government controls on businesses that could lead to widespread price reduction. For example, he believed that the only reason why rental prices get jacked up, is because the landlords want to live in luxury, and so they raise the prices for their tenants. Wesley believed the government should control the lifestyles of landlords and thus control rental prices. Wesley also believed that a lot of former government worker’s pensions were useless, and that these pensions should be abolished, at least in a time of depression, particularly because they made men idle.

Wesley became laissez-faire to some extent (government being hands-off with companies), at least in the 1770s, because he felt that the salt tax had harmed the fishing industry. He felt that some taxes were helpful to the economy, but that others were harmful. But when it came to the issue of actually paying taxes himself, he could not sympathize with the American Revolution, and their cries against “taxation without representation.” Wesley remained loyal to King George III, mainly because under his rule, British police protection had usually been helpful to the Methodists when riots erupted against them. Wesley’s primary concern as a British church leader and evangelist, was the salvation of souls. He was pretty much non-political, and would’ve said something like this to the Americans: “Stop your complaining! Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s!” (Matt. 22:21). Since Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), Wesley probably felt it was a tragedy that so many Christians took it upon themselves to shed blood over something as petty as taxes. Of course, to the Americans, it was about more than just paying taxes. Thomas Jefferson, like those in the British political party called the Whigs, wanted to have a more democratic form of government, one where the voice of the people could be heard. So far as I can tell, Wesley did not consider the issue of democracy versus monarchy an important enough issue to go to war over.

About Wesley Gospel is self-published in the spirit of John Wesley and the Reformers, as when they used the printing press. The truth of God won't be censored or suppressed!
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