Review of John Wesley’s “The Use of Money” (1760)

This is probably the best-known sermon by Wesley on economic ethics. It was this one that Kathleen MacArthur heavily relied on for The Economic Ethics of John Wesley. There are three main principles that Wesley uses in his formula of economic ethics:
   1. Gain all you can.
   2. Save all you can.
   3. Give all you can.
Under the heading of “gain all you can,” he says that you should work as hard as you can, and as honestly as you can, in your business. You should also save as much money as you can, to meet the bare necessities of life: providing for your family, food, clothing, and shelter. Wesley believed that surplus earnings or savings should never be spent on superfluities or luxury items. He believed that money should only be spent on needs; and never on wants. Any amount of “overplus,” or surplus of money, should be donated privately to the poor, widows, and orphans. Anything that could be called an unnecessary desire that does not involve the bare necessities of life, he called a superfluity, such as a lake house or speedboat. Such things only encourage a lifestyle of Epicurean pleasures. For Wesley, there appears to be no middle ground. You can’t have the best of both worlds: you can’t serve both “God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24), is interpreted to mean, you cannot both give to the St. Vincent de Paul Society and own a lake house with a speedboat. You can’t have a both/and view of having some luxuries and doing some philanthropy—you have no choice—you need to have an either/or view of these things. You can’t be a luxury-loving philanthropist, but must afford yourself no pleasures at all—giving 100% of your surplus money away to those who are less fortunate. Philanthropy should be calculated from the “overplus” of your monthly income; and be put into a benevolence fund. The St. Vincent de Paul Society and street beggars should be the priority—Christian poor and non-Christian poor; and after that, orphans and widows.

On this point, Calvin and myself would differ from Wesley. I think he was too extreme on this point; and most likely because he was never a father, and wasn’t a husband for more than eight years. And he wasn’t the most attentive, nurturing husband there ever was, from the looks of it: he was often away from his wife on ministry trips. I would say that the dynamics of family life call for a moderate allowance of wants and superfluities, in order for there to be a sense of joy in the household, in order to remove the spirit of drudgery from the home—so that the children are free to play; and the wife and husband have recreations, and can relieve themselves from the anxieties of the work week and school week. Solomon supports Calvin’s view: “This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart” (Eccl. 5:18-20). It seems that Wesley would refuse to view such superfluous possessions as “gifts of God,” even though they might enable families to relieve the burdens in their lives. His commentary on Ecclesiastes 5:18 says: “His portion—Of worldly goods; he hath a better portion in Heaven. This liberty is given him by God, and this is the best advantage, as to this life, which he can make of them.” There seems to be a degree of reasonableness here, at least with eating and drinking, but he enumerates no other kinds of worldly goods as liberties; and says that living in Heaven is far better than any worldly goods we may have down here, (which is true,) but as if to divert your attention away from the subject that Solomon is considering: that it’s okay to enjoy some worldly goods in this life as gifts of God! It looks to me, as if Wesley expects Christian families to live like an order of Catholic saints, living in complete self-denial. I don’t think this is a practical recommendation for the economics, or the psychology, of the Christian family. Would you have them to live like the Amish? No television, no pool tables, no ping pong tables, no video games, no guns, no volleyball nets, no cheap fishing boats? Some of the extreme independent fundamental Baptists and holiness people live this way. Wesley did found the Kingswood School for Methodist children—and from what I know, it was overly strict like those groups are, and was almost run like a monastery.

All things in moderation, said Calvin; and I have to agree with him. But I agree with Wesley in his later sermons, when he associates “riches” with millionaires. The luxuries enjoyed by those men would likely go far beyond the boundaries of this moderate view held by Calvin. Richard Baxter also supported the moderate view of entertainments, even to the point of saying, “There are many shows that are desirable and laudable, (as of strange creatures, monsters, rare engines, activities, etc.) the sight of which it is lawful to purchase, at a proportionable price”—although he would have likely supported only watching cleaned up movies on ClearPlay or VidAngel—“but when the exercise is unlawful (as all stage-plays are that ever I saw, or had just information of; yea, odiously evil; however it is very possible that a comedy or tragedy might with abundance of cautions be lawfully acted), it is then (usually) unlawful to be a spectator either for money or on free cost” (Chapters from A Christian Directory, p. 132).

Money in this sermon is called the “mammon of unrighteousness” (Luke 16:9), because it is usually made by evil means and used for evil purposes. This does not mean that money is evil in itself: only to say, that as a tool in the world, it is often misused by evil men. Wesley said that “we ought to gain all we can gain, without buying gold too dear, without paying more for it than it is worth” (1.1). That is to say, not only that we should buy gold coins as a tool for saving and investing in the literal sense; but also in the symbolic sense, that we should not allow ourselves to be pushed into jobs that make us work harder than is necessary for our paychecks. Wesley said that people should avoid getting involved in sinful businesses that involve robbing, cheating, and stealing from people; to avoid doing business activities which are unhealthy, for example, leaning on your stomach at a desk for too long—and we may suggest he would support the use of these new adjustable stand-up desks which have been on the market for a few years now; to avoid doing dangerous jobs that might expose you to harsh chemicals, or extremely hard manual labor, and frequent exposure to workplace injuries, which is what Comenius sees in his vision he called, “The Pilgrim Examines the Order of the Tradesmen,” in ch. 9 of The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart. Algebra, believe it or not, is for the first time here spoken against as something that Wesley felt could have drawn him away from God, and into deism or atheism. I can see what he means, because whenever a person crowds their mind with too much of something—even if it is a harmless scientific activity—that person runs the risk of distancing his mind from God, the Bible, and theology. But he also says that some mathematicians can find the time for faith in God and Bible study; and allows for a diversity of dispositions, gifts, and callings in the economy.

Vice industries should be avoided—alcohol, tobacco, and gambling businesses—or anything that produces harmful addictions. Surgeons and doctors often harm their patients with bad side-effect medications: and so even a medical career should be pursued with certain cautions. Bars are bad places to work. Idleness is out of the question, because it allows people to get into silly and unprofitable diversions, to procrastinate about important things, indulge in too much leisure, take too many naps, and not be guided by common sense. Christians, however, should improve on their business skills and knowledge, and read and study to be the best businessmen they can, while at the same time applying Biblical ethics to their work activities.

Under the heading of “save all you can,” he says you should have a safe at home and a safe deposit box at the bank. He once again underlines that all forms of luxury should be avoided: Epicureanism, gluttony, drunkenness, the desire of the flesh, delicacy, variety, expensive clothes, expensive furniture, expensive home décor, and expensive friends—what we today call “keeping up with the Joneses”—all of which is vanity, and sensuality, and should be avoided. Spoiling children with too many superfluities, or what Baxter called “need-nots,” are nothing but temptations for them. By doing this, we only train them to be materialistic and open them up to be demon-possessed children of Mammon (Matt. 6:24). Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). I agree with this view. Immoderately spoiling children with expensive toys, the kind which most other children do not have the advantage of enjoying, is to train them up in the way of the snobs, who look down on their inferiors. Children should be taught the value of a dollar; and to be humble, and meek, and thankful for the gifts of God.

Under the heading of “give all you can,” we come back to providing for your family as the number one priority: charity begins at home. But if you have an “overplus,” or surplus of money that goes above and beyond the necessary expenses of the month, then some of that money should be given to the poor of the church, to beggars in the street, to widows, and orphans. You should do this in obedience to Scripture as a financial and spiritual sacrifice; and expect a reward in Heaven for it, if you go about it privately. There should be no sloth, no waste, and no covetousness in your life.

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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