John Wesley was sixty-one when he met her in 1764. Margaret Lewen of Leytonshire, a twenty-two-year-old young woman of great wealth, had a yearly income of six hundred pounds at her disposal, but she was also in poor health with heart disease. John and Margaret developed a friendship, and Margaret’s father said that Wesley helped her more than any physician could. Margaret seemed to have found peace with God and joined the Methodists.
In December of 1765 Wesley fell off his horse and was seriously injured. When Lewen heard of the accident, she presented Wesley with a carriage and a team of horses. In 1766 Margaret’s father recommended that she move to London to be in closer communion with Wesley and the Methodists. Unfortunately, she became gravely ill in October and died shortly thereafter.
When Wesley went to visit Lewen, he found out that she had died the day before. He said, “So died Margaret Lewen, a pattern to all young women of fortune in England, a real Bible Christian.” Lewen left Wesley one thousand pounds, probably the largest sum he ever had in his possession. Wesley proceeded to give it all away, saying, “I am God’s steward for the poor.”
Wesley’s own sister, Mrs. Hall, who had been deserted by her husband, applied for some of the money, but it was already gone. In 1768 Wesley wrote his sister,
Dear Patty, You do not consider, money never stays with me; it would burn me if it did. I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible lest it should find a way into my heart. Therefore, you should have spoken to me while I was in London, and before Miss Lewen’s money flew away.
Our Wesleyan heritage is shaped by so many gifts from John Wesley: the warmed heart; prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace; works of piety and works of mercy; personal and social holiness; thinking and let think about all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity; class meetings, bands and societies. How is it, then, that most United Methodists have no idea that one of John Wesley’s greatest witnesses was around the use of money? “Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” These well-known words of John Wesley come from his 1744 sermon, The Use of Money.
John Wesley’s personal practices around money were shaped by an experience he had as a young man while a teaching fellow at Lincoln College at Oxford University. Wesley had just put up some pictures in his room when a chambermaid came to his door, wearing only a thin linen gown on a cold winter day. Wesley wanted to give her money for a coat but was chagrined to discover only a few coins in his pocket. He said to himself, “Will Thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward?’ Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money that might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”
In his late twenties, perhaps as a result of this experience, Wesley decided to live as frugally as possible so that he could give more money to the poor. In 1731 Wesley recorded his yearly income as £30 and his living expenses £28, so he gave £2 away. His income doubled the next year, but he still lived on £28 and gave £32 away. The third year his income was £90 and the fourth year £120, but he still lived on £28, giving the rest to the poor. Even after becoming one of the most famous men in all England, with probably the highest earned income, Wesley did not increase his standard of living but only his standard of giving.
When Wesley died in 1791, he had only a few miscellaneous coins in his pockets and dresser drawers. And the rest of the estimated thirty thousand pounds he earned during his lifetime? He gave it away.
Gain All You Can
In The Use of Money Wesley claims that there is nothing wrong with earning money, saying, “Gain all you can by honest industry. Use all possible diligence in your calling. Lose no time.” However, he is clear that earning money must not come at the expense of our physical health, mind, soul or neighbor.
We should abstain from whatever is harmful to our spirit, says Wesley, “For to gain money we must not lose our souls.” We should not defraud others by charging excessive interest, undercut them in the market, overcharge for goods or entice workers away from others. Moreover, we should not sell anything that impairs the body, mind and soul of others, such as alcohol.
I thank God for disciples of Jesus Christ who earn all they can and use it to bring glory to God. I once had a parishioner who felt called into the ministry as a young man. He attended a Bible school and became a lay pastor in the Upper Peninsula. When he had to perform his first funeral, he was so scared and uncomfortable that he decided the professional ministry was not for him.
This young man went into business, did extremely well, and became a Christian philanthropist. He often testified that his spiritual gift was generosity. God blessed him with the ability to make money so that he could give it away. “Gain all you can, by common sense, by using in your business all the understanding which God has given you.”
Save All You Can
Wesley limited his personal expenditures by not purchasing the kinds of things others thought essential for a person in his station of life. Under Wesley’s leadership, the London Methodists established two homes for widows in the city, supported by offerings taken at band meetings and the Lord’s Supper. When Wesley wasn’t traveling, he and other Methodist preachers who happened to be in London lived and ate in one of these homes, which, in 1748, housed nine widows, one blind woman, and two children.
During one four-year stretch, Wesley’s diet consisted mostly of potatoes, partly to improve his health, but also to save money. He said: “What I save from my own meat will feed another that else would have none.” Wesley writes in his sermon:
- Do not waste any part of so precious a talent merely in gratifying the desires of the flesh; in procuring the pleasures of sense of whatever kind; particularly, in enlarging the pleasure of tasting.
- Do not waste any part of so precious a talent merely in gratifying the desire of the eye by superfluous or expensive apparel, or by needless ornaments. Waste no part of it in curiously adorning your houses; in superfluous or expensive furniture; in costly pictures…
Give All You Can
For Wesley, the purpose of earning and saving all we can is not to cling to our money but to use it to a greater end, namely, bringing in God’s kingdom by giving it away. As Wesley wrote to his sister, “Money never stays with me.” Wesley provides clear instructions on priorities for using our money.
First, provide things needful for yourself; food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength. Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household. If when this is done there be an overplus left, then “Do good to them that are of the household of faith.” If there be an overplus still, “As you have opportunity, do good unto all men.” In so doing, you give all you can; nay, in a sound sense, all you have: For all that is laid out in this manner is really given to God.
John Wesley concludes his sermon by including guidelines on how to make decisions about using our money. He challenges us to ask four questions.
- Am I acting according to my own character as a steward of what God has so graciously given me?
- Am I acting in obedience to the scriptures in how I spend my money?
- Can I offer up a particular purchase as a sacrifice to the Lord?
- Will God reward this expenditure at the “resurrection of the just?”
If we follow these four guidelines, Wesley is convinced that we will not only receive clear light in the way we should live and give, but our money will never stay with us.