History of Earning to Give III: John Wesley

October 1st, 2013
ea, earning_to_give
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, was an early advocate of earning to give. In his sermon, The Use of Money, which he gave many times starting in the mid 1700s, tells people to:
  • Gain all you can.
  • Save all you can.
  • Give all you can.
He writes "We ought to gain all we can gain, without buying gold too dear, without paying more for it than it is worth." In particular he's worried about people earning at the expense of others or at the expense of their health. This means you don't have to go work a job "dealing much with arsenic, or other equally hurtful minerals, or the breathing an air tainted with steams of melting lead, which must at length destroy the firmest constitution." Similarly, some professions might change your values: "I am convinced, from many experiments, I could not study, to any degree of perfection, either mathematics, arithmetic, or algebra, without being a Deist, if not an Atheist." Not harming others comes from "love your neighbor as yourself": "We cannot devour the increase of his lands, and perhaps the lands and houses themselves, by gaming, by overgrown bills (whether on account of physic, or law, or anything else,) or by requiring or taking such interest as even the laws of our country forbid."

By "save all you can" Wesley isn't talking about accumulation but avoiding unnecessary spending. He warns against spending on "gratifying the desires of the flesh," "gratifying the desire of the eye," or to "gain the admiration or praise of men". The argument is both that these are unnecessary but also that "daily experience shows, the more they are indulged, they increase the more." He also tells people not to spend too much on their kids: "why should you throw away money upon your children, any more than upon yourself, in delicate food, in gay or costly apparel, in superfluities of any kind?" The idea is not to spend except on basic needs.

His reason to be so thrifty is so that you can "give all you can," and he means this very seriously. After reserving enough for "food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength" for your own family, give the rest to "do good to them that are of the household of faith" and then "as you have opportunity, do good unto all men." Because he considers giving to include "what you give to the poor, but also by that which you expend in providing things needful for yourself and your household" he tells people to "give all you can; nay, in a sound sense, all you have."

He took his own advice: he lived on 28 pounds [1] a year from 1731 until his death in 1791, and as his income grew from 30 pounds to 1400 he continued to give away everything over that initial 28 pound number. [2] This came out of an experience where he found he wasn't able to be as generous as he wanted:

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?

The Methodists I know today don't seem to take this approach to money, which makes me wonder: did Methodists originally do this, and then back off? Was Wesley unsuccessful at getting people to follow him in this way despite his success at getting people to follow him in general?

(I've been looking into the history of earning to give, trying to understand how people have approached it before. Earlier posts: I, II.)

[1] This would be somewhere between $4k and $40k in current money. Figuring out inflation over such long timescales and such different economies is hard.

[2] This is what Giving What We Can today calls the Further Pledge.

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