A Charles Wesley Song or a John Wesley Sermon?
On September 5th I found myself in Bristol, England in the Chapel where Charles Wesley led many of the 8,000 hymns he wrote. While in the chapel our little band of 35 souls began to sing Wesley songs. We sang, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” “Christ, the Lord, is Risen Today,” “A Charge to Keep I Have,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Great songs all.
David Worthington, who helps oversee the Chapel and the Wesley museum, then asked this interesting question. “You’ve just sung some great Charles Wesley songs, but when was the last time you heard a John Wesley sermon?”
I know of John Wesley as the founder of the Methodist Church, but what do I know of his preaching and life? John Wesley’s popularity led to considerable wealth. At a time when a single man could live comfortably on 30 English pounds a year, Wesley’s annual income was 1,400 pounds. Wesley’s income was 46 times greater than his personal needs. As a child the Wesleys had known terrible poverty in a world without any social safety net. As a young man Wesley had just purchased some pictures for his room when a chambermaid came to his door. He noticed that she had only a thin linen gown to wear for protection against the cold. Instinctively he reached into his pocket to give her money for a coat but he had little left.
John Wesley then asked himself:
Will Thy Master say “Well done, good and faithful steward?” Thy 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?
As a result of this incident Wesley did his best to live on 30 pounds per year and give away his excess wealth. Each year his income doubled and each year he lived on about 30 pounds per year. Even when his income rose to 1,400 pounds he still lived on 30 pounds and gave the excess to relieve the needs of others.
In 1744 Wesley wrote, “[When I die] if I leave behind me ten pounds … you and all mankind [can] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.” When he died in 1791, the only money mentioned in his will was the miscellaneous coins to be found in his pockets and dresser drawers. Most of the 30,000 pounds he had earned in life he had given away.
Christian History Issue No. 19 shares the following on John Wesley and money:
One Word Wesley Hated
John Wesley was known as the great preacher of God’s love and yet, there was one word that Wesley hated. He described this word as “idle,” “non-sensical,” “stupid,” “miserable,” “vile,” and “diabolical.” He said it was “the very cant of hell.” Obviously no Christian should ever utter it. This exceedingly evil word was … “afford.” "But I can afford it,” replied the Methodists when Wesley preached against extravagance in food, dress, or lifestyle. Wesley argued that no Christian could afford anything beyond the necessities required for life and work. He based his reasoning on five main points:
1. God is the source of the Christian’s money. None of us really earns money by our own cleverness or hard work. For God is the one who gives us the energy and intelligence. He is the true source of all our wealth. Wesley inquired of some Methodists who felt they were entitled to a higher standard of living now that they could afford it, “Who gave you this addition to your fortune; or (to speak properly) lent it to you?"
2. Christians must account to the Lord for how they have used money. Wesley urged people to use money wisely, because at any time they may have to give an account to the Lord for the way in which they have used the wealth He gave them. Because no one knows when that might be, no one should ever waste money now, planning to make it up to the Lord later. “How long are you to stay here?” Wesley asked those who felt free to spend extra money on themselves. “May you tomorrow, perhaps tonight, be summoned to arise and go hence, in order to give an account of this and all your talents to the Judge of the quick and dead?"
3. Christians are trustees of the Lord’s money. The money God has put into our hands is not our own, but His. We do not own it; rather we are His agents in distributing it. Thus we must use it not as we wish, but as He directs. Wesley reminded his hearers of this truth by asking, “Can any steward afford to be an errant knave? To waste his Lord’s goods? Can any servant afford to lay out his Master’s money any otherwise than his Master appoints him?”
4. God gives Christians money for them to pass along to those who need it. God’s purpose in giving us money is for us to help the poor and needy. To use it on ourselves is to steal from God. Wesley demanded of some comfortable Methodists: “Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud your Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?"
5. Christians may no more buy luxuries for themselves than they may throw their money away. God made us trustees of His resources so we may feed the hungry and clothe the naked in His name. We should turn our extra money into food and clothing for the poor. Just as it would be wrong to destroy other people’s food and clothes, so it is also wrong to spend money needlessly on ourselves. Wesley said, “None can afford to throw any part of that and raiment into the sea, which was lodged with him on purpose to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” But if we are determined to waste God’s money, Wesley argued that it would be better actually to throw it into the sea than to spend it extravagantly. At least throwing money into the sea hurts no one, while spending it needlessly on ourselves poisons all who see it with “pride, vanity, anger, lust, love of the world, and a thousand ‘foolish and hurtful desires.’”
It is easy to see why I prefer a Charles Wesley song to a John Wesley sermon! I realize that John Wesley was extreme in some of his views. But I have to admire his commitment to the poor and the clarity of his understanding that all Christians are not our own for we have been bought with a price … the blood of Jesus Christ. We are God’s stewards and we will all give God an account for our lives including how we spent His money. At the very least, before we spend, shouldn’t we ask “what would our heavenly Father think of this purchase?” Will he say, “Well done?” Can John Wesley inspire us to be better givers, even if we don’t fully measure up to his example? The better we give of our life, time and treasure the more we will be like Jesus who gave up everything in heaven and on earth to save us when we were without God and without hope.
In 1776 the English tax commissioners wrote John Wesley that he’d failed to report his silver plate. They were certain he had a fine set of silver given his remarkable income. John Wesley wrote back, “I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. That is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.”