Should an economic stimulus package favor the jobless or their potential employers? Is shopping really a patriotic duty? How will the recession and September 11 affect year-end charitable giving?

John Wesley (1703-1791) didn't worry about those specific questions, but he knew plenty about economic uncertainty. In his day, Britain experienced rapid urbanization and the beginnings of industrialization. This caused rural economies to collapse and created numerous problems in city centers: overcrowding, disease, crime, unemployment, debt, substance abuse, and even insanity (London established its first asylum in 1781). Meanwhile a small upper class spent large sums to distance itself, literally and figuratively, from the growing problems. This top five percent of the population controlled nearly one-third of the national income.

Wesley, from lower-middle class stock himself, consorted mostly with people who worked hard, owned little, and could never be certain of their financial future. But he preached so widely and became so well-known that his income eventually reached £1,400 per year—equivalent to more than $160,000 today. Still, he chose to live simply but comfortably on just £30 while giving the rest away. In fact, he donated nearly all of the £30,000 he earned in his lifetime. He once wrote, "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."

This is the context for his curious sermon on Luke 16:9, titled "The Use of Money." It's hardly a typical stewardship sermon, but it gives an interesting perspective on our current economic season.

"'The love of money,' we know, 'is the root of all evil;' but not the thing itself. The fault does not lie in the money, but in them that use it. It may be used ill: and what may not? But it may likewise be used well: It is full as applicable to the best, as to the worst uses. It is of unspeakable service to all civilized nations, in all the common affairs of life: It is a most compendious instrument of transacting all manner of business, and (if we use it according to Christian wisdom) of doing all manner of good.

"It is true, were man in a state of innocence, or were all men 'filled with the Holy Ghost,' so that, like the infant Church at Jerusalem, 'no man counted anything he had his own,' but 'distribution was made to everyone as he had need,' the use of it would be superseded; as we cannot conceive there is anything of the kind among the inhabitants of heaven. But, in the present state of mankind, it is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of his children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked: It gives to the traveler and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of an husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless. We maybe a defense for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death!

Article continues below

"It is therefore of the highest concern that all who fear God know how to employ this valuable talent; that they be instructed how it may answer these glorious ends, and in the highest degree. And, perhaps, all the instructions which are necessary for this may be reduced to three plain rules, by the exact observance whereof we may approve ourselves faithful stewards of 'the mammon of unrighteousness.'

"The first of these is (he that heareth, let him understand!) 'Gain all you can.' Here we may speak like the children of the world: We meet them on their own ground. And it is our bounden duty to do this: We ought to gain all we can gain, without buying gold too dear, without paying more for it than it is worth. But this it is certain we ought not to do; we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor (which is in effect the same thing) at the expense of our health. …

"Having gained all you can, by honest wisdom and unwearied diligence, the second rule of Christian prudence is, 'Save all you can.' Do not throw the precious talent into the sea: Leave that folly to heathen philosophers. Do not throw it away in idle expenses, which is just the same as throwing it into the sea. Expend no part of it merely to gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life. …

"But let not any man imagine that he has done anything, barely by going thus far, by 'gaining and saving all he can,' if he were to stop here. All this is nothing, if a man go not forward, if he does not point all this at a farther end. Nor, indeed, can a man properly be said to save anything, if he only lays it up. You may as well throw your money into the sea, as bury it in the earth. And you may as well bury it in the earth, as in your chest, or in the Bank of England. Not to use, is effectually to throw it away. If, therefore, you would indeed 'make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,' add the Third rule to the two preceding. Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then 'give all you can.' . . .

Article continues below

"I entreat you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, act up to the dignity of your calling! No more sloth! Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with your might! No more waste! Cut off every expense which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand! No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree to the household of faith, to all men! This is no small part of 'the wisdom of the just.' Give all ye have, as well as all ye are, a spiritual sacrifice to Him who withheld not from you his Son, his only Son: So 'laying up in store for yourselves a good foundation against the time to come, that ye may attain eternal life!'"

Related Elsewhere

More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

The full text of this sermon appears in the United Methodist archives.

Information about Wesley's view of money appears in past issues of Christian History including: Issue 2: John Wesley, Issue 19: Money II, and Issue 67: The Wesleys

Related Christianity Today articles include:

Economic Slump, Terrorism Jolt Giving | Charities unrelated to September 11 face a difficult year. (November 27, 2001)
Opinion Roundup: Christian Charities Worry About Donation Plunge | Relief agencies watch for a decrease in giving and debate how to use 9.11.01 in appeals. (October 19, 2001)
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous editions include:
Eat, Drink, and Relax | Think the Pilgrims would frown on today's football-tossing, turkey-gobbling Thanksgiving festivities? Maybe not. (Nov. 21, 2001)
Where Are the Women? | The Christian tradition includes few female history-writers but plenty of female history-makers. (Nov. 20, 2001)
God Bless, More or Less | Irving Berlin's anthem captures America. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Festival of Fears | What's scarier than Halloween? The anxieties that drive it. (Oct. 26, 2001)
Forget 'Normal' | C.S. Lewis's warning against panic during World War II resonates in our new crisis. (Oct. 19, 2001)
Apocalypse Not | As speculations mount regarding the significance of recent events in God's plan for the end of the world, voices from the past urge restraint. (Oct. 12, 2001)
Article continues below
'He Does Not War' | In the Anabaptist tradition, a Christian must never fight back. (Sept. 28, 2001)
A Time For War? | Augustine's "just war" theory continues to guide the West. (Sept. 21, 2001)
The House That Jack Built | C.S. Lewis and six of his literary friends open their doors to students and researchers at Wheaton College's impressive new Wade Center facility. (Sept. 14, 2001)
Raiders of the Lost R | Documentary on School skips religious history, giving a skewed account of American education. (Sept. 7, 2001)
Explaining the Ineffable | In Heaven Below, a former Pentecostal argues that his ancestors were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wish to seem. (Aug. 31, 2001)
Eyewitness to a Massacre | The bloodbath that started on August 24, 1572, left thousands of corpses and dozens of disturbing questions. (Aug. 24, 2001)
Live Long and Prosper | Though a recent survey raises questions, the health benefits of faith have been documented for centuries. (Aug. 17, 2001)
Divided by Communion | What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity. (Aug. 10, 2001)
Thrills, Chills, Architecture? | The most exciting adventure at St. Paul's Cathedral would be a time-traveling jaunt through its history. (August 3, 2001)