John Wesley (1703-1791) became an Anglican clergyman, evangelist, and cofounder of Methodism. He was the fifteenth child of Susanna and Samuel Wesley in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. His father was a nonconformist minister and rector at Epworth. After graduating from Oxford University, he became a priest in the Church of England in 1728. In 1729, Wesley was part of a religious study group in Oxford organized by his brother Charles (1707-1788). The members of this study group were called “Methodists” for their emphasis on “methodical study and devotion.
During his 50 years as an itinerant minister, Wesley rode 250,000 miles on the roads of England, Scotland, and Ireland to preach 42,000 sermons. He worked tirelessly to reform the nation and the nature of its religion. His efforts included legal and prison reform, the abolition of slavery, civil rights, and popular education. His “desire to furnish poor people with cheaper, shorter and plainer books” caused Wesley to write over 233 books and education treatises.1
While attending Oxford University in the early 1700s, Wesley shared his spiritual discipline with those at the local prison. When Wesley learned that people were imprisoned simply because they could not pay their debts, he was inspired to cap his living expenses and use the rest to purchase the release of debtors.
As his income increased over the years, Wesley continued to live frugally so he could use most of his money in ministry to others. When a tax collector asked Wesley why he had few material possessions, he replied that buying silver spoons, which he considered a luxury, was out of the question when the poor still had no bread, which is a necessity. Wesley gave away so much that at his death his monetary worth amounted to only a few coins.2 John Wesley’s thoughts on stewardship that were spoken over 240 years ago hold much wisdom for us to ponder today.
The Good Steward
Wesley gave many passionate sermons on stewardship. In 1768, Wesley gave a powerful sermon in Edinburgh titled “The Good Steward”3 that posed the question, “In what respects are we now God's stewards?” In this sermon, Wesley states that since God entrusts us with all we have, we should “dispose of all as God pleases.” The sermon goes on to define four things God entrusts to us as stewards:
1. God entrusts us with our immortal soul. Made in the image of God, together with all the powers and faculties of understanding, imagination, memory, and will. When we seek the peace of God and do His will we “secure our own happiness.”
2. God entrusts us with our bodies. Use these “exquisitely wrought machines” to honor God as stewards, not as proprietors, “as instruments of righteousness unto God.”
3. God entrusts us with a portion of worldly goods. The most valuable worldly good is money, for which God expects us to be wise and faithful stewards, employing every part “for purposes as our blessed Lord has commanded us to do."
4. God entrusts us with several talents. All other gifts God has given us including bodily strength, health, our personality, time, knowledge, and education - all to be used to do good to others and not harm.
Wesley ends this section of the sermon by reminding us that the most precious gifts from God are not the blessings we receive, but the “grace of God, the power of his Holy Spirit, which alone works in us all” to help us on our journey to be good stewards of the blessings and talents with which we are entrusted.
Use of Money
Wesley understood what it was to be poor. His mother had 19 children with only 10 surviving to adulthood. He watched his mother struggle to feed and clothe her children when her husband was in debtors' prison. These memories caused Wesley to have a deep respect for the poor and a passion to provide for their spiritual and physical needs.
Wesley noted that people outside of the church freely discussed financial issues and debated the best way to invest and use money. However, rarely was “Christian wisdom” consulted when discussing the “right use of money.” Wesley decided to address this issue in a sermon he gave in 1760 titled “The Use of Money.” The following three major points from this sermon provide a concise summary of Wesley’s vision for how Christians should view money.4
Gain All You Can. However, do this without hurting your neighbor. We cannot ruin our neighbor's trade to advance our own.
Save All You Can. Do not throw precious money and talent away in idle expenses, which is the same as throwing it into the sea.
Give All You Can. First, provide things needed for yourself, your wife, children, and any others who are part of your household including whatever is moderately required to maintain health and strength. If you have a surplus, then "do good to them that are part of the household of faith." If there is still a surplus, "as you have opportunity, do good unto all men."
Instead of trusting riches, Wesley encourages us to “trust in the living God; then we will be safe under the shadow of the Almighty; his faithfulness and truth shall be our shield and buckler.”
Treasures in Heaven
Wesley gave a series of sermons that focused on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The scripture for the eighth sermon5 in this series was from Matthew 6:19-21:
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal; For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
In this sermon Wesley reminds us that when we "lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” our eye “is not singly fixed on God.” However, he quickly adds that God does not forbid us from having those things that are necessary for our households to live in health and happiness and “carry on his worldly business.”
Wesley cautions that when we “desire and deliberately seek to gain riches,” then we have “pierced ourselves through with many sorrows.” He gently reminds us that God does not think more highly of us “for riches, grandeur, or for any qualification or accomplishment directly or indirectly owing to wealth.” Instead, God cares about “the measure of faith and love” we have for God and others.