The Radical Budget of John Wesley

John Wesley was an Anglican pastor in the 1700's. He is credited with starting and initially leading the Methodist movement.

First off, this post is not to give a biography of the life and teachings of John Wesley. Nor is it to weigh the theological teachings of Wesley and the Methodist movement compared to those of others (particularly Calvinism). This post is merely to highlight an exceptional aspect of the life of an extraordinary man.

What can an Anglican pastor from the 18th century teach us about personal finance?

First, A Little Background on John Wesley

As a young child, Wesley was no stranger to poverty. His father, Samuel Wesley, was a priest. His mother, Susanna, taught their children at home. Samuel and Susanna had a total of 19 children together, 9 of which tragically died during childbirth (John Telford, The Life of John Wesley, Ch 2.). Between Samuel's meager earnings and the burden of raising 10 children, the Wesleys were in a constant state of financial turmoil. Their finances were so poor that Samuel was twice placed in prison for his large debts.

John Wesley was determined not to be of the same poor financial stature as his parents. He later went on to teach at Oxford University and later be elected as a fellow of Lincoln College. Initially, John seemed to splurge his newfound wealth, spending his money on card games, tobacco, and brandy.

One day at Oxford, an event happened that changed his perspective on money. Charles Edward White describes it this way:

[Wesley] 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? - White, "What Wesley Practiced and Preached About Money"

What Wesley Did Next

Soon after this incident, whether solely caused by it or not, John Wesley's views on budgeting and spending changed for the remainder of his life. He began to reduce his expenses so that he would have more money to give away. His first year at Oxford, his income was 30 pounds a year (enough for a comfortable living for a single individual). Through budgeting, he found that he could live on 28, and gave away 2. In his second year, his income doubled to 60 pounds, but he kept his expenses the same, and thus gave away 32 pounds (more than he kept for himself). This process continued, even as his income vastly grew. Below is a table of what the generosity of John Wesley looked like as he progressed in life:

 Year Income Living Expenses To the Poor
First Year: 30 pounds 28 pounds (93%) 2 pounds (7%)
Second Year: 60 pounds 28 pounds (47%) 32 pounds (53%)
Third Year: 90 pounds 28 pounds (31%) 62 pounds (69%)
Fourth Year: 120 pounds 28 pounds (23%) 92 pounds (77%)
Eventually: over 1,400 pounds 30 pounds (2%) over 1,400 pounds (98%)

Source: The Accountability Connection by Matt Friedman, Victor Books,  1992, p. 12.

When I first read this story and looked at the numbers above, I had several different reactions.

I felt ashamed. I was extremely humbled to discover a man that lived so radically in generosity with his finances. I was able to see that greed is more than the mere desire for more wealth, but that it also lies in the fear of loss -  The debilitating fear of poverty that precludes us from parting with our precious pennies. Generosity in Christianity today seems to be all about "How much do I have to give to be 'good' with God?"  The conversation about charity and tithing is too often about math and percentages than it is about the heart.

I felt inspired. I used to think my childhood dog was big until I learned about cows; I used to think cows were big until I learned about elephants. I used to think my giving was sufficient until I learned about truly generous people. Not rich people, but regular, ordinary, often poor, people. Wealth is never a prerequisite for generosity.

I felt excited. Our storybooks are filled with themes of someone small accomplishing something big. It's amazing how much my meager generosity can accomplish as soon as it leaves my clenched fist.

The Takeaway

Now, I admit that I am far from being Wesley-esque in my giving. I am not saying that you should feel bad if you don't give away over 98% of your income. I hope that you are encouraged and inspired by the story of John Wesley, and not discouraged and ashamed, as I was at first. Our giving should not be a mere mathematical formula that we filter our income through like we do when we fill out our taxes. Our generosity should be fueled by faith, obedience, and surrender to God. A person's money is intimately intertwined with their heart. Your money will follow your heart, and with enough time, your heart will ultimately follow your money.

Not Normal

Keep in mind that radical giving is completely contrary to the motives of the world around us. It always has been and always will be. Even in John Wesley's time, the English Tax Commissioners were so flummoxed with Wesley's generosity that they investigated him in 1776, insisting that for a man of his income he must have "silver dishes" that he was not paying tax on. He wrote them saying, "I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread" (Toward the Tithe and Beyond, John Piper).

Now this I say, he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed. - 2 Corinthians 9:6-8




John Wesley, Methodical pietist

An Account of the Life of John Wesley

What Wesley Practiced and Preached About Money

Toward the Tithe and Beyond