Stories of Generosity: John Wesley

John Wesley(1703-1791) is best known for being the founder of the Methodist Church. His father was an Anglican priest. After an unsuccessful two-year ministry in Savannah, Georgia, Wesley returned to England and became a Moravian. He was moved by their non-anxious presence during a storm at sea. On May 24, 1738 he had a converstion, while listening to a reading of Martin Luther on Romans. He found his heart “strangely warmed.”

What is less known is that Wesley was elected a fellow at Oxford University. He taught Greek and lectured on the New Testament. This post came with a lucrative salary. According to this article, Wesley spent his salary on gambling, tobacco and alcohol. But his lecturing on the gospels led him to a greater concern for those living in poverty. We wanted to be more generous, and this set him on a new course in life.

When he started this journey, he recorded in a journal that his salary was £30. His expenses added up to about £28, so he had £2 to give. The next year his income doubled to £60, but he continued to live on the same £28, so he gave £32 to the poor. The next year, his income was £90. Again, he kept his expenses at £28, and gave away £62. The next year his income grew by another £30, to £120. (I wish mine would do that.) As you might, expect, he gave away £92. He continued to practice this throughout his life. One year his income was over £1,400. He lived on about £30. Hard to believe? The English Tax Commissioners thought so too, and were surprised to find it was true.

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Wesley did not practice or preach the tithe (giving away 10%). After his needs were met, he shared the rest, giving away 80% of his income. This will make people squirm, but is it not what Jesus asked of the Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-22)? Is it not what Jesus praised in the Widow’s Coins (Luke 21:1-4)? Does it not reflect the Bible’s heart for those who are in greatest need? This understanding of generosity moves us beyond a this-is-mine theology.

A modern-day pastor has done something similar. Rick Warren, author of A Purpose Driven Life, made a mint off his book. As he prayed about his new influence and affluence, he was convicted: “I had to repent… I had to say, ‘God, I’m sorry, I can’t think of the last time I thought of widows and orphans.” The Bible has a lot to say about widows, orphans and immigrants. Why do we not see them? Warren was convicted. With his new income, he paid back his church back all the salary they had given him over the years and decided to live off 10% of his income, giving 90% away. A reverse tithe. He started spending time in Africa and thinking about AIDS, literacy, water and poverty. He said it was a shift from “self-centeredness to unselfishness.”

John Wesley rarely had more than £100. He is reported to have said, in 1744, “[When I die] if I leave behind me ten pounds… you and all mankind bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.”

This is clearly a different approach than that of Benjamin Franklin, but both are perhaps faithful expressions of generosity in their context. What will be yours?