104) Religion and Wealth

     John Wesley (1703-1791):  “O ye lovers of money, hear the Word of the Lord.  Do you suppose that money, though multiplied as the sand of the sea, can give happiness?  Then you are ‘given up to a strong delusion to believe a lie’– a palpable lie, confuted daily by a thousand experiments.  Open your eyes!  Look all around you!  Are the richest men the happiest?  Have those the largest share of contentment who have the largest possessions?  Is not the very reverse true?  Is it not a common observation that the richest men are, in general, the most discontented, the most miserable?  Had not the far greater part of them been more contented when they had less money?  Look inside yourselves.  If you are increased in goods, are you proportionately increased in happiness?  You have more substance; but have you more contentment?  You know that in seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.  And let them be painted and gilded ever so finely, they are empty still.”

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     Dean Kelly, Why Conservative Churches are Growing, 1972, page 55:  The Wesleyan revival made former beggars and roustabouts into such honest and self-respecting citizens that their neighbors took to entrusting to them the valuables they didn’t trust themselves not to squander!  Unfortunately, the virtues of Wesley’s followers also helped them to prosper, and as they ascended in the esteem of their neighbors, they tended to place their religious commitments in perspective with other concerns, which took on increasing importance.  John Wesley, the founder of the movement, has summed up this process in what might be called Wesley’s Law:

 “Wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.  Therefore, I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long.  For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches.  But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches…  Is there no way to prevent this– this continual decay of pure religion?”

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     “Religion brought forth prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother…  There is danger, lest the enchantments of this world make us forget our errand into the wilderness.”  –Cotton Mather, 1702, Early American clergyman

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     As a solution to this problem, Wesley said Christians should guard themselves against temptation by giving away all the money that they possibly can, saying, “We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can, in order to give all they can.”  Observing the verse “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” Wesley himself lived on only 30 pounds a year, even though he at times earned 1,400 pounds a year from the sale of his books.  He gave all the rest away.  He said, “When I have money, I get rid of it as quickly as possible, lest it find a way into my heart.”  Wesley also said, “It is no more sinful to be rich than to be poor.  But it is dangerous beyond expression.  Therefore, I remind all of you who are of this number, who have the conveniences of life, and something left over, that you walk upon slippery ground…”

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Deuteronomy 8:6-7, 9-14, 17-18  —  (Moses said), “Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and revering him.  For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land… a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing…  When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and decrees that I am giving you this day.  Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud, and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…  You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant…”

Proverbs 30:7-9 — Two things I ask of you, O Lord;  do not refuse me before I die:  Keep falsehood and lies far from me;  give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.  Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’  Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

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O God, we beg you to save us this day from the distractions of vanity and the false lure of inordinate desires.  Grant us the grace of a quiet and humble mind, and may we learn from Jesus to be meek and lowly of heart.  May we not join the throng of those who seek after things that never satisfy and who draw others after them in the fever of covetousness.  Save us from adding our influence to the drag of temptation.  If the fierce tide of greed beats against our soul, may we rest at peace in your higher contentment.  In the press of life may we pass from duty to duty in tranquility of heart, and spread your quietness and peace to all who come near…  Amen  

–Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)