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Is John Wesley’s Economic Advice Sound?

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Writing a commentary for the United Methodist News Service, J. Richard Peck encourages readers to heed John Wesley’s advice on economic policy. “In short, Wesley called for higher taxes upon the wealthy and laws that would prohibit the wasting of natural products,” says Peck. He notes that the cure for economic troubles relating to the poor was to repress luxury.

While some of Wesley’s economc advice is certainly sound, especially his views on the danger of debt, his understanding of basic economic principles in a free economy is severely limited. Kenneth J. Collins, a premier scholar and admirer of Wesley in fact notes as much in his book The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace just how far Wesley actually misses the mark. Collins declares:

Arguing ostensibly from a larger theme of proper stewardship, Wesley posited a “zero sum” world in which the maxim, “if the poor have too little it must because the rich have too much,” by and large ruled the day. As such, not only did he fail to recognize how capitalism actually works in a growing economy, even in a mercantilist one, but also his concern for stewardship, of what he called robbing the poor,” often developed upon such petty matters as the size and shape of women’s bonnets (and he forgets that poor workers often made these accessories) or upon his favorite moral foibles of censure, the consumption of alcohol.

The Theology of John Wesley will be reviewed in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty.

Curiously, Peck also highlights Wesley’s advice for less reliance upon pharmaceuticals. However Peck does not add that Wesley was at war with some healers or physicians in his own time who were taking advantage of the poor with faulty and expensive cures. Wesley published Primitive Physic, or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases in 1747. He generously distributed copies for free for the poor to fight back against those taking advantage of them. In Wesley’s account there are certainly improvements in medical suggestions, and his tips on healthy living are fairly standard even today. Wesley did not pull these cures and suggestions from thin air, much of his tips came from doctors he trusted. Still there were suggestions like rubbing your head with raw onions for curing baldness and holding a live puppy on the abdomen as a recommendation for intestinal obstruction. The point is that we would not take medical advice from Wesley over more advanced modern medicine, nor should we take economic advice from somebody with little economic understanding. It’s important to note that Wesley’s passionate assistance to the poor is certainly an effort to emulate.

The best advice Methodists can take from Wesley is to be rooted in the Good News he so passionately preached and spread across the globe. When United Methodism as a whole fully recaptures Wesley’s chief suggestion to his followers which was to “preach Jesus Christ and him crucified,” his followers will then again be aligned with the ancient truths.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.

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