In 1760 John Wesley delivered a now famous sermon on Luke 16:9 known by the title “The Use of Money.” Wesley there advanced three exhortations that together comprise a commercial ethic: “Gain all you can”; “Save all you can”; “Give all you can.” 

Properly understood, these three exhortations together capture the practical, charitable bent of the original Wesleyan revival movement. They also express something broader about early modern British Christian economic ethics. 

Many British writers of the early modern period recognized the great power of private commercial enterprise to draw the resources, creativity, and exertions of different corners of humanity into a common stock (metaphorically, at least). Commerce was seen as a powerful instrument of freedom—it gradually freed laborers from dependence on the whims and humor of feudal lords and barons; it promised alleviation from hunger and privation by increasing material outputs in agriculture and manufacturing at lowering average costs. The returns of profitable commercial enterprise, moreover, gave the claimants of those returns the means for extensive charitable giving.

These perspectives fed into an ascendant commercial humanism in the eighteenth century which found expression in Wesley’s sermon among many other British pamphlets and books: Daniel Defoe’s Complete English Tradesman, Isaac Watt’s revised edition of Richard Steele’s The Tradesmans Calling, and many of the published sermons of Bishop Joseph Butler, for example. To earnestly engage in private commercial enterprise for these men was not simply to pursue private gain, but to pursue a calling—a vocation—in which one stewarded God’s gifts for the good of both self and neighbor.

British commercial humanism interrelated with developments in classical liberal political economy associated with Adam Smith. The conviction that honest industry was in and of itself a proper and noble end dovetailed with the demonstrations of the early classical economists of the remarkably beneficial consequences of economic freedom. 

Within what Smith called the “system of natural liberty,” which calls upon the state for national defense, the administration of justice, and the provision of a select few public goods (and not much more), everyone’s attempt to better his or her condition, it was reasoned, tends to improve the good of society. Thus, the theological and ethical understanding that honest industry partakes of God’s plan had, in the science of political economy, found a scientific affirmation.

The classically liberal view developed further into the nineteenth century. It was expressed powerfully in the writings of Frédéric Bastiat who wrote:

Whether we consider the relations of man to man, family to family, province to province, nation to nation, hemisphere to hemisphere, capitalist to worker, or property owner to proletarian, it is evident, I believe, that we cannot solve…the social problem…without choosing between these two maxims:

  • The profit of the one is the loss of the other.
  • The profit of the one is the profit of the other.

Bastiat of course subscribed to the latter, as do political economists in the classical liberal tradition to this day. When a nation allows its citizens to freely engage in commercial activity with one another (and also with citizens of other nations), improvements ensue: wealth is created by enabling more extensive division of labor; innovations emerge as individuals pursue profits and betterment through competition; resources are channeled into productive uses . As we commit to abide by the rules of property, contract, and the rule of law, we secure a society oriented towards the common good, a society within which the profit of the individual generally corresponds to the good of society. 

This mutual benefits interpretation of social relations is in part a legacy of the commercial humanism to which clergymen like Isaac Watts, Joseph Butler, Richard Baxter, Josiah Tucker, Richard Steele, and John Wesley contributed. Money and the goods it can procure, Wesley preached, can be used for ill; but money also has the potential to do much good:

[Money] is of unspeakable service to all civilized nations, in all common affairs of life. It is a most compendious instrument of transacting all manner of business, and (if we use it according to Christian wisdom) of doing all manner of good…[In] the present state of mankind, it is an excellent gift of God, answering the noblest ends. In the hands of his children, it is food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, raiment for the naked: It gives to the traveller and the stranger where to lay his head. By it we may supply the place of an husband to the widow, and of a father to the fatherless. We maybe a defence for the oppressed, a means of health to the sick, of ease to them that are in pain; it may be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame; yea, a lifter up from the gates of death! 

These humanistic sentiments, combined with Wesley’s threefold exhortation to gain, save, and give, provide broad warrant to ascribe to him a mutual benefits interpretation of social and economic phenomena. 

Wesley, however, draws our attention to a set of conditions he believed were required for the mutual benefits interpretation of economic affairs to hold from a normative—and ultimately theological—perspective. Those conditions chiefly relate to the heeding of conscience.

Wesley qualified his exhortation to “Gain all you can” with the condition that our efforts towards gain must do no harm to our neighbors. At a most basic level, commerce requires a mutual abstention from one another’s goods and a mutual respect of bodily sovereignty. The effort to “gain all you can” will not serve the good of others if we gain by physically harming our neighbor or stealing his lawful possessions.

Wesley’s harm principle, so to speak, goes beyond bodily harm and violations of property. He argued further that we are to avoid hurting our neighbor “in his substance.” He enjoined his audience to make sure that their pursuits of gain did not come by saddling neighbors with high and self-advantageous bills for unnecessary medical treatment or overly protracted legal counsel. He admonished against what today is sometimes called “predatory pricing.” He said, “we cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below market price; we cannot study to ruin our neighbor’s trade, in order to advance our own; much less can we entice away or receive any of his servants or workmen whom he has need of.” 

These are laudable sentiments which indicate Wesley’s constant concern to be oriented towards the good of others. They are, however, somewhat in tension in Wesley’s message on the issue of pricing practices. It is not clear how one can respond to profit opportunities and “gain all [he] can by honest industry” without participating in the competitive process, a process which will inevitably displace some and favor others. To follow Wesley’s advice and break off the “dull track” of our “forefathers” and continually “learn” and “improve” and “make the best of all that is in [our] hands” will unavoidably lead to some degree of creative destruction.  

Notwithstanding some inconsistency, Wesley’s main conclusion still holds. That conclusion simply is that in business, as in other walks of life, we ought to govern our conduct by the Golden Rule. Although there can be no objectively determined just price independent of a specific exchange, as Englishmen including the Puritan Richard Steele had argued since the late 17th Century, our behavior in the market as we sell our goods still ought to be just: it should mirror how we would wish to be treated were we on the other side of a transaction.

Economists argue that competition itself can be a powerful force for justice in its own right. Competition encourages sellers to be more forthcoming with their prospective customers and to offer lower prices. For example, competition in banking, Adam Smith argued, causes bankers to behave more liberally towards their customers and offer lower rates—not because they become more generous people but because they wish to attract depositors away from their competitors. More generally, businesses with unbecoming commercial practices will gain unfavorable reputations, and those reputations will negatively impact the profitability of the business.  

But these observations are beside Wesley’s main point. Whether or not we operate in a competitive environment, we should treat others as we would be treated—we act in a way that we would deem proper were we in their position. This includes not just the prices we charge our prospective customers, but the goods and services on offer. 

Economists define “goods” as items or services that people are willing to pay for. The definition is useful for descriptive purposes, but clearly, at least from a Christian perspective, the goodness of a thing cannot be determined by others’ willingness to pay for it. 

In a free market, profit signals that resources are being used in ways deemed productive by the community (though the signal is muddied by government-granted privileges and contracts). But that there are profits to be made in selling a thing does not, of course, make that thing good. Wesley took special aim in his sermon at English distillers to make this point. He argued that they should take stock of the ravages of the English gin epidemic of the mid-1700s in making their production decisions. Some, he admitted, ought to continue producing for medicinal purposes. But those were exceptional cases. Each needed to consult his conscience. 

In the most general terms, he exhorted producers to respond not merely to profit opportunities, but to profitable opportunities that benefit the community. In practice, of course, a seller cannot know what use his products will be put to. But for Wesley, this does not excuse each seller from estimating whether, on the whole, his products serve the good of the bodies of his neighbors and clientele—and the good of their souls.  

The most “dear-bought gain” for Wesley is that which comes at the cost of the faith of another. He warned against the production of goods and the support of services that minister to a man’s “unchastity…or intemperance”; he thus spoke against “taverns, victualling-houses, opera-houses, play-houses, or any other place of public, fashionable diversion.” He worried about goods and services that would not just corrupt the practice of virtue but detract from people’s faith.

His remarks on this front echo a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:13). Wesley said, in a not dissimilar vein, that if you supposed taverns, opera-houses, etc. “profit the souls of men, you are clear; your employment is good and your gain is innocent; but if they are either sinful in themselves, or natural inlets to sin of various kinds, then it is to be feared, you have a sad account to make.”

Regardless of what we today make of Wesley’s particular advice on consumption, the spirit of his exhortations is still worth heeding. The market has been a powerful force for good in human history, lifting billions out of poverty and facilitating innovations and life-enhancing technologies. It is a temptation, especially for those of us sympathetic to the classical liberal tradition, to view market outcomes as naturally and even necessarily good. We nod along with Bernard Mandeville’s aphorism that even private vices can yield common benefits. And it is true, the forces of competition and the institutions that sustain those forces can channel even bad intent (greed, for example) into remarkably productive outcomes. But even though the market can channel private vices into common goods, it is no substitute for private virtues. 

The market cannot be viewed as a morally neutral amplifier of human values, as it has sometimes been described, for the activities that do the amplifying (selling and buying) are carried out by intentional human actors. As participants in the market, both suppliers and consumers of goods and services, Wesley simply calls us to consider the cost of our activities in moral and spiritual terms, in addition to material ones. Profitability is necessary for a private enterprise, and it is presumptively virtuous. But profit does not perfectly correspond with desirability. We must reflect whether the products of our profitable enterprise truly enhance the good of our neighbor, in body and soul. This is a difficult matter, and reflections must be contextualized. But the difficulty of contextual judgments does not excuse us from the task. Only when we can say in good conscience that the products of our industry contribute to the moral and spiritual health of others—which many even mundane products clearly do—can we join with Wesley to say that, upon gaining all we can, saving all we can, and giving all we can, that we are stewarding God’s gifts and “[making] the best of all that is in [our] hands.”