1. Have you ever heard of Henry Parsons Crowell?
2. Have you ever eaten Quaker Oats Cereal?
Let me guess your answers: no to the first, yes to the second. Or at least you’ve heard of the second. I myself enjoy Quaker Oats. I feel like a grandfather saying that, but it’s true.
But why, you ask, are we talking about cereal? Because Henry Parsons Crowell founded Quaker Oats. Crowell is an unknown guy today, but he was a dynamo in his day. Born to a Christian family in 1855, he overcame tremendous odds as a young man after falling ill with tuberculosis. He eventually bought the defunct Quaker Mill factory in Ravenna, Ohio, and along with it the trade name “Quaker” (though he was not a Quaker, but an evangelical Christian).
Over the next several decades, Crowell applied his business ingenuity to what became “Quaker Oats” cereal. He pioneered the “trial size” cereal box, putting prizes in cereal boxes, and direct marketing to consumers that emphasized the real benefits of the product in an age when your average advertisement for “elixir” promised to end sickness forever. He was a genius marketer, but an honest one.
By 1920, the company made $120 million in revenue, in part due to its “Puffed Rice” and “Puffed Wheat” products (that’s well over a billion dollars in today’s currency). In taking a once-dead company to global success, Crowell had become fabulously wealthy, but he defied the way of the world. He had committed his earnings to the Lord and tithed around 70 percent of his earnings in adulthood. A huge portion of his giving went to the Moody Bible Institute, but Crowell didn’t stop there. He helped the school develop its radio ventures and later its renowned aviation program. These were no small contributions—even a century later, WMBI has over 400 affiliates, and it has sent thousands upon thousands of graduates to the mission field, among other places of ministry.
What’s the point here?
The point is that Henry Parsons Crowell made a lot of money, but he didn’t make it for himself. He genuinely believed that he could serve God by using his entrepreneurial gifts to advance the gospel of Christ’s kingdom. There was a marvelous synergy in his life, in other words. His brilliant marketing wasn’t separate from his simple piety.
I want to be frank: some Christians might have a problem with all this talk about huge amounts of money. They might fundamentally distrust all money-making and embrace what’s sometimes called “poverty theology.” It’s certainly good to be on the alert about the temptation of riches. The love of money really does stimulate all kinds of evil desires and actions (1 Timothy 6:10). And the Bible condemns lusting after poverty or riches (Proverbs 30:8). It’s notable to us that Judas sold out Jesus not for fame and glory, but for a bag of money. What could be more evocative of the temptation of riches than that?
But let’s strive to be careful and nuanced in our thinking. The Bible doesn’t enfranchise “prosperity theology,” but neither does it support “poverty theology” as a way of life for the majority of God’s people. Some people today think it’s especially spiritual to opt out of the market, renounce one’s possessions, and live hand-to-mouth. That’s what you do if you’re really, truly godly. I disagree. Some are no doubt called to undertake some version of this way of life. We support many missionaries, for example, who raise support to take the gospel of Christ to lost souls. Our giving should be generous, sacrificial, and joyful. But that means that many of us actually need to lead money-producing lives. We need to tap our God-given skills to create wealth. We need to labor hard and well at jobs that aren’t explicitly spiritual in order to bless our families, our churches, and global missions.
If that’s what you’re doing or want to do, feel utterly no shame, my friend. Work hard, and make money in conscionable ways with gusto. That’s what “bold work” looks like.
But maybe you’re thinking, Really? Are you sure it’s okay to make and spend money as a believer?
Well, good question. Here’s a helpful passage to consider. Paul says the following in 1 Timothy 6:17-19:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
Paul does not, in this passage, malign wealth, possessions, or even what you might call a “nice lifestyle.” He does not condemn the rich. He does not castigate them for their wealth. Instead, he calls them to two things: to remember the ultimate end of life–God and his glorification–and to be positively sacrificial in the way they live, being “rich in good works.”
So what does this mean for us when it comes to basic needs and even wants? Can we buy cars or houses or air conditioners or running shoes, or should we feel guilty if we do? In answering this tough question, perhaps we should reconsider biblical figures made wealthy by God. Here are a few:
- Abraham had tremendous land holdings and possessions, including “gold” (Genesis 13:2).
- Joseph was elevated to a power of major influence and tremendous wealth by God.
- David knew fantastic wealth as the king of Israel, as God hugely blessed his reign (1 Chronicles 29:8).
- Solomon’s wealth surpassed that of all other earthly kings (2 Chronicles 9:22).
- Job was a man of superlative wealth both before and after calamities befell his family (Job 1, 41).
- Like Joseph, Daniel became tremendously powerful and well-supported in Babylon.
- Joseph of Arimathaea was the “rich man” who was “Jesus’ disciple” and asked for Christ’s body following his death (Matthew 27:57).
- Joanna, wife of Chuza, knew great wealth due to the fact that her husband was the steward of Herod Antipas, king of Galilee; she used the wealth to fund the Apostle’s gospel work (Luke 8:3).
- The Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion who came to faith were both high-ranking leaders and likely wealthy (Acts 8, 10).
Being godly does not mean that you will necessarily be wealthy. God makes no such guarantees in the Bible. But as this brief list shows, God is clearly not opposed to wealth, even tremendous wealth. He is pleased to grant it to some of his followers. This means, I think, that he is not opposed to what you could call a “normal” lifestyle. If we’re giving sacrificially out of love for Christ from our earnings, I think God is pleased with us.
There’s no exact biblical figure here for New Testament Christians; scholars like D. A. Carson suggest a general principle of sacrificial generosity to our churches, global missions, and needed cultural endeavors. Personally, I think devoting 10 percent of our earnings to our church and global missions is a good starting point, and we could increase that by a percentage point each year if possible.
So give richly, and avoid false guilt. It’s not wrong to spend money. Cars, coats, paved driveways, dark chocolate raisins, and good books can all be good, common-grace gifts of God. Vacations aren’t wrong, provided they’re not what we live for. Treating one’s family well as a provider is a delight. And as a worker, you should feel free to make money aggressively in ethical ways. Be shrewd in your business. Apply all your abilities and talents to work, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Enjoy the life that God has graciously given you.
We should, of course, be careful about money, and especially the love of it, a state of heart which comes naturally to many of us. But believers should not be heard as anti-wealth and anti-business. God is not. When we work and use whatever he gives us to his glory, he is immensely pleased.
On that note, it might be time for a commemorative bowl of Quaker Oats.
Owen Strachan is the author of “Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome” (Thomas Nelson). This content is an expansion on material from the book. Strachan is a professor at Boyce College and is on the steering committee of Southern Seminary’s Kern Initiative.