Hetty Green the Miser; What She Can Teach Us About God and Wealth

Jesus said and would still say to us today:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth , where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven……You cannot serve God and money (wealth/stuff). Matthew 6:19-20a, 24b (Becoming a Christian)

I want you to meet Hetty Green (1834-1916). If you type “famous misers” into yahoo’s search engine it will pull up an article in Wikipedia that has eight famous misers. (Not necessarily a thing to be proud of as you will see.) “A miser or cheapskate, is a person who is reluctant to spend money, sometimes to the point of forgoing even basic comforts and some necessities.” (From Wikipedia) Read this and notice the zeal for which Hetty served wealth.

  • Her family owned a large whaling fleet and she was  reading financial papers to her dad by the age of six. When she was 13, Hetty became the family bookkeeper.
  • When her father died in 1864 she inherited $7.5 million.
  • At the age of 33 she married Edward Henry Green, member of a wealthy Vermont family. She made him renounce all rights to her money before the wedding on July 11, 1867.
  • She never turned on the heat nor used hot water.
  • She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out. She did not wash her hands and rode an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents.
  • Keenly detail-oriented, she would travel thousands of miles – alone, in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted – to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.
  • Her frugality extended to family life. Her son Ned broke his leg as a child, and Hetty tried to have him admitted in a hospital charity ward. When she was recognized, she stormed away vowing to treat the wounds herself. The leg contracted gangrene and had to be amputated
  • Her daughter Sylvia lived with Hetty until her thirties. Hetty disapproved of all of Sylvia’s suitors because she suspected they wanted only to get their hands on her money. When Green finally let Matthew Astor Wilkes marry Sylvia on February 23, 1909, after a two-year courtship, the groom waived his right to inherit Sylvia’s fortune, and received US$5,000 for signing this prenuptial agreement. (Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune, entered the marriage with US$2,000,000 of his own; enough to assure Hetty that he wasn’t simply gold-digging.)
  • When her children left home, Green moved repeatedly among small apartments in Brooklyn Heights and mainly Hoboken, New Jersey to avoid establishing a residence permanent enough to attract the attention of tax officials in any state.
  • In her old age she began to suffer from a bad hernia but refused to have an operation because it cost $150.
  • Estimates of her net worth ranged from $100 million to $200 million (or $1.9 – $3.8 billion in 2006 dollars), arguably making her the richest woman in the world at the time. She was buried in Bellow Falls, Vermont next to her late husband, having converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith so they could be interred together.
  • Her children tended to spend their money more freely. (A real shocker.)

Jesus said at the end of verse 24, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Hetty served wealth and appears to have loved it, but what would it look like if we followed her example and served God (not money) with the same zeal and discipline? We might be a pharisee, that is true enough, and we certainly would not want to emulate the neglect of others to serve God. To do that would be a clear contradiction of the life of Christ and all that He taught. However, Hetty might also be a model for a life devoted to God in all things. What do you serve? “You will either hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other.” Do you love God like Hetty Green loved her money?


About brentprentice

Brent is the lead pastor and one of the Elders at Eagle Heights in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He has been married to Lacey for 14 years and together they love two sons, Luke and Elijah, and a daughter, Bella.

Posted on May 6, 2010, in Money. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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