Andrew Carnegie & The Gospel of Wealth

Giving away most of your wealth is unprecedented in our society—but that’s exactly what one of the richest men in America did. His name was Andrew Carnegie, and he spent the first half of his life accumulating more wealth than you can even imagine and the second half of his life giving it all away.

Rags-to-Riches Tale

Born into poverty in Scotland, he watched his father go bankrupt as new technology made his work obsolete. Witnessing his father beg for money affected him for the rest of his life. It wasn’t long before his family immigrated to America, looking for a land of opportunity.

Moving to Pennsylvania meant Carnegie had to end his education early and enter the workforce at age 13. His work ethic helped him rise through the ranks of a telegraph company and then in the railroad company that employed him. His long work hours didn’t stop him from self-educating by reading everything he put his hands on.

He carefully invested his early profits and moved up the ladder until he single-handedly owned a steel manufacturing enterprise. Though he earned his first fortune by the time he reached his 30’s, Carnegie never planned to work forever. He planned to clock out at age 35.

When he died, his list of goals was found tucked away, which read:

  • “I will spend the first half of this life accumulating money and I will spend the last half of this life giving it all away.”
  • “By this . . . I can so arrange all my business as to secure at least 50,000 per [year]. Beyond this never earn—make no effort to increase fortune but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes.” 

Despite Carnegie’s good intentions, he didn’t retire at 35. Why? Because of the same drive to do more and be more that overcame me. I relate to his story because the same greed that overpowered him had a death grip on me. You can read about my testimony in my book The Giving Crisis.

The Transformation

In the entrepreneurial world, Carnegie gets praised often for all he accomplished. But people in his day called him a robber baron—and rightfully so—for the ways he used and abused his workers. His company and right-hand man made a habit of overworking his people, shrinking their wages, giving their jobs away to incoming immigrants, and replacing them with machines that did their jobs for them.

This led to Carnegie’s net worth equaling 2% of the country’s entire gross domestic product. But even then, he didn’t stop. He kept making unparalleled amounts of money until finally, at age 65, he sold Carnegie Steel for $480 million and became one of the richest men in history.

It was at this point that he came to himself and realized that giving everything away was the only hope of redemption. He even said, “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”

In 1889, he wrote The Gospel of Wealth which shares that it took him over 50 years to realize the truth about money. In it, he argues that the burden of philanthropy rests on the shoulders of the wealthy and that the rich have a moral obligation to give back into the society that allowed them to be so successful. And that’s exactly what Carnegie did himself. Some say he spent most of his life overcompensating for the financial trauma he experienced in childhood—and the final part of his life trying to cover his sins with benevolence. Regardless of his motives, he practiced what he preached! He started multiple charities and was the largest individual investor in public libraries in American history. His lifetime gifts are estimated at $350 million—which would be worth more than $44 billion today, by some estimates.[1]

Carnegie did go on to give away most of his wealth. But the question remains: What took him—and what takes us—so long?

The Worship of Money

His story is typical. The numbers for all of us are different, but the path is the same for millions. His experience isn’t confined to the top 1%. Walk into any church today, and you’ll find pews filled with people who are restless and lack joy. Comparison eats away at us and—with it—consumerism. Carnegie, despite his failure, was right. He wrote, “Man must have no idol and the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry! No idol is more debasing than the worship of money!”

One of the richest men in the world discovered that money makes a terrible god. Deep down, I believe that most people want to achieve for themselves but also to benefit the world around them. Of course you want wealth, youth, and power—but more than that, like Carnegie, you and I ultimately want significance. It’s just that somewhere along the way we got sucked into this rat race of success, and we can’t turn off the voice that says, “You’re not enough. This is not enough!” What starts as the American Dream turns into an American nightmare—one where you’re chasing success and never arriving, pursuing happiness and never quite catching it.

This reminds me of a parable Jesus told about a rich man in Luke 12. The rich man had such abundance that he resolved to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold the excess. He said to himself, “‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:19-21). The rich man’s barns were full, but his soul was empty. He was materially wealthy but spiritually bankrupt. At the end of his life, he stood before God to give an account, and God calls him a fool. Why? Because he treasured wealth over Christ.

This is a warning to all of us. You may not think you’re wealthy like the rich man—but in this day and age, we have more resources and abundance than any time in history. We are among the richest people to ever live. Each of us has so much to give if we would only change our focus and see ourselves as stewards of what God has given us, not consumers.

That’s exactly what Carnegie did. He gave sacrificially until he died in 1919. We don’t know if he was a Christian at his death, although he was more spiritually open toward the end of his life. His story nevertheless serves as an example of Christ’s words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).


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