How Early American Pastors Learned To Embrace Capitalism By (Eventually) Listening To Their Members
Anybody who has spent much time in Church or Synagogue knows that the default approach is that clergy teach laity, not just in faith and morals, but quite often in matters pertaining to business and economics. But the problem is that clergy seldom have remotely the same amount of experience and expertise in financial matters as their members. Often men of the cloth have been quick to judge and even excommunicate members for practices which the professional clergy simply do not understand. This was clearly the case in early America. But as merchants were called to account before pastors, and even church courts, those merchants were forced to defend their actions. Initially those defenses, which consisted mostly of simple tutorials about normal market practices, were not accepted by church leaders. But over time, the knowledge from the laity sifted up to the clergy and to the professional theological classes and, in the end, won the day. By the eve of the War for Independence, New England clergy had moved from being the chief critics of financial innovation to being solid supporters of it.
Historian Mark Valeri, Distinguished Professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, has detailed this transformation in his fascinating book, Heavenly Merchandize. Here’s the section of our recent interview which deals with the transformation in the attitude of the clergy towards financial markets:
Jerry: “Okay, so we have a debate going on [in early New England] about usury and what it means, and the modern idea that the market is out there discounting and accounting for risk — that risk levels are higher when inflation is higher. International risk levels are higher during, say, an age of piracy or privateering. So if the Dutch are allowed to privateer–if there’s a period of time, a letter of mark, a reprisal or something like that that permits privateering–then of course risks go up a lot for international shipping but the 8% limit on interest doesn’t go up, at least in puritan theology. But what I saw in your book is that there’s this entire other community out there which itself also seems to be Christian, if not Puritan in orientation, that’s essentially merchant professional associations that are talking about how to account for the risk, and how to write up these bills of credit and how to trade them, and there’s a kind of bottom-up–from the church member, the laity level–a tradition developing of common law and custom and books that are popular of these financially innovative instruments that is not coming from the church – is conflicting with the church – but is popular among lay members who are traders and merchants. Is that correct?”
Mark: “That is correct until the 1670s, say, when New England encounters a series of very deep crises, a threat to its existence. The crisis comes from parliamentary intervention into New England’s trading: the rise of navigation acts, the threat to revoke Massachusetts’ self-elected governor or that Massachusetts elects its own governors, to impose a royal governor in a royal administration. And then several very upsetting disasters: wars against Indians and the fear that the French are encroaching from the north — during that period, from within the church, from within the ministry, from within those people preaching about the Bible there becomes a loosening up of restrictions on usury in attempt to square that with the Bible. New England is God’s chosen instrument in the world, and if New England depends upon trade and trade is being threatened, the whole existence of New England is being threatened. Then God is allowing a new reading of the Bible which adjusts and allows greater participation in transatlantic commerce, therefore more flexibility in the use of credit instruments, civil litigation of unpaid debts, and violated business contracts and trading contracts.”
Jerry: “So, before this transition basically the friendliness to the innovations of capitalism was largely restricted to merchants, merchants associations, and religious dissenters. We haven’t really talked about them, but Anne Hutchinson and her followers, and you mentioned Tillotson in England. These people are still Christians, they’re still Orthodox, they’re probably still Calvinists even (although maybe that’s somewhat debatable), but they’re just not as hardcore, rock-ribbed as the Puritan establishment. And they’re essentially either put out of the Puritan establishment or they willingly leave.”
Jerry: “And they’re kind of at the edges of society, but you’re saying in the 1670s now some of this, I would say, ‘insight’ from the laity and the dissenters starts to filter its way up into the Puritan church establishment. They go through a rethink based on necessity.”
Mark: “Necessity and a set of ideas that invests New England with divine purpose. It is necessity that for New England’s survival they must become a viable, overseas trading society. The question I was asking was, “Well, do ministers, and therefore ministers preaching to these merchants and these merchants absorbing these ideas — is there a sense in which you would widely regard New England or the common economic interest of New England as a good thing? As a divine command?””
Jerry: “Right. Why not just say, “Yea, though He slay me, yet will I serve Him; maybe we deserve to be destroyed and we’re going to take our medicine”?”
Mark: “Exactly. So there’s a shift in the understanding of what New England is. And if New England is now a player in global history and is God’s agent in global history, it’s that theological idea (if you will) which is in conversation with the economic necessities. I don’t want to say it’s all being moved by pure economic necessity, because ministers change their preaching about it at the same time that the practices are being changed.”
Jerry: “So, this is your rebuttal of economic determinism, that they could have accepted the existential threat and not adapted their theology to the exigencies of providence; that they actually had to shift their ideas and, I suppose, let me take it a step further: they had to have a worldview and a theology which was adaptable to the new set of conditions. Do you agree with that?”
Mark: “I do. And they code that adaptability in the language of providence. Providence is the notion that God rules the world for divine purposes in temporal affairs, in history, in time, in space. Providence then becomes their language–speaking of adaptability–if you discern how providence is working, and He’s working through New England. He’s helping New England flourish in the midst of parliamentary opposition or in the midst of war with the Dutch or in the midst of threats from Native American tribes to the north and the west. The adaptation is to say that we read New England theologically as being an instrument and therefore we need to adapt these new circumstances as a theological mandate.”
Jerry: “There’s a clash of civilizations: popery versus Protestantism, and New England needs to be strong.”
Jerry: “I see. So there’s a higher calling to our prosperity.”
Article originally published on Forbes.com.