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Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860

Author(s):Davenport, Stewart
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (September 2008)

Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2008. x + 269 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-13706-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Donald E. Frey, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Stewart Davenport describes how American Protestants in the period 1815-60 related their faith to the economics that emerged in the U.S. North. American Protestantism, Davenport argues, did not fit well with political economy ? which had purely secular roots, held ?amoral priorities and prescriptions,? and ?led to conclusions that were inconsistent with Christian theology and morality? (p. 9). This reviewer agrees, and has stated the point slightly differently (see Frey 2002, pp. 218-20).

Given that both Protestant belief and economic doctrines are large bodies of thought, which provide plenty of leeway for interpretation, it is not surprising that Protestant moralists divided in their responses to political economy. The clerical economists sought to harmonize laissez-faire and their version of Christianity; this group of ministers adopted the utilitarian ethics of economics (which was unlike biblical ethics). The contrarians condemned political economy as thoroughly anti-Christian; this group held to the deontological (obligation-oriented) ethics of scripture. Finally, the pastoral moralists sought mainly to preserve the virtue of individual Christians living with the temptations of economic life; for this group, ethics was understood as building Christian character or virtue. Davenport infers the major ideas of each group from the writings of significant members. Because clerical laissez-faire came to dominate in the denominational colleges, and thereby proved very influential over time, this review will concentrate largely on Davenport?s analysis of this group.

The clerical economists, according to Davenport, were motivated by the chance to use political economy as a defense of Christianity against the threat of foreign radical ideas. Their case relied on Scottish Common Sense philosophy and natural religion ? both of which were common intellectual fare in American Protestant thought of that era. Natural theology held ?that all of nature was the work of a benevolent creator? and so pointed to that kind of creator (p. 53). Political economy (as the clerical economists read it) discovered benevolent economic laws (e.g., such as the mutual gains from trade, which bound peoples together by commerce and so diminished warfare). This fortified belief in a creator who had designed such a harmonious system. To these academic ministers, ?Smith’s economic system … was harmonious and apparently good …, both of which were attributes consistent with the tenets of natural theology? (p. 53). To reach this conclusion, clerical economists ignored both Adam Smith’s religious skepticism, on one side, and the biblical portrayal of God, on the other.

Scottish Common Sense held that science must be compatible with revealed religion, for the God of nature and the God of scripture was one and the same. If economic laws were analogues to natural laws, then Christian morality and economic science could not possibly be in conflict. The clerical economists therefore defended the morality of economics by invoking ?political economy?s scientific authority? (p. 62). As Davenport sums up, ?if (economics) was a real science … then it had to be in league with revealed religion? (67). The clerical economists used this to trump any religious arguments against apparently unchristian aspects of political economy and capitalism, thereby never having to deal with the actual critiques. Davenport renders great service in painting this larger intellectual context of clerical laissez-faire.

Davenport does not stop there, but delves deeper to show that the clerical economists? argument rested on weak foundations. These clergymen simply asserted that economics was a science, while failing to make a robust case that it really was. Further, the political economy they found supportive of natural theology consisted of selectively chosen propositions from Smith, stripped of the pessimistic doctrines of Malthus and Ricardo that didn?t fit their case so well. I believe that Davenport could have pushed his critique even further. For example, to make their case, the laissez-faire clergymen abandoned the Protestant understanding of science, namely empirical natural science. Their political economy was not empirical, but was a priori, speculative, and deductive ? the kind of intellectual system that Protestants typically had disliked; at most, their economic science evinced a very, very casual empiricism.

Of course, the clerical economists also had to reshape Christianity into something that could be supported by arguments taken from economics. Having done so, ?the clerical economists had reason to fear that [their picture of the] God of nature and creation would be different from the God of scripture and revelation? (p. 66). For example, the God of scripture is definitely not a utilitarian philosopher; yet, the clerical economists portrayed exactly this ? a social-utilitarian deity. Clerical economists knew utilitarianism did not pass the test of Calvinist orthodoxy, so obscured their utilitarianism with hair-splitting semantics and convoluted arguments. To use an example Davenport could have cited: a key member of the school, Francis Wayland, made much of his orthodoxy by rejecting William Paley’s ?theological utilitarianism,? but effectively replaced it with an operational utilitarianism of his own, all the while obscuring the fact with elaborate arguments to support his religious orthodoxy (see Frey 2002, pp. 221-24). In short, their utilitarian God created a good economic system leading to good consequences. When that ?good? system occasionally produced rather bad results (as in the crisis of 1837), the clerical economists remained silent. This immunity to facts paid off, for their influence lived on beyond the economic depression.

One not familiar with the theological-philosophical issues might wonder why utilitarianism was so foreign to Christianity. Charles Dickens pithily contrasted utilitarian and Christian morality in his novel of the era, Hard Times. He noted that Jesus? Good Samaritan must have been a very, very bad economist ? the obvious reason being that the Samaritan quickly aided the victim of robbers from his simple love of a neighbor in need, whereas a utilitarian in the Samaritan?s place would have stopped to make self-oriented cost-benefit calculations and so probably would not have rendered aid.

By siding with the economics of self-interest, the clerical economists lost the Christian capacity to critique economic excess (for the self finds it difficult to restrain itself, as any colonial-era Puritan could have told them). Indeed, says Davenport, ?the clerical economists said almost nothing about how and when [Christian virtues] were supposed to limit and restrain? excesses (p. 95). Wayland fit this description exactly: in a nod to the Christian doctrine of sin, he admitted that self-interested action could become evil; but he mainly suggested that self-interest generally was morally innocent. This being so, an economic system predicated on self-interest should be of no moral concern for Christians. Economic evils were chalked up to individual failures, but never counted as evidence of the inherent weakness of a system predicated on self-interest.

Davenport?s discussion is generally comprehensive, but I would recommend a small addition. He emphasizes that the clerical economists were more interested in the big picture (the economic system) than how individuals fit into that picture. This may well be so, from one perspective at least. Yet, the system of laissez-faire, in order to work, had to cultivate people who possessed a certain moral posture: specifically, individuals needed a strong sense of personal autonomy, both in defining their self-interest and acting on it. In the writings of Francis Wayland, the defense of personal autonomy was strong. He insisted on extreme versions of personal rights (such as absolute property rights); these would fortify personal autonomy and protect against the social restraints on individual freedom that come from moral obligations to others. This contrasts greatly with the Christian obligation to serve the weakest brethren, or with the biblical notion of stewardship in the use of possessions that are ultimately understood to be God?s property. As was typical of Wayland?s argumentation, he admitted in principle that Christians had moral obligations to others, but then he minimized such obligations, restricting them to a tiny corner of religious life. On the other hand, he waxed highly indignant against anything that might infringe the rights that fortified the autonomy of the individual and against ?oppression? by government. The system promoted by the clerical economists could work only by cultivating a certain personality type whose attitudes did not align well with much Christian teaching.

Personal morality was the main focus of the pastoral moralists. Of significance, as Davenport makes clear, is that this group ?agreed with the clerical economists about the overall goodness of the market-capitalist system? (p. 168). However, they worried about what involvement in that economic system could do to individual character ? strengthen or ruin it. In effect, the pastoral moralists, like Puritans before them, proposed walking an ethical tightrope: self-interest and business were morally legitimate, but could lead to moral ruin ? and temptation was always lurking at the door. Davenport sums up: self-interested competition ?was the motivating engine that drove the economy, but that also had to be restrained and subject to the boundaries of Christian morality? (p. 192). As noted, the pastoral moralists spoke of boundaries to keep behavior Christian. However, they were so thoroughly Protestant that they generally left it to the individual conscience to define the moral boundary: unfortunately, some consciences would not be very good ethical surveyors. Sometimes the pastoral moralists themselves stated more clear-cut boundaries, as in condemning outright deception or practices that injured others for one?s own benefit. However such standards set the bar low from a Christian perspective: even Wayland made a utilitarian argument against behavior that hurt others on the grounds that such behavior, if generalized, threatened the survival of a free economic system (libertarians do as much to this day). But the fundamental problem of the pastoral moralists was that they never questioned the system, or the ethical premises, that produced the behavior they warned against.

Davenport describes and critiques the clerical economists, but it is important to note that he does the same for the other two schools of thought. He is generally even-handed and is sympathetic to the intellectual challenges all these moralists faced. Not one of the three schools, as Davenport describes them, had a perfect response to the new economic system that had burst on the scene; and each school of moral thought contained contradictions and loose ends. Davenport suggests that the ambiguities of the biblical parable of the Unjust Steward point to an inherent difficulty in finding unambiguous responses to moral issues of economics.

Davenport?s study recognizes the significance of the interface between economics and the wider culture, in this case religion. Of course, the significance of this has been noticed before (e.g. Henry May?s Protestant Churches and Industrial America or Liston Pope?s Mill Hands and Preachers). Davenport concentrates on the intellectual interaction between economics and religion rather than sociological and institutional boundaries. And he engages in a sustained analysis. This makes the book significant.

Davenport has uncovered and clarified the motives of, and arguments of, the people who worked to harmonize American Protestantism with laissez-faire economics. He also clarifies the work of two other groups; but here he stops. However, it is hard not to extrapolate beyond where Davenport leaves the reader. No doubt there were church people more than willing to accept the ideas of the clerical economists ? or who would have accepted laissez-faire practice even without moral support at all. However, without an intellectual structure that assured Protestants that there was harmony between their professed faith and laissez-faire, Protestants ultimately might have provided far less support for conservative, anti-reform sentiment than has been the case in the last century and a half since the clerical economists wrote. The overlap of Protestants with highly conservative economic ideas might have happened anyway; but it is helpful to understand that a group of moralists worked very hard to make it happen the way it did.

Reference: Donald E. Frey. 2002. ?Francis Wayland’s 1830s Textbooks: Evangelical Ethics and Political Economy.? Journal of the History of Economic Thought (24: 2): 215-31.

Donald Frey?s book America?s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics (SUNY Press) is forthcoming in 2009.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century