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God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860

Author(s):Noll, Mark A.
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (January 2004)


Mark A. Noll, editor, God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xii + 313 pp. $49.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-19-514800-2; $22.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-19-514801-0.

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

This book’s primary title, God and Mammon, evokes the scriptural injunction that one cannot serve God and Mammon, which suggests an either-or choice. Yet, the book is not about people torn over such a choice. On the contrary, the subjects of this book are portrayed generally as fully participating in the American economy, even shaping the economy, while holding to their faith with no sense of contradiction. Specifically, two chapters are devoted to refuting Charles Sellers’ thesis (The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846) that a strain of American frontier religion aligned itself in a culture-war against expanding capitalism.

By default, the sub-title (Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860) bears the weight of describing the book’s content, but comes up wanting. Despite the title, the book is more narrowly focused on the era’s evangelical branch of American Protestantism, not Protestantism in general; going further, fully four out of thirteen chapters are devoted to early Methodism, as the exemplar of such evangelicalism. The title’s reference to “money and the market” leaves unanswered whether the book deals primarily with intellectual interaction of religion and economics or with practice. In fact, the various chapters deal with both ideas and practice and with cases where influence runs in either direction. The book generally finds that evangelical Protestantism remained true to its religious roots even while engaging the economic life of the era and utilizing its opportunities.

The chapter by David Paul Nord on the evangelical publishing societies, which loomed large in the publishing industry of the era, documents how these organizations grasped new economic methods and opportunities, while adhering to their religious goals. The Bible and tract societies built “truly national institutions (some of the first modern business firms, really) with national reach” (p. 164), while reaching people of all means with their literature. At the same time as these publishers developed and used the methods of capitalism, they rejected the secular, demand-driven publishing that resulted in “the literature of wickedness, sensation, dissipation and error” (p. 164).

Looking at doctrine, the book finds little deviation of the new evangelical thought from the historic Protestant traditions regarding economic life. Mark Noll concludes the “main developments” of the evangelical encounter with the burgeoning economy may be regarded “as a continuation of historic Christian, Protestant, and Reformed attitudes …” (emphasis added, p. 273). Although these principles were adapted better to fit the emerging market economy and the disestablishment of religion, “there is little evidence” that the evangelicals were “coopted by market reasoning,” which remained “subordinate to intrinsically religious convictions” (p. 273). Thus, Noll concludes, evangelicals interacted with the market without abandoning core principles. (Other authors conclude that evangelicals did not define their position by blind opposition to the market.)

Richard Pointer authors a chapter on Presbyterians, the only chapter covering a denomination other than the Methodists. Presbyterians, if the Sellers thesis is correct, would be an interesting study in contrasting attitudes toward the market, between the Old School Calvinists and the more evangelical New School Presbyterians. And, yet, Pointer argues that the New and Old School pulpits of Philadelphia sounded very similar when teaching about the economic virtues. He speaks of “the sweeping convergence of Old School and New School thought, not only on work values, but also on economic ethics in general” (p. 178). If this is so, then whatever the evangelicals’ adaptations to the emerging market, their core values remained comparable to earlier Protestants. Such continuity raises the question why the book chooses to concentrate on the evangelical era at all, for it was apparently not unique, at least in terms of doctrine. The answer may be that the book is at least in part a rejoinder to Sellers, who argued that the era was unique.

Richard Cardwine’s chapter explains that evangelical Methodism was compatible with capitalism despite its earliest membership being from the poor: “… although the early Methodists were poor, they were far from hostile to enterprise and the capitalist ethic. The movement was indeed a radical, egalitarian counterculture … [but it was] not against industrious effort and self-improvement” (p. 80). With the decline of colonial established churches, Methodists learned to compete for converts: “Methodism was both a perfect metaphor for the emergent capitalist market … and the principal beneficiary of the free spiritual market that superseded the colonial system …” (p. 82). Methodism also was congruent with the market in “its stress on individual responsibility, and its stimulus to self-improvement and enterprise” (p. 85).

If refuting Sellers requires emphasizing how well Methodist methods and ethics fit the market environment of the new republic, Cardwine nevertheless resists economic determinism. He holds that Methodists’ partisan allegiances “were to a considerable degree shaped by meaningful ideological conflict between competing religious groups.” Methodists’ underlying concerns “were shaped as much by the religious as by economic marketplace” (p. 92). The primary religious conflict, of course, was between the Methodist theology that attributed more to human agency in salvation than did orthodox Calvinism.

Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to equate orthodox Calvinism with anti-market views, and Cardwine does not make this error. For example, the Calvinistic Old School Presbyterians (as shown by Pointer) were surely open to capitalism. Indeed, there is a century-long literature documenting the compatibility of Calvinistic Puritanism and the market. If there is a single criticism I would make of this book it is its failure to elaborate these colonial roots of the evangelical tradition, even while simultaneously arguing that evangelicalism did not abandon those roots.

Noll summarizes the dominant Protestant view of economics, a view that earlier Puritans would have recognized: it drew “a fine line between accepting the legitimacy of wealth (also the means to gain wealth) and denouncing the abusive use of wealth for selfish ends” (p. 272). The Protestants took commerce for granted but “were more concerned to surround economic life with injunctions about using wealth wisely, benevolently, and for the good of others” (p. 272). In the era of utilitarian economic doctrines, Protestant ethics featured obligations that existed independent of self-interested motives: “Protestants were simply urged, without consideration of reward, to give for the general spread of Christianity” (emphasis added, p. 274). Finally, “Antebellum Protestants were also traditional in ascribing to God most of the responsibility for the presence or absence of wealth” (p. 274). “Even in an age of expanding markets, God still ruled …” (p. 274). Colonial preachers could have sounded these themes.

Most of the contributors to the volume are historians, but two economists are included. Chapter two, by Robin Klay and John Lunn, documents the important role, not only of individual Protestants, but of Protestant organizations, in the economy of the 1790-1860 era. Other chapters that I have not covered in this review include one on the marketing of revivals and the differing religious perceptions of economic life in the North and South.

This book contains a wealth of information and interpretation, and is carefully documented with a host of references. The volume demonstrates that the religious beliefs and commitments of historical actors should be taken seriously when attempting to explain their actions.

Donald E. Frey is author of “Francis Wayland’s 1830s Textbooks: Evangelical Ethics and Political Economy,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought (Summer 2002).

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