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Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.

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

Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. xiii + 337 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-14359-0.

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


Mark Valeri shows impressive mastery of a huge amount of colonial New England archival material, ranging from merchants? accounts, personal letters and legal filings, to Puritan ministers? sermons, tracts, and lectures. He also understands the major thinkers who shaped intellectual currents in England and America, during the period from the founding of Boston through the mid-eighteenth century. Valeri shapes all this into a comprehensive picture of the joint evolution of economics and Puritan teaching. Although Valeri does not explicitly address Max Weber?s Protestant ethic thesis, and even states that the book is not about Weber, I believe that his detailed portrayal of an evolving, multi-faceted Protestant ethic nevertheless shows Weber?s classic to be lacking in depth, with all the qualifications that fact raises.

Valeri frames this history as a sequence of overlapping stages, focusing upon a representative merchant for each of the stages. Valeri?s lens is specifically upon pious merchants, who believed that their commercial practices and ideals were compatible with their Puritan faith. That these merchants were not rebels from mainstream Puritan teaching makes Valeri?s case all the more compelling. Besides showing how religion shaped commerce, Valeri also shows that economics shaped religious teachings: Puritanism?s early suspicion of commerce eventually learned to stand on its head, evolving into an endorsement of commerce. Indeed, the book?s title is taken from the title of a colonial sermon that resorted to commercial metaphors to make its point.

Puritan merchant Robert Keayne is Valeri?s representative of the first stage (early Boston to 1650).? Keayne tried to hold to two moral codes that were incompatible at major points of intersection. The ?civic humanism? of merchant guilds idealized trade as a source of civic and national improvement and promoted professional practices such as keeping detailed accounts. Yet, Keayne also converted to Puritanism, which ?interpreted the market through a different conceptual framework? (p.26); this framework held that sinful humans, including merchants, and maybe especially merchants, were ?inescapably prone to avarice.? Further, as might be obvious, the norms of scripture were hardly the same as civic humanism. Thus, Keayne, the pious merchant, regularly heard sermons that ?warned that merchants were tempted to take advantage of their neighbors, forget their duty to the poor, and become self-interested,? and described an accounting mentality, which every merchant acquired as a matter of course, as a ?disguise for inhumaneness? (p. 31).?

The easy solution to Keayne?s dilemma would have been to reject orthodox Puritanism. Not surprisingly, many merchants flocked to the antinomian heresy, which ?condoned merchants? proclivities to follow their own regulations and rules? (p. 45). Yet, Keayne resolutely remained among the orthodox, faithfully submitting to censure from his church for his own business practices (though continuing to defend his own case). Keayne?s dual professions (one of faith, and one of livelihood) left him in a dilemma that lasted to his death, and was addressed in his bequest to the city. In this early era, Reformed religion recognized economic activity as another human arena requiring boundaries to define acceptable behavior.

With time, Puritan clergy did become more tolerant of trade — and ultimately, much more than merely tolerant. The second stage (1650- late 1680s) was marked by the restoration of the old royal line in England (following Puritan Cromwell?s interregnum). The restored monarchy forced upon New England royal governors not attuned to Puritanism; and Boston merchants inevitably came to conform to developing English trade practices.? According to Valeri, the new complexity of trade caused old Puritan certainties to blur. The Puritans knew ?that usury, oppression, and pure market pricing were wrong, but they lost the specific meaning of such terms in the swirl of contemporary techniques? (p. 90). As a result, Puritan churches ceased disciplining their merchant members for economic infractions.

Puritanism of this stage, however, did not simply abandon the field to rampant commerce. Calvin?s doctrine of divine providence opened the way to a new interpretive approach to commerce.? (In Reformed teaching, this doctrine held that God?s purposes control even the smallest events.) At the personal level, Puritan merchants like John Hull tempered their commercial striving in the belief that God?s providence ultimately dictated success or failure. But the clergy went further, arguing that, as with ancient Israel, God would punish an unrighteous society and reward a virtuous one (though in his hidden purposes, he just might not). ?At minimum, therefore, good government would be necessary for New England to be positioned to receive divine favor. And good government relied on specialized knowledge. Now, ?economic reform rested … in the responsibility of civic leaders to rule according to their social expertise? (p. 103). This exempted the churches from disciplining for more complex economic infractions. As long as merchants avoided ?gross excesses? and ?downright avarice,? their pursuit of profit was not subject to church censure (p. 105).? The merchant John Hull never encountered the censure faced by his predecessor, Keayne. Nevertheless, Puritan faith seems to have influenced Hull?s personal style, for he lived a relatively modest life and accumulated a relatively small estate.

The third stage (1690 to the mid-1710s) marked a shift toward technical, economic theories dominating even the clergy?s discussion of commerce. But the clergy ratcheted up the concept of divine providence to provide a new religious interpretation of what was happening. The Glorious Revolution (1688) providentially returned Protestants to power in England, and allowed for a grand harmonization of faith and economics: ?Protestantism led to wealth; wealth funded the empire; the empire combated Catholicism; the end of Catholicism brought civil liberties; and civil liberties allowed citizens to practice Protestant and market principles? (p. 134). Samuel Sewall was a merchant of this era. He was a writer who ?discovered a perfect congruence between political economy and the most intensely providential world view? (p. 172).? He envisioned God?s purpose to be a Protestant empire in America, funded by commerce.

With providence now drafted into the service of economics, the lead role in defining virtue and vice shifted to purely economic reasoning. For example, the dim Puritan view of luxury was relaxed on the say-so of economic theory, which claimed that hyper-consumption ?strengthened the commonwealth, promoted its independence, and therefore amounted to a social virtue? (p. 137). Ultimately, the clerical successors to the original Puritans ?jettisoned older puritan readings of Scripture for interpretations resting on scientific analyses, patriotic agendas, and practical necessity? (p. 154). They ?treated the language of political economy as a universal certainty, while discarding the original dictates of Reformed teaching? (p. 156).

The transformation of Puritan teachings continued between the 1710s and 1730s. Even the idea of divine providence was renovated: henceforth, it would be reduced to concepts acceptable to the Enlightenment. According to Boston clergy, ?God ruled humanity through a universal, which is to say natural, law? (p. 209) — a proposition consistent with Enlightenment views and Newtonian science.? Commerce became ?a series of natural exchanges, that, by the law of nature, coalesced into a balanced system? (p. 211).? No longer did clergy see the market as a temptation to evil, but glorified it as a natural mechanism ordained by God. It is little wonder, therefore, that the merchant Hugh Hall in this era was ?apparently oblivious to the moral ideas of classic puritanism? and so ?imported expensive and fashionable items, sold sugar and rum … sued his debtors, contributed to the unsettling fluctuation of fiscal values and prices, and dealt in slaves? (p. 224).? Hall?s deeds, which would have rated condemnation from earlier Puritan clergy, were congruent to the Enlightenment-soaked teachings of his religious mentors; these clerical successors to the early Puritans could ignore slave trading while emphasizing inner qualities that showed up more in style than in substance.

Valeri concludes with the revival era of the 1740s and 1750s, which was more of the same, but played in a new key. Clergy and merchants alike, whether for or against the evangelical revivals of the Great Awakening, understood the relationship between Protestantism and economics in the same way: the market was part of God?s natural design and, as such, was ?an arena for the exercise of virtue? (p. 241). As had been the case since at least 1700, ?virtue? was not defined in terms of the goodness of certain actions (and regulation of bad actions), but in terms of inner virtues such as ?equanimity, sincerity, and benevolence? (p. 235).? It is not surprising that pious merchants of the era ?worried about the corruption of personal inclinations yet expressed no reservations? about their business practices, which would have earned them censure by their Puritan ancestors (p. 242).? This era saw the hardening of an ideology, blessed by religion: the market was a ?natural law, a divine construct,? and a school for certain kind of social virtue. The market ?appeared to be a universal truth, whereas the old scriptural idioms … receded into anachronism? (p. 249).

Valeri carefully refrains from drawing conclusions that go beyond his immediate research. I wish he had been willing to extrapolate more, and so I will do so myself. As suggested above, this book raises questions about the adequacy of Max Weber?s classic ?Protestant ethic? thesis. (At a very, very high level of generalization, where specifics are too diluted to matter, Valeri?s work can be made to agree with Weber, in that religious ideas do indeed interact with economics. But beyond that, I see important differences.) The Puritan merchants studied by Valeri never seem so driven by insecurity about their election to seek affirmation of their salvation in economic success — as argued by Weber. In fact, according to my reading of Valeri?s work, the religious stimulus to (or affirmation of) economic activity increased to the degree that clergymen abandoned core Calvinist teachings and adopted secular, Enlightenment ideas.

This book also highlights two enduring alternative paradigms about the fundamental nature of economic systems. The early Puritans had viewed the market essentially as a human activity, and, as such, less than perfect. That being assumed, economic behavior needed boundaries defined by human institutions (churches and governments). The impact of commerce on the local community was a matter for regulation. By the time essentially secular Enlightenment ideas had been hallowed by eighteenth-century clergy, the market had ceased being a human invention and been transmuted into an expression of natural law and a divine construct (p. 249). As such, of course, the economy became sacred and untouchable — perhaps to be worshipped, but never to be reformed by mere mortals. The way was set toward nineteenth-century laissez-faire. The distinction between the economy as an imperfect human invention, always the proper object of reform, and the economy as an expression of some kind of perfection (perhaps general equilibrium), it seems to me, plays out to this day in contemporary politics and economics. As this book shows, these alternative paradigms are largely matters of faith.? Recognition of this might greatly improve contemporary political discourse.

My criticisms of the book are minor. As noted already, the book?s subtitle might have somehow indicated that half of the thesis was that commerce shaped religion, in addition to religion shaping commerce. Although merchants were highly significant in the New England economy, somewhat more attention might have been paid to other occupations. However, authors have to define some boundaries, and Valeri?s chosen emphasis makes sense. Valeri?s long discussions of colonial monetary problems can be defended because such problems were integral to the economic story he tells. However, in my opinion these discussions might have been pared without great damage to the thesis. However, these are minor suggestions. Overall, I found this book to be an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the working out of the Protestant ethic in colonial New England. Therefore, it is a major contribution to our understanding of American economic morality.


Donald E. Frey is author of America?s Economic Moralists: A History of Rival Ethics and Economics (2009).

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Subject(s):Business History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century