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In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism

Author(s):Hudnut-Beumler, James
Reviewer(s):Frey, Donald E.

Published by EH.NET (June 2007)

James Hudnut-Beumler, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. xv + 268 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-8078-3079-6.

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

Despite the subtitle, which suggests a much broader scope, this history is limited to fundraising by Protestant churches. Each chapter on fundraising in a certain time period alternates with a chapter on how funds have been spent ? on church buildings, on ministerial salaries and support of clergy families, on auxiliary structures, etc. This set of parallel chapters on spending was at least as interesting as the primary, fund-raising chapters, whose themes tended to repeat. Hudnut-Beumler is dean of the divinity school at Vanderbilt University and has previously written on American church history and religious sociology. His approach is to use theological, sociological, and a few economic, concepts to elucidate a part of religious history.

The author summarizes several historical stages of church funding-raising. In the early federal period, disestablished churches struggled to find voluntary support from their congregations. The alternative, pew rentals, represented a closed-club view of membership with mandatory “dues.” It persisted in places, but largely succumbed to the voluntary model. Creation of a contributory mind-set was difficult and developed only slowly. Even worse for local churches, traveling agents for Christian benevolent associations crisscrossed the nation, competing for the charitable dollar. The first wave of literature on church-funding, which Hudnut-Beunler reviews in detail, was aimed at developing a theology and method of systematic giving to the local church.

By the late nineteenth-century, Protestants discovered the “tithe” of the Mosaic law. Taken seriously, this would create a sense of legal obligation; but in reality it had that effect on only a few members of churches. Meanwhile rummage sales, charitable socials, and the like, persisted ? which implied church-funding was optional, of low priority and worth one’s effort only if connected to some recreational activity. At least some writers realized that the legalistic tithe was inconsistent with Protestantism’s fundamental belief that God’s grace is a free gift. They worked to shift the focus to “stewardship,” a faithful response to God’s grace in all aspects of life. Stewardship, broadly understood, was also consistent with the liberal Social Gospel’s sense of Christian obligation to the whole culture, not just the upkeep of the church.

By the mid-twentieth century, churches were resorting to worldly techniques: annual “every member canvasses” for pledges, weekly offering envelopes, etc. Also, clergy mimicked practices their laypeople encountered in business: annual reports, like corporations, to highlight their efficiency, for example. Expensive fund-raising consultants were employed to run a “building campaign,” using all the persuasive techniques of the secular world. Churches rapidly followed other non-profits in promoting “planned giving” through charitable gift annuities, wills, and so on. None of this replaced the earlier tithing and stewardship emphases; these things simply augmented them. Of course all this worldly technique evoked theological criticism, which Hudnut-Beumler also covers.

The final chapter, on trends since 1980, is perhaps the least focused, perhaps because these trends are still working themselves out. They include the rise of non-denominational churches (that even avoid calling themselves “church”), TV “ministries,” mega-churches, do-it-yourself religion and “spirituality.” Most cater to the individualism and consumerism of American culture. Unfortunately, Hudnut-Beumler cannot state clearly how these relate, or will come to relate, to church fundraising, so strict editing might have dropped this material. However, in the contemporary scene he does see the continuation in one place or other of almost everything that has gone before: the inherent spiritual individualism of Protestants (“faith alone”) that dampens support of institutions (even churches); legalistic preaching about tithing; talk of stewardship; soft-sell, but still worldly, techniques.

Hudnut-Beumler devotes only two short sections to the “Prosperity Gospel,” which in the last century emerged in Pentecostalism and related movements. He notes that this theology is a “radical departure” from usual theological reasons for giving: for it promises a large material blessing from God in return for the believer’s gift. Hudnut-Beumler notes that this quid-pro-quo mentality is more akin to magic than religion according to classical sociology. However, he charitably does not characterize it that way himself. He refrains from predicting where it may lead. Prosperity theology could have benefited from both more sociological and economic analysis (for it is a reversion to a type of theological utilitarianism, a way of thinking assumed by mainstream economics).

Some lessons stand out from this historical review. First, most American Protestants have not given a high priority to church support, and this has not changed dramatically over time despite all the changes in fund-raising theologies and techniques. The inference of many of the clergy quoted by the author is that a majority of their members have pretty worldly priorities. On the other hand, the author thinks that, even in a consumer culture that does not value religion highly, enough people will continue to support religion that things will continue about as is.

The author does a very, very thorough job reviewing an enormous number of books, pamphlets, tracts, audio-visuals and the like written over two centuries (mostly by the clergy) on giving to the church. Cumulatively, this research is impressive. However, the book would not have suffered if the coverage of this material had been pruned. A second criticism is that the author could not resist drawing some conclusions that don’t really emerge from the case he presents. For example, he ends by stating that 250 years of “competition for the Almighty’s dollar” is what has made Protestantism in America “more ubiquitous than even McDonald’s restaurants” (p. 228). Maybe that was a necessary condition to create ubiquity, but it probably isn’t sufficient. And the degree of that “ubiquity” varies greatly by region.

For economists, giving to churches by Protestants presents an interesting challenge for economic theory. First, of course, in the American Protestant tradition services are not priced, like a public good. This may explain the low levels of support provided. But the question for utilitarian economic theory is why is there any support at all? Perhaps the unique twist to this challenge, provided only by Protestantism, is that its own core theology essentially rules out utilitarian reasons to contribute to a church. The central Reformation principle is that salvation is a direct gift of grace by God to the individual, without intermediary. If the church is a necessary intermediary, then there is a utilitarian motive to pay for it. But Protestantism removes that motive. That seems to this reviewer to be a real exception to utility-maximization theory.

Donald E. Frey has written on the Protestant ethic, Puritan influence on Daniel Raymond’s economics in the 1820s, Francis Wayland’s efforts to harmonize evangelical ethics and laissez-faire, and the Social Gospel economics of Richard Ely.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII