Published by EH.Net (August 2021)

Benjamin M. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New York: Knopf, 2021. xv + 534 pp. $37.50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-593-31798-3.

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


Benjamin Friedman is William Joseph Maier professor of political economics at Harvard. He is well known for his economic policy writings.

This book develops two major topics, each spanning several chapters. Friedman first delineates major intellectual transitions, particularly in theology, that paved the way for Adam Smith’s writings (p. 1-196). The second major section examines “progress,” as a worldview, in nineteenth-century America (p. 197-358). Friedman argues that the biblical millennium heavily influenced the American sense of progress. The book’s remainder (about 60 pages long) describes the fusion of conservative Protestantism with conservative economics in the twentieth century.

Section one, on the changing intellectual terrain, pre-Smith, emphasizes the erosion of Calvinism in the UK and the American colonies; to a lesser degree it also covers science and philosophy. Friedman argues that the victory of Arminian (“free-will”) ideas over Calvinism’s religious determinism was a prerequisite for Smith’s economics. Arminianism rehabilitated belief in humans’ innate goodness and moral agency; and it re-conceptualized God as a utilitarian, who valued human happiness. (The Calvinist alternative was that humans existed to glorify God.) Friedman sums up: “Depravity versus innate goodness, predestination versus human agency, glorification of God versus human happiness as the divine intent” (p. 197). The Arminian option, second in each of these pairs, was the new soil in which Smith planted.

Friedman makes his case well, including use of telling quotations from primary sources and a nice explanatory narrative. That said, the book’s title speaks of religion and the rise of capitalism, not merely of Smith’s theory. If capitalism includes practice, Friedman’s focus on Smith seems too narrow. Historian Mark Valeri (2010) has documented how merchant capitalism existed (sometimes uneasily) in Calvinistic New England from the very first. The earliest New England Puritans suspected capitalists’ motives, and regulated them more than any capitalist would like; nevertheless, a form of capitalism existed in that time and place without the benefit of Arminian belief. Valeri is clear that Puritan clergy over decades slowly adopted the kinds of Enlightenment ideas that supported Adam Smith’s paradigm. Even so, the New England clergy seem to have yielded more to pressure from a Puritan capitalism rather than from Arminian theology. I wish Friedman had considered whether this New England anomaly weakens or somehow helps confirm his main thesis.

The book then shifts to nineteenth-century economic progress — as a lived reality for many Americans (but not all) and as their worldview. Friedman argues that, as a worldview, progress bore a religious interpretation, specifically millennialism. Millennialism (of a specific type) promised that human progress would bring in the biblical thousand years of righteousness (Arminianism with new embellishments). Coupled with nationalism, this brand of millennialism boasted of America leading the world into a great future.

This may have been the outlook of some Americans, but even Friedman concedes that, by mid-century, people who read millennial texts allegorically and were not biblical literalists “no longer believed in anything that could be called a millennium, as such” (p. 212). One might think that millennialism-without-a-millennium would be inherently ambiguous; and so it would be a poor lens through which to view nineteenth-century thought. And Friedman has left me still thinking so (despite an otherwise excellent description of the thought of the era).

Friedman uses case studies of well-known economists and clergy (many of whom were both) to explore the theme of progress. For example, Francis Wayland, a major antebellum economics textbook author and clergyman, taught an optimistic laissez-faire. He rationalized away the lingering suspicion about self-interest among his fellow New England Protestants. And he invoked a utilitarian God in the service of progress. Wayland also popularized the modern idea of technical change (not anticipated by Smith), which allowed for unending economic growth.

Wayland’s enthusiasm for laissez-faire blazed the way for theologically moderate Protestants, like himself, to become, or remain, economic conservatives. He disparaged government, blamed the poor for their own plight, denied that economic ills had systemic causes, and so on. These ideas also showed a way to keep progress on track — avoid meddling with the market.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, economic ills could no longer be ignored. Reformers, religious or not, soundly rejected the notion of economic determinism rooted in classical economics (for instance, Malthusian population growth, or Smith’s claim that a changed income distribution would have no significant social benefits). This determinism made economic ills inevitable (unless, of course, caused by government “interference” with markets). If ills are inevitable, reform is futile. Against this, reformers adopted views similar to that of the German historical school — that economic institutions are human inventions, conditioned by time and place. Such human institutions, of course, could be reformed by humans, for the better.

Friedman acknowledges the centrality of this in the reformers’ thought, stating that “laissez-faire thinking [to reformer Richard Ely] was just as opposed to moral freedom as predestination. It was a surrender to yet another kind of determinism — in this case, the determinism of the market” (p. 321).

Friedman does a good job covering in some depth key figures of the Social Gospel movement, both laymen and clergy. Contrary to Friedman, my reading of Richard Ely and Walter Rauschenbusch suggests that the expressed motive for reform was not millennialism. An anti-deterministic theory is needed to make reform possible; but reformers also needed a driving motive. For Rauschenbusch, the driving motive explicitly was the Hebrew prophets’ teachings on justice in this world and Jesus’s concern for the poor and afflicted. As if to reject millennialism as his motive, Rauschenbusch at one point denigrated millennialism as an excuse to put off social justice until some future time.

Opposed to the reformers, a Gospel of Wealth, broader than Andrew Carnegie’s book of that name, was preached by laissez-faire preachers, such as Henry Ward Beecher. Any response to social ills in this gospel amounted to private assistance to the “deserving poor” to make their way in an unchanged society. Despite the vast differences between the Social Gospel and the Gospel of Wealth, Friedman concludes that these very opposed groups “shared a robustly postmillennialist outlook toward human society” (p. 333). This statement, to me, appears to make millennialism a concept far too elastic to be persuasive.

Friedman dates the end of millennialism and laissez-faire to the Great Depression. And, Roosevelt’s New Deal might be viewed as a Social Gospel victory of sorts. But that did not mean a victory for the social-reform branch of Protestantism (which is not even all of mainline Protestantism). Starting before the Depression, and continuing after it, fundamentalist Protestantism challenged the religious moderates and liberals on theology, and also began to fuse conservative economics with their faith. (For example, they often resorted to accusing the National Council of Churches and state councils of churches, which advanced the social-reform part of mainline Protestantism, of being “communist.”) This fusing of conservative religion and conservative economics is covered through to the end of the book. The narrative is detailed and enlightening. But Friedman argues that the political influence of such religious support of conservative economics exceeded its influence on economics itself, a self-determining professional discipline.

Despite the qualifications I have expressed, I highly recommend this book to readers interested in either religion (in this book exclusively Protestant Christianity) or economic thought and history. Friedman’s explanation of the ideas, debates and significant thinkers, is excellent; he is at ease on both the religious and economic sides of the discourse.


Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.


Frey’s book, America’s Economic Moralists, was published by SUNY Press in 2009.

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