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Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America
Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America
Mark Valeri
Princeton University Press, 2010
360 pp., $47.95

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Lauren F. Winner


"The Most Satisfying Trade"

Religion and commerce in Puritan America.

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In the ensuing decades, New England's theology, and its thinking about market practices, changed. From 1650 to 1680, argues Valeri, the doctrine of Providence came to loom large in Puritan minds. New England occupied a special place in God's plan; thus, the region's economic growth had providential purpose. These concepts helped merchants "negotiate between pious resolve and commercial demand." Second-generation clergymen continued to criticize commercial excess—they railed against working on the Sabbath, purchasing luxury goods, and so forth. But at the same time, clergymen venerated merchants who used some of their wealth to build an almshouse or in some other way serve the public good—while paying ever less attention to what exactly those merchants had done to earn their bounty. Merchants themselves also operated within this providential worldview. Their belief in providence allowed them to make decisions, as when they forgave local widows' debts, geared to concerns other than the immediate maximization of profit.

By the end of the 17th century, the doctrine of Providence was taking up yet more space. New England divines such as Cotton Mather understood the English empire itself as "the chief instrument of divine providence in the world," and they preached, in Valeri's characterization, "an interpretive loop on a large historical scale: 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." In this third act of the story, clergymen made a marked epistemological shift. They assiduously read political economy, and with this, their reading of Scripture changed. The most obvious example of that change was divines' rolling over on usury. Clergymen's new acceptance of charging interest revealed the authority they granted to economists. They "treated the language of political economy as a universal certainty," writes Valeri, "while discarding the original dictates of Reformed teaching …. [T]he churches no longer punished market practices, as they had in previous generations, because economic knowledge had made such rules obsolete." Clergymen had come to believe that "the vocabularies of political economy … constituted a dialect of divine truth."

By the early 18th century, Boston's clergymen and merchants were still recognizably Christian—and still engaged in the project of articulating a Christian commerce—but they were now post-Puritan. These years saw the rise of a polite and reasonable Christianity: new churches fostered a "cosmopolitan culture and liberal religious ethos"; sermons stressed refinement and self-control; Tillotson was all the rage. Amid this polish and Shaftesburyian sophistication, "clergy followed the logic of natural philosophy to a nearly complete validation of the market." They endorsed the principles of political economy as divine fiat, taught that hard work would be rewarded, celebrated abundance, and suggested that the Christian merchant would bring a restrained gentility and a veneer of politeness to the rough-and-tumble world of market competition. Of course, clergymen kept up the old calls for charity and benefaction—but even here, the lingua franca of market Christianity revealed just how far Boston divines had traveled since the early 17th century. To wit, Brattle Street parson Benjamin Colman's appeal for charitable donations: money is a loan from the divine, said Colman, and people should repay these loans through donations to the poor and to the public weal; God, who kept punctilious accounts, would have his "yearly Usury." "God himself," Valeri concludes, had been turned into "a polite but strict usurer."

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