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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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Throughout, Valeri attends to the use of market vocabulary in clerical speech. At first blush, this appears to be a constant: the argot of the marketplace threads through the speech of even the earliest Puritan clergymen. Yet the ends to which ministers used that language, Valeri shows, did change. Early Puritans used market "tropes not to sanction new modes of exchange but to chasten them," as when English Puritan Richard Sibbes spoke of religion as a "busie trade" in which the Christian must "dispense with himself in no sin; … be a vessel prepared for every good work; … [and] baulk in no service that God calls him unto." Within a few decades, clergymen were deploying market metaphors quite differently. By the 1680s, in sermons like Willard's, clergymen exhorted their auditors to invest not in modish commodities that would soon go out of fashion, but to purchase the reliable commodity of "Divine Truth." As Perry Miller put it in 1953, in Willard's sermonizing, "the merchandising metaphor governs the thought," not the other way around. This was not the deft deployment of market idiom to criticize market practices. It was, Valeri says, the use of economic language to "excite the entrepreneurial instincts" of auditors now well-versed in such language, so that they might "invest in salvation."

This language, of course, still permeates American pulpits. I recently stumbled across an outline for a sermon called "Hannah: The Wise Investor." The sermon praises Hannah for having made sound investments in her family, her faith, and the future, and then moves from Hannah to the congregation: "The good thing about spiritual investments is this: if you have been investing in the wrong stocks, God will allow you to change the way your investments are distribute[d] today. If you see areas that need attention, the place to make the changes is right here at this altar!" The sermon's final invitation to the anxious bench was similarly posed in financial parlance: "Hannah was a wise investor, are you?"

Indeed, the market and the church have become so thoroughly imbricated that not only does stock-speak saturate sermons; capitalism's cheerleaders have drawn theological language into their efforts to persuade Americans that the market is salvific. Consider the use of sacramental language by the mining industry booster who devoted a March, 1912, report in the Copper, Curb and Mining Outlook to the rising price of copper. (Recall that in Paradise Lost, Mammon is a mining booster, too. In Hell, he heads up the dig for the metals that will be used to build Pandemonium; eventually he escapes to earth, where he inspires men to dig in pursuit of precious metal.) In 1912, copper had reached the "magic … level" of 15 cents a pound, and was poised to go "even beyond." Three mining companies had recently raised the dividends they paid to shareholders, which would in turn inspire buyers to "come into the market stronger than heretofore" and ultimately drive up prices yet further. This "increase of dividends will be the outward and visible sign of copper prosperity." The sacramental language glossed and even sanctified an acceptance of—really a delight in—a single-minded pursuit of rising prices that Valeri's early Puritans might have seen as grounds for church discipline.

A few years later, William Peter Hamilton (then editor of the Wall Street Journal) laid bare the grand aspirations of Cecil Rhodes. In The Stock Market Barometer: A Study of Its Forecast Value Based on Charles H. Dow's Theory of the Price Movement, Hamilton explained that Rhodes' ambitions had always exceeded "the mere making of money. Money was necessary to the carrying out of his ideas, to the extension of white civilization from the Cape to Cairo, with a railroad as an outward and visible sign of something of even spiritual significance." The importation of sacramental language into discussions of the market continued in less sunny times. In 1929, just weeks after the Crash, an article in The Economist declared, "The fall of Bank rate on Thursday by another half per cent is an outward and visible sign that the dramatic and precipitous slump of the last three weeks in Wall Street has definitely relieved the pressure on the world's money markets which the New York situation has been exerting so continuously for the last two years." This language is as good an indicator as any of the kind of priestcraft to which America (and London) had come to defer by the early 20th century.

Valeri's reading of theological sources is so satisfying because he is a subtle, careful reader; he resists the temptation to smooth away contradictions, or to oversimplify; indeed, he seems allergic to polemic. It is thus not surprising when, at the end of the book—just when the author might be expected to tip his hand about what all this market accommodation means—Valeri is maddeningly even-handed. The book, he says, "has been intended neither as a cautionary tale nor as a celebration of [the] changes" it describes:

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