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Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860
Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860
Stewart Davenport
University of Chicago Press, 2008
256 pp., 61.0

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by George Marsden

Stewards of Capitalism

God and mammon in 19th-century America.

As is often evident in the pages of Books & Culture, many thoughtful American Christians are perplexed and sometimes troubled about the relationship between our vast affluence and our commitments to follow the teachings of Jesus. One index of that concern is that, even in the Reagan years and at the height of the Religious Right, one evangelical bestseller was Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which sold some 350,000 copies from 1977 to 1998. That figure pales compared to those for the more dramatic escapist scenarios of The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series, but also suggests that an evangelical social conscience is not an invention of the last few years. The most immediate questions sparking much of this concern have to do with the relationship of the immense wealth that most of us enjoy to the needs of the very poor, both at home and abroad. A related set of questions, probably less often discussed, have to do with the moral implications of modern capitalism, which has fostered both widespread economic growth and a world of competition in which the rich have huge advantages over the poor.

Apologists for America and for its brand of capitalism have often treated widespread American prosperity as though it is, in fact, evidence of American virtue. Critics think otherwise. Much of the world sees American wealth as evidence of American greed, and leftist critics long have seen capitalism as organized greed. Militant Muslim observers add that, whatever the potential good of our affluence, it has hopelessly corrupted us, so that we preside over and export a civilization of unparalleled materialist decadence. The implication is that the Christian religion, especially Protestantism, has failed to provide significant checks on the debilitating effects of a civilization built around material acquisition. Radical disciples of the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount have said much the same.

Taking his title from one of Jesus' parables, Stewart Davenport sets Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon in the broad context of "one of the central paradoxes of American history: Americans are and always have been some of the most voluntarily religious people in the world as well as some of the most grossly materialistic." While that paradox hovers in the background of his inquiry, he focuses his study on the very precise and intriguing question: "what did Christians in America think about capitalism when capitalism was first something to be thought about?" He looks at the critical era from 1815 to 1860, when the structures of modern market capitalism together with the new infrastructures of the revolutions in transportation and communications were taking shape so that the northern United States was experiencing a dramatic economic and cultural transformation.

Davenport discovers that most Christian thinkers of this era, particularly Christian academics, did not think through the moral implications of the capitalist economic system with critical thoroughness. That becomes more understandable if we take into account that many of them formulated their views in an era before widespread questioning of the capitalist system was raised by Marx and Engels and a host of others. But the American writers did not much engage in earlier British debates either. Probably the most important intellectual context determining their outlook was that, as Mark Noll has emphasized in his works, American Protestants had fused their religious outlook with moderate versions of the ideals of the American Revolution associated with "self-evident truths" of "Enlightenment" reason. American Protestant thinkers accordingly tended to be uncritical of the current "sciences" of society. They had relatively little alertness to how much the human sciences work within frameworks both of self-interests and of social, moral, religious, and other assumptions. Rather, the dominant view of Christian intellectuals was that scientific questions regarding society were purely objective concerns, and that Christian viewpoints ought to be kept separate from them. Economics involved essentially technical questions regarding God-ordained ways that market mechanisms worked. Hence those questions could be treated with the same sort of objectivity one would use for understanding literal physical processes, such as geological change. Christian viewpoints had to do with practical questions of morality, understood largely in terms of how individuals ought to respond to the objective realities that they found in God's world, including the economic realities.

The prevailing strict separation between that which is objective and scientific and questions of morality is best illustrated by Francis Wayland, a Baptist minister who was president of Brown University and author of the most influential college textbooks of the era. Davenport characterizes Wayland as suffering from "an epistemological and ethical schizophrenia." Indeed, Wayland plays two entirely distinct roles in Friends of Unrighteous Mammon. Davenport divides his actors into three categories, "clerical economists," "contrarians," and "pastoral moralists." Wayland stars in the first group and then reappears prominently in the third, but in entirely different guise. In his Elements of Political Economy he typifies the clerical economists in providing American scholars with a version of Adam Smith's economics, with the 18th-century religious skeptic's views baptized and sanctified by the assurance that God is as much the author of these laws of economics as of any other part of nature. Wayland and his fellow Christian American economists spoke of God's creation much more often than of the fall, and they assumed that God had designed a complex system of relationships in which ideally each part would serve the whole. Looked at strictly as economic matters, questions of how wealth might be used had only to do with how the actions affected the wealth of others. The moral issue of how a person's wealth might be used to "best secure his future happiness," Wayland said explicitly, was "not belonging to the province of the political economist" but "to the teacher of ethics."

President Wayland himself was also a teacher of ethics, and we might imagine Wayland in the political economy classroom deferring questions of morality until the next hour when he would reappear as a teacher of "moral science," a subject on which he also wrote a text. As a "pastoral moralist" Wayland was in the company of other middle-class pastors who worried about what excesses of wealth and desires for business success might do to individuals. Taking the free market economic system as God-given, they drew a line between the legitimate self-interest or the acquisitiveness necessary to the system and the excesses of greed and other abuses of God's good gifts that were misuses of the system. To the extent that they dealt with the problem of poverty, it was to note that it was not as extreme in America as in Great Britain and that honest hard work plus charity toward the deserving poor not able to help themselves was the best formula for resolving the problem.

Only a tiny number of northern American Christian thinkers were among the "contrarians" who questioned this prevailing justification of free-market capitalism. Davenport looks at the two most prominent, both of whom were intellectual mavericks: Orestes Brownson and Stephan Colwell. Brownson, who was long a moving target, went through a brief radical economic phase in the early 1840s before converting to Roman Catholicism. Colwell was an Old School Presbyterian, a denomination that fostered some contrarian critiques of the emerging fusion of evangelicalism and respectable American optimism. Although an industrialist himself, Colwell had socialist leanings. Both he and Brownson in his radical phase attacked Christendom in the name of Christ. They viewed the free trade system as dehumanizing and as violating the law of love to neighbors. As Colwell put it as part of his title in a tract attacking American Protestant clergy, they were promoting "Protestantism without Christianity" in that the competitive economics that they endorsed lacked the essential Christian virtue of charity.

Davenport does not see the issues debated by the Protestant clerics and the contrarians as simple ones, and he points out that the unanswered questions about capitalism that these debates raised remain with us today. We still have pretty much the same three schools of thought. Some justify free-market capitalism as simply the best way to raise all boats, even if there are some hard knocks in the process. Others, with socialist leanings, find the system's harsh treatment of the poor incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. And an important sub-group doesn't worry much about the system, but seeks to provide guidelines as to how virtues may be cultivated within an essentially competitive framework. Davenport's sympathies lie with this third group. Given the inevitable moral ambiguities of the capitalist system (or any other economic system), he suggests, the best we can do is to promote virtue ethics that help us to cope with the realities of an imperfect world.

In answer to those who see the heightened competitiveness of capitalism as incompatible with the Sermon on the Mount, Davenport closes with reflections on the parable of the unjust steward, from which he takes his title. In that parable, the steward wins friends for himself by reducing the amounts that creditors owe to his master. Jesus' own reflections on this poor stewardship are notoriously difficult to interpret. On the one hand, Jesus advises to "make yourself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness," seemingly in emulation of the dishonest steward. But then Jesus goes on with the more famous warning that "No servant can serve two masters … . Ye cannot serve God and mammon." One way to read this, as Davenport seems to do, is that the unjust steward is "the patron saint of self interest." Every economic system from which we benefit depends to some degree on self-interest and is filled with moral ambiguities. So rather than putting our efforts into creating a righteous system, we would do better to concentrate on cultivating Christian virtues in whatever imperfect situation we find ourselves. We might, in other words, be worldly-wise in making "friends of the mammon of unrighteousness" and yet, unlike the unjust steward, cultivate virtues so that we do not end up serving mammon rather than God.

That seems a helpful answer so far as it goes, especially for most of us who are not going to have any real influence on the economic system or in proposing how it might be modified either systemically or by individual or corporate initiative. And Davenport is to be commended not only for an illuminating historical account but also for going beyond what most historians would do in introducing a well-informed discussion of virtue ethics, particularly in the tradition of Alasdair MacIntyre.

Nonetheless, this recommendation is also an anti-climax as a conclusion to a book which is most explicitly about American precedents in thinking about capitalism. Davenport's evaluation sidesteps the debate between the clerical economists (who provided a blanket endorsement of a virtually unregulated free market system) and the radical contrarians (who raised questions about systemic injustices toward the poor). Davenport does allow, correctly I think, that both sides were sincere and that the clerical economists were not hypocritical in their support for a free market. Believing they had the authority of science behind them, they thought the capitalist economic system as described by Adam Smith was God-given. That being the case, they sincerely believed that moral issues presented by the burgeoning new world of business and industry were best dealt with simply by urging, as they did in their role as pastoral moralists, individual virtues such as honesty, self-restraint, and charity toward the poor.

Yet if this is Davenport's final word, he fails to deal with the most conspicuous blind spot in the 19th-century pastoral moralists' reliance on virtue ethics—their lack of any alertness to issues regarding justice and injustice growing out of the way that the capitalist system operates. That was the point the contrarians raised, even if their specific proposals may have been too idealistic or otherwise inadequate. Since the 19th century, the United States and other non-socialist countries have adopted many modifications of free-market capitalism that make that system relatively more just, even if only in imperfect and incremental ways. Christians who think about capitalism should be among the leaders in identifying ways to promote such steps toward economic justice. Christian citizens and legislators should be among those who take the lead in continuing to look for ways to reduce injustice. Christian business leaders and corporations should be leaders in promoting relatively more justice in the always imperfect world of business.

Among the first priorities in a contemporary virtue ethics that could be promoted by both pastors and academics are habits of thought that keep questions of justice in view, particularly justice toward the poor. Such habits are the necessary prerequisite to effecting constructive actions, such as those just mentioned. In addition, such habits of thought must be well informed, and for that we also need people who are thinking hard about capitalism with Christian priorities in mind. Christian economists today will differ greatly, as they always have, both regarding the effects of various policies and what effects would be most consistent with Christian ethical standards. When a notoriously imperfect science looks at a notoriously imperfect world, there are bound to be many blind spots, veiled self-interests, ambiguities, and obscurities, as there always have been in the past. Nonetheless, the important point is that Christians who pursue that science with the degree of objectivity that its technical dimensions demand, should do so within a framework of questions, issues, and debates that include, among other things, the full range of biblical concerns as to how we should treat our neighbors.

George Marsden is Visiting Professor of Religious and Intellectual History at Harvard Divinity School and most recently author of A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards (Eerdmans).

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