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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., 53.00

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Lauren F. Winner


"The Most Satisfying Trade"

Religion and commerce in Puritan America.

In 1686, Boston minister Samuel Willard preached on Proverbs 23:23, "Buy the truth, and sell it not." In his sermons, Willard invited auditors to conceptualize Christian faithfulness in terms of "Metaphor[s] … borrowed from Traffick or Merchandize: a thing that is well known to, and more or less practiced by, all sorts of men." Indeed, Willard cast the entire life of faith as an extended marketplace escapade. Truth was a "Commodity." Willard's congregants themselves could be "Buyers," who "trade in … [the] Merchandize" of Truth. To acquire that precious commodity, you must hie to the "Truths Market, with a real purpose to buy." (Caveat emptor: in the Truths Market, customers should guard against those hucksters pedaling "false wares.") When you have identified the true goods, "Ask the price, and boggle not at it, but resolve to give it," confident in the knowledge that "God, who alone hath the Truth to sell, and can only make a sure conveyance of it to us, hath set a stated market-price upon it …. Hence it is a vain thing for you to think ever to beat down the Market. God … hath positively set the price, and he will never go from it." Finally, you make the purchase, acquiring "interest and propriety in the thing which is bought." Soteriology and spirituality were, it turns out, "the most Satisfying Trade." The sermons were published (and, of course, bought and sold) later that year under the startling title Heavenly Merchandize.

In an elegant study of the same name, historian Mark Valeri explains how it came to be that a Reformed preacher in Puritan New England could stand up before his people and limn salvation in market imagery. Valeri tells a story of profound change: at the beginning of the Puritan experiment in New England, clergymen were decided critics of market practices, and they worried that merchants, possessed by self-interest, were likely to exploit their neighbors. Yet by the third decade of the 18th century, New England's ministers, and indeed the whole culture, comfortably spoke the idiom of the market; it was widely believed that God had written the laws of commerce, and merchants, generating profits that served the common good, were God's faithful servants.

Valeri's argument, in its simplest terms, is that changes in religious culture and changes in theology made possible New England clergymen's embrace of market practices. In other words, in Heavenly Merchandize, we are not in the hands of Weber—what Valeri offers is not a "Calvinism" whose essential self-discipline and industriousness ironically predestined its own "capitalist" undoing. Nor is Valeri arguing for secularization. Contra those scholars who see New Englanders' embrace of market practice as perforce a move away from religiosity, Valeri demonstrates that New England's clergymen and lay people, increasingly comfortable with market practices, were nonetheless deeply Christian. Their Christianity, however, changed over the century, and those changes—changes in theological idiom, in epistemology, in ecclesiology—made possible their accommodations (a term Valeri rightly uses, though sparingly) to market culture. In Valeri's persuasive reading, religious language was not merely a sop that eased the embrace of triumphant market norms. Rather, ministers and devout merchants were "thoroughly religious," even as they stitched together their beliefs and their pious Christian practices with newfound enthusiasm about commerce.

It is worth pausing to emphasize how dramatic a transformation this was. The early 18th-century embrace of the marketplace contradicted not only Puritan precedent; it stood in marked contrast to centuries of censoriousness about exchange and trade. Aristotle, for one, held that the "Life of merchants is … ignoble and inimical to virtue," hence merchants could not be citizens of the ideal state. The church, too, had long inveighed against trade. Augustine glossed Psalm 71:15-16 to mean that traders did not "go in the strength of the Lord," and medieval compilations of canon law included the dictum that merchants are "rarely or never able to please God." Trade, exchange, and shameful gain (buying low and selling high)—all were denounced by thinkers in antiquity and the Middle Ages. In light of this ubiquitous critique of market practices, it is all the more striking that by the 18th century, New England's clergy was hymning praise to Boston's merchants.

The change from denunciation to accommodation to unambivalent embrace of market practices was gradual. "Protestant religiosity and economic modernization," writes Valeri, "moved toward congruence slowly, generation by generation." In Boston's first generation, Puritans—lay and ordained—assumed that the church would set the boundaries in which commercial transactions occurred. Indeed, between 1630 and 1654, Boston's First Church excommunicated eight people for economic sins such as overpricing goods. From the pulpit, ministers took aim at mercantile assumptions and tricks of the trade. Merchants, said ministers, should distribute excess capital to the blamelessly needy, rather than reinvest it. Unsurprisingly, clergymen disapproved of usury and of ostentatious display of wealth. They also blasted price-gouging, for the Bible made clear that merchants should set their prices according not to what the market would bear, but according to custom and the goods' inherent value. This criticism of (to use the apt early modern term) "oppression" reveals at least two assumptions: Scripture disclosed timeless principles, including principles that governed trade; and the church had authority over merchants' economic activities.

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."

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:

To be sure, it might give pause to modern heirs of liberal Protestantism who lament the power of a capitalist economy. It reveals a certain irony that the founders of the progressive religious tradition served the market so well. So, too, this storyline might unsettle contemporary claimants to Reformed Christianity who revere capitalism. It discloses discontinuities between their religious tradition and their economic ethics.

It is Valeri's prerogative not to lay his cards on the table. At risk of twisting his finely wrought historical analysis into a tendentious morality tale, here is one attempt to suggest what's at stake in the tale he has so compellingly crafted: When New England's divines reshaped their market practices around the prerogatives of political economy, they lost the ability to assess morally how money was earned. Money's morality was judged only by what it could purchase. In this, we can draw a line from 18th-century Christians in Boston back to the Italian humanists of the 15th century, who, as commerce came to be seen as the basis for nations' flourishing, argued that greed produced the wealth that made possible civic and cultural life, and declared approvingly (as did Bracciolini in his famous treatise on avarice) that "everything we undertake is for the pursuit of profit." Those humanists, of course, were on to something: shameful gain and other rapacious market practices were crucial to the early modern building of cities, necessary to the expansion of artistic knowledge, scientific knowledge, even theological knowledge. Transplant that Italian insight into colonial New England, and you get clergymen who believe that a community's health depended in part on merchants' wealth and the civic projects that mercantile bounty, however ill-gotten, funded. Thus one of Valeri's protagonists, the pious merchant Hugh Hall, could unblushingly participate in the slave trade as long as he turned some of his gains to the public good.

Consider price-gouging as a synecdoche for the changes Valeri charts. At the outset of Valeri's story "the market will bear it" was not, in New England, an acceptable explanation for anything; by the end of the story, profit was its own persuasive self-justification. By the early 18th century, political economy had eroded the restraints that had kept rapaciousness in check; it had opened the floodgates to, among other things, the exploitation of the needy and the helpless on which America's industrial system would come to depend; it had begun to make imaginatively and theologically possible a political order in which law and custom (not to mention preaching) would grant initiative and the benefit of the doubt to those who controlled capital. What was lost when New Englanders gave themselves over to the moral priorities of political economy was the ability to limit the mechanizing and mobilizing of the exploitative, profit-driven impulse that we call "the market."

Milton—the Puritan poet—had it right when he located Mammon (Mammon, who sins against liberality and justice; Mammon, who even during his heavenly days was "downward bent," so focused on the gold that paved heavenly streets that he missed the beatific vision) in Hell.

Lauren F. Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. For the academic year 2010-11, she is a visiting fellow at Yale's Institute for Sacred Music. Her book A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia has just been published by Yale University Press.

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