August 6, 2010


Q&A: How Puritans became capitalists: A historian traces the moment when Boston’s dour preachers embraced the market (Michael Fitzgerald, August 1, 2010, Boston Globe)

How could people who loathed market principles birth a modern market economy? That question captivated Mark Valeri after he read sermons by the fiery revivalist Jonathan Edwards that included detailed discussions of economic policy. Edwards turned out to be part of a progression of ministers who led their dour and frugal flocks down a road that would bring fabulous riches, and ultimately give rise to a culture seen as a symbol of material excess.

In his new book, ”Heavenly Merchandize,” Valeri, professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, finds that the American economy as we know it emerged from a series of important shifts in the relationship between the Colonies and England, fomented by church leaders in both London and early Boston. In the 1630s, religious leaders often condemned basic moneymaking practices like lending money at interest; but by the 1720s, Valeri found, church leaders themselves were lauding market economics. Valeri says the shift wasn’t a case of clergymen adapting to societal changes--he found society changed after the ministers did, sometimes even decades later. [....]

IDEAS: So how do you get from Keayne to an unapologetic early American entrepreneur like Benjamin Franklin?

VALERI: There’s a series of catastrophes in the mid-17th century, especially in the 1660s. Preachers and their merchant parishioners begin to fear for the collective status of New England. They begin to rethink the role of the economy and how what is good for the economy is good for the social order, which is God’s social order. It’s at that point they begin to valorize merchants and their trade.

IDEAS: This is after Keayne has died, after the era of ”Crucible”-like ”merchant hunts”?

VALERI: That’s right. Then comes the Glorious Revolution, 1688, when the English throne is given over to William and Mary. William is seen by the people of New England as a protector of Protestantism. England’s Imperial order, which is now ruled by a highly devout Protestant monarchy, is God’s agent in the world. The economic tool God uses is long-distance, Atlantic capitalism. And to abet or assist or participate in England’s new Colonial empire is to serve God. So here exchange of credit and commoditization of credit become not only morally tolerable but actually religiously praiseworthy.

IDEAS: You’re saying that the market didn’t rise at the expense of religion, but was enabled by it?

VALERI: You need to have a change in your basic understanding of how or where God works in the world before you can envision different economic behaviors as morally sufferable. These religious changes come first. The market--networks of exchange, converging prices, things being adjudicated in courts--is not put in place in North America until the 1740s,1750s. The religious changes come before that. They’re integral to it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 6, 2010 5:35 AM
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