Serving God? Essays examine links between faith and money among early American Protestants

February 12, 2004
God and Mammon is a collection of 13 essays regarding the relationship between faith and money among American Protestants from 1790 to 1860. The essays are based on papers presented at a 1998 conference at Wheaton College on "Financing American Evangelicalism." The volume is edited by Mark A. Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton.
Noll perhaps is known best for his 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, in which he brings evangelicals to task for failing to develop serious Christian perspectives in most academic disciplines. Readers of Scandal looking for the same kind of vigorous discussion of big ideas in God and Mammon are apt to be somewhat disappointed. The book's essays, which are written mostly by historians, focus primarily on evaluating various aspects of what might be called the "conventional wisdom" among historians about the links between faith and money in antebellum American Protestantism. Thus, one often finds detailed discussions of a series of rather technical issues and ideas. The concern with historical rigor is evidenced by the presence of 944 endnotes in the 313-page book.
According to Noll, the overall finding of the essays is that the connection between faith and money as defined in that era is overly simplistic. This is especially true with the long-held theory that economic factors determined religious practices and not the reverse -- that religious beliefs also influenced attitudes about money and economic actions, a dynamic Noll concludes has not been considered sufficiently.
The book begins with an overview by Noll and a discussion of the economic scale of religious activity in this period. Following the overview are three papers that discuss classic historical works by Charles Sellers and E.P. Thompson. These works look at the concurrence of the rising prominence of evangelical religion and of the importance of the market economy. Both Sellers and Thompson argued that evangelicalism was co-opted in some sense by economic forces. As a result, religious faith as practiced made it the duty of workers to accept dehumanizing aspects of market-based exchange and thereby facilitated the oppression of workers by capitalists. In this view, religion really was the "opiate of the masses," as Karl Marx had contended.
The essays in God and Mammon provide a wealth of historical evidence that this perspective is not the whole truth. Although it is true that Protestants in antebellum America apparently gave little thought to the theological principles behind alternative economic structures, this does not mean that, to them, God became fully subservient to mammon. In fact, evangelical Christians viewed the advent of the market economy and the associated improvements in transportation and communication as creating unprecedented opportunities to spread the Gospel. They made the most of these opportunities through effective market techniques while consciously guarding against the market's corrupting influences.
Other papers provide details on economic issues faced by specific evangelical groups in this period. The most interesting of these considers the "big business" of religious publishing during that era. Two essays examine the effects of the looming schism between the North and South on evangelicalism. Another examines the relationship between revivalism and the popular press and the consequences of discovering that sensational stories about religious conversions sold newspapers. This created pressure on revivalists such as Billy Sunday (and his successors) not only to preach but to perform.
Noll concludes that although there may be much of value in the conventional wisdom of that era, evangelical Christians throughout the antebellum period were keenly aware of the moral tensions as well as the ministry opportunities created by the advent of national and global market economies. For anyone interested in learning many of the historical details of this tension, God and Mammon is an informative and thorough resource.

Green, BA '79 (Baylor), AM '80 and PhD '84 (Brown University), is chair of economics and professor of economics and statistics.

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