The False Choice Between Piety And Profit

Posted: Jun 21, 2018 12:06 PM
The False Choice Between Piety And Profit

The Natural Law of Economics was forged into the American system of business and commerce during the Colonial period of the late 1600s and early 1700s.  The tension between piety and business was forged between the Puritan churches of New England and the Puritan businessmen who attended them.   Theologian Mark Valeri vividly details several of these conflicts during this period, from their own handwritten words, in his meticulous prose, Heavenly Merchandize.  Dr. Valeri reveals that there was no “separation of economic exchange from spiritual dictates.”  The Puritan businessman “participated in a religious community that intermingled teaching on social deportment, on political loyalties, and on the rule of providence over worldly affairs... [and] …gave meaning to commerce by describing it as a natural law.”[1]

This Christian biblical tension would embed its morality into American commerce, business, and industry which not only propelled economic success in a way never seen before, but also adhere to the business construct which has been carried forward to the business pattern of the very present.  Literally, the invisible hand is the hand of God touching our commerce with His word: thus the Natural Law of Economics.  The Colonial pastors of that time understood and would preach that “God ruled humanity through a universal, which is to say natural, law,” and “consent to the cultural and commercial laws of nature as the as the laws of God.”[2]  This would become the Natural Law enshrined into the Declaration decades later.

Roger McKinney notes that,

“Prosperity no longer resulted from God’s favor at a Christian’s devotion but from following natural laws of the market, and financial hardship was not a sign of God’s wrath as much as failure to understand and abide by God’s natural laws.”

McKinney corroborates that “God worked indirectly through natural laws.”[3]  This attribute of God’s work in Creation is Adam Smith’s invisible hand.  In the most read economic text in America of the 19th century, written in 1837 by Reverend Francis Wayland, the author essentially paraphrases the moral acknowledgement and profound statement of the Declaration of Independence; to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.  “As the laws of nature,” declares Pastor Wayland in his economic treatise, “Designed by our Creator for our benefit.”[4]  Our benefit being economic: Commerce, trade, merchandise, and free-exchange.  Our Father in Heaven blessing us as He did the ancient Hebrews.

Pastor Ebenezer Pemberton would preach in 1697 that “virtue, wisdom, reputation increases wealth and outward prosperity,” and assign that to the providence of God and His natural law siting that it was due to the “wise and sovereign institution of God.”  The direct tie to economic prosperity and God’s natural law was a common theme to many Colonial clergy of this period, [5] and a clear transition away from the former Puritan theology which admonished economic prosperity.  But the former position of Puritan clergy embedded the moral underpinning into the economic behaviors of Colonial America, which has transcended throughout American business and industry.[6]

Martin Luther gives, perhaps, the most eloquent spiritual comment on the free market.  “Its object is not to lay men under obligation,” pronounces Luther, “nor does it distinguish between friends or enemies, or look to gratitude or ingratitude, but most freely and willingly spends itself and its goods.”  He continues by tying the free market to man being made in his Creator’s image and being obedient to God’s Laws and Christ’s example of behavior in service to God’s children.  “For thus did its Father, distributing all things to all men abundantly and freely,” proclaims Luther, “making His sun rise upon the just and the unjust.  Thus, too, the child does and endures nothing except from the free joy with which it delights through Christ in God, the Giver of such great gifts.”[7]

The freedom of man puts him in service, often unknowingly, of others; and, as history has shown, in service at an accelerated and significantly more effective and efficient pace.  The Bible is a string of stories, after the fall in the Garden of Eden, of man’s struggle to regain that freedom lost in the Garden.  With each alignment of his relationship with God, freedom is gained or grown; with each turn away from God freedom is diminished or lost.  The ultimate grasp of freedom is the reconciliation against sin given to us by Jesus on the Cross.  With this act, Jesus freed us – if we only choose to accept this freedom.   “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”[8]  Colonial Pastor Henry Cumings preached in 1781, on the anniversary of the battle at Lexington, in direct reference to our freedom as a result of Jesus reconciliation.  He quoted John 8:36 saying, “This is that noble and exalted liberty of the sons of God, of which our saviors speaks, when he says, If the son of God shall make you free, then shall ye be free indeed.”[9]

Freedom is a choice.   This choice is given to man by God through the sacrifice of Christ.  This is the very reason we are instructed to choose Christ’s vision and not earthly; that is, man devised visions.  Choose Christ and the choice is freedom; choose man and the choice is tyranny.   This is why the America’s law is founded in Natural Law; God’s Law.  “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[10]

[1] Mark Valeri, 2010, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), p. 200.

[2] Mark Valeri, 2010, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), p. 209 and 213 respectively.

[3] Roger McKinney, June 26, 2017, “Christian laissez-faire built this country,” [].

[4] Francis Wayland, 1884 (originally published in 1837), The Elements of Political Economy, (New York, NY: Sheldon & Company), p. 71.

[5] Mark Valeri, 2010, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), p. 214, and 215-219.

[6] See Kenneth Hopper and William Hopper, 2009, The Puritan Gift: Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Global Financial Chaos, (New York, NY: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd.).

[7] Martin Luther, 1520, “On Christian Liberty,” in The Ninety-Five Theses, On Christian Liberty, and Address to the Christian Nobility, Translated by R.S. Grignon and C.A. Buchheim, 2009, (Overland Park, KS: Publishing), p. 34.

[8] Guideposts, The Guideposts Parallel Bible (Carmel, NY: Guideposts), New International, Galatians 5:1, p. 2974.

[9] Henry Cumings, April 19, 1781, “A Sermon preached at Lexington on the 19th of April,” from Ellis Sandoz, (Ed.), 1991, Political Sermons of the American Founding Era:   1730 – 1805, (Indianapolis, IN:   Liberty Press), p. 681.

[10] Guideposts, The Guideposts Parallel Bible (Carmel, NY: Guideposts), Revised Standard, Galatians 5:13-14, p. 2977.  Referenced in Paul Kengor, March 15, 2014, “Ronald Reagan’s City of God,”, [].