Religion and Economics, Puritan Style

On Sunday, the Boston Globe published Michael Fizgerald's interview with Mark Valeri on Puritanism and capitalism. Here's part of the intro. The full piece, including the interview, is here.

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

Even in down times like these, America’s economy remains remarkably productive, by far the world’s largest. At its base is a distinctive form of market-driven capitalism that was championed and shaped in Puritan era Boston.

But the rise of Boston’s economy contains a deep contradiction: The Puritans whose ethic dominated New England hated worldly things. Market pricing was considered sinful, and church communities kept a watchful, often vengeful eye on merchants.

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. read on >>>


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