This spring I’ll have a chance to teach a graduate readings seminar on the history of religion and American capitalism. This a course I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and for a number of reasons I think it is worth doing.
The first reason is that the field of American religious history is shot through with (mostly unexamined) economic metaphors. The most obvious of these metaphors is that there was a “marketplace” of denominations or religions in the United States. As a field I don’t think we’ve yet reckoned with theoretical work like Leigh Schmidt’s groundbreaking but infrequently cited essay, “Practices of Exchange: From Market Culture to Gift Economy in the Interpretation of American Religion.” Then too, too much thinking about religion and capitalism boils down the idea that religion supports (or should support) capitalism or opposes (or should oppose) capitalism. If the “line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart,” it seems to me that promotion of and resistance to capitalism runs right through most religious groups. I hope this class will be a chance to examine, and perhaps discard, some of these ways of talking about the field.
Second, the class should be a way of integrating disparate streams of American religious history. As I’ve written elsewhere, what I think our field needs most is synthetic work that brings together the rich but fragmentary studies of different groups. There are many ways to attempt this, but to the extent that capitalism is the water in which all these denominational fishes swim, examining how various groups have interacted with capitalism seems like an obvious way to attempt integration.
Third, the so-called “new history of capitalism” is a vibrant and growing field. Witness Seth Rockman’s recent essay, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?,” in the Journal of the Early Republic, or Edward Baptist’s recent The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and Making of American Capital. Some of the most interesting recent work in American religious history has contributed to this field. One thinks of Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart at one end of the chronological spectrum, and Mark Valeri’s Heavenly Merchandize at the other, with plenty more in between. Still I sense plenty of opportunity for American religious historians to borrow from and give back to the new history of capitalism.
That leads my to the last reason, which is that there are still many gaps in the history of religion and capitalism in the United States. There are some articles and chapters on Mormons and the economy, but nothing comparable to Leonard Arrington’s 1958 Great Baisin Kingdom. I had hoped to include a book on slavery, religion, and capitalism, but I couldn’t find anything suitable (correct me if I’m wrong!). The history of the Catholic Worker movement could be updated since Mel Piehl’s 1982 Breaking Bread. Eventually I’d like to do some work on those gaps, and perhaps the other members of the seminar will find their own topics of interest.
But it’s perilous to point out lacunae in the literature, since those holes might just be gaps in my reading or thinking. So I put the question to you, RinAH readers. Below is the core of the reading list (not a full syllabus, obviously) for the semester, following a one-book-per-week rule. I intend to add a list of related but not required reading to each week of the syllabus. (Very rough start here.) And I’m almost certainly going to include excerpts from theoretical works on capitalism by Weber, Marx, Durkheim, Bourdieu etc. What would you do differently? What other works would you recommend?
P.S. I'd love to see other RinAH writers post their syllabi too.
Valeri, Mark. Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Engel, Katherine Carte. Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Block, Kristen. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.
Noll, Mark A., ed. God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Arrington, Leonard J. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900. New edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Kobrin, Rebecca, ed. Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.
Phillips, Paul T. A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 1880–1940. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
Heineman, Kenneth J. A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.
Hudnut-Beumler, James. In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.