Reading List in the History of Religion and Capitalism in the US

Lincoln Mullen

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.

  1. Valeri, Mark. Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

  2. Engel, Katherine Carte. Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

  3. Block, Kristen. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

  4. Noll, Mark A., ed. God and Mammon: Protestants, Money, and the Market, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

  5. Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815–1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

  6. McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

  7. Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

  8. Arrington, Leonard J. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900. New edition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

  9. Kobrin, Rebecca, ed. Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

  10. Phillips, Paul T. A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 1880–1940. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

  11. Heineman, Kenneth J. A Catholic New Deal: Religion and Reform in Depression Pittsburgh. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

  12. 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.

  13. Bowler, Kate. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

  14. Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.


Judith said…
This looks like a great course, Lincoln, and I'm excited to see how it develops.

Some ideas for African American religious history coverage (to move beyond attending to black people only as property):

John Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915 (Oxford, 2007) [chapters on commercial life and material culture]

Giggie has a few other pieces on religion and business (the black religious press, race records).

Lerone Martin's new Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (NYU 2014) addresses the record industry in the early 20th century.

There's a lot of work left to do about black denominations and capitalism....

I think it would be great to include The Black Manifesto and responses to it to think about religious responses to the history of economic exploitation of black people.

A few resources:

Robert S. Lecky and H. Elliott Wright, Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism, and Reparations (1969)

Trevor Burroughs contributed a useful post about The Black Manifesto on RiAH this past summer:
Lincoln Mullen said…
Thank you, Judith. I'll take a look at the readings you suggested. I'd like to do a week on African American religion and capitalism, and haven't settled on what it will be.
Edward J. Blum said…
I keep pressing #1 on my phone to enroll, but the system boots me out. Guess I'll have to walk over to the registrar's office :) Thanks for the list. Time for me to get a'readin'. I enjoyed Consuming Faith and Land of Desire as well. Giggie's book (and the edited volume he did) are great too!
Charlie McCrary said…
This looks great, Lincoln. I would very highly recommend is Jonathan Levy's _Freaks of Fortune_. It's not necessarily a "religious history," but there are lots of discussions of providence, faith, etc. The dissertation it's based on was titled "Ways of Providence." It's a really good book and would likely provoke good discussion about religion topics.
Lincoln Mullen said…
Thanks, Ed. That's two votes for Giggie. It was a hard choice between Consuming Faith and Kingdom on Earth.

Thanks for the suggestion, Charlie. I liked Levy's book a lot. It's definitely going on the recommended list, but maybe I can add a chapter to the reading list.
Christopher said…
This looks great, Lincoln, and like Ed, I'm taking notes and adding books to my ever-growing list of things to read.

I do feel a bit bad that your students are having to slog through Arrington's (excellent but pretty dry) book.

Alternate/additional readings on Mormonism and capitalism include Matt Godfrey's Religion, Politics, and Sugar : The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907-1921 and a handful of more recent articles, including Fritz Umbach, "Learning to Shop in Zion : The Consumer Revolution in Great Basin Mormon Culture, 1847-1910," Journal of Social History 38:1 (2004): 29-61 and Christopher Garret, "The Defense of Deseret : An Examination of LDS Church Trade Politics and Development Efforts in the American West," Utah Historical Quarterly 73:4 (2005): 365-386.
Lincoln Mullen said…
Thanks for the suggestions, Christopher. Most of those are new to me. You're not the first person to use the word "slog" to describe Arrington, so maybe I can cobble together a set of alternative readings. I didn't know of enough to make it work, but this helps.
esclark said…
3 votes for Giggie.
Surprised that no one has mentioned Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture. You also may want to include something on religion and tourism with attention to the commodification of religion in tourist economies.
rys said…
I think the Kobrin collection has some great essays in it, but there are also some monographs to consider.

Adam Menselsohn's The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire is coming out in December.

Sarah Stein's Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce has one chapter specifically on the US but does a masterful job of connecting ethno-religious networks across the globe. Her intro/conclusion offer some great historiographical jump-offs for thinking about Jews and capitalism.

Marni Davis has an essay in the Kobrin volume, but also has a book, Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition.

On Jews and material/consumer culture, Jenna Joselit's The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture, 1880-1950 is a wonderfully rich examination.

In thinking about responses to capitalism, Tony Michels' A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York is excellent.

For a provocative argument on American Jews and American capitalism, Eli Lederhendler's Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920: From Caste to Class is quite useful.
Heath said…
Great thread. I wonder about adding a book that would explore the labor side? Jarod Roll's Spirit of Rebellion would work very well.
hillary kaell said…
I love this idea for a class! To echo Tom Bremer (and because he's too modest to post it) I'd recommend his Blessed with Tourists. Leisure and tourism are a great way into questions about money/capitalism because students are familiar with them, of course, and often class them as "not" religion. Something on tourism paired with Consumer Rites could work really well.

I'd also add something on charitable giving (perhaps along with Mauss on the gift?) -- the 'altruistic other' to counterbalance capitalist profit-making. What about pairing a piece on 19th c charity with John Corrigan's Business of the Heart...?

Although it's not religion per se, I also enjoyed teaching Viviana Zelizer's classic Pricing the Priceless Child. It was an easy read (no slogging!) and we had a great discussion about the intersection of religion and moral norms. An "unmarked Protestantism" type debate. Fun stuff! Thanks for getting us thinking about money, Lincoln!
rjc said…
Coming very late to this conversation, but I'd suggest that a course on religion and capitalism needs some studies of labor as well. That essential element of capitalism is conspicuously absent from this discussion.
Lincoln Mullen said…
Thanks for the suggestion, rjc. Heineman's book is about labor, and I'm thinking about a chapter from Burns's book on the radical historical Jesus. But I should see what else I can do with labor.
rjc said…
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