Markets and Morality Conference Report

"Did you ever wake up to find/A day that broke up your mind . . . It's just that demon life/has got you in its sway." Yes, from "Sway," my favorite Stones song. And yes, pretty much a description of my last week, between health problems, scrambled trips, and general chaos, so excuse the lack of blog entries.

In the meantime, thanks to
Kate Carte Engel for this report from the Markets and Morality Conference recently held at the Library Company of Philadelphia, which
I blogged about in September. It sounds like it was a blessedly rational event; just reading about it calmed me down. In the near future I hope to host a blog "interview" with Prof. Engel on her new book Religion and Profit: Moravians in Early America. Until then, here's her first of what I hope will be other guest posts.


Religion and the economy has been a recurrent subject for this blog, so perhaps readers will be interested to hear a report of a recent conference held in Philadelphia. Market and Morality: Intersections of Economy, Ethics, and Religion in Early North America, the seventh annual conference of the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in Early American Economy and Society offered participants both lively discussion and interesting papers on a timeless subject.
The PEAES Program, steered by the University of Delaware’s Cathy Matson, fosters scholarship on diverse aspects of the early American economy and the wider culture that surrounded it. It has become a focal point for new and methodologically innovative work on early America, and its attention to the study of religion in the early American economy points to the vitality of that field.

As one commentator noted, Max Weber and Perry Miller were present as the elephants in the room, but panelists tried to work beyond (and sometimes with) them to build new paradigms of the study of religion in the economy. No single theory emerged as victor. but speakers covered topics as diverse as seventeenth-century Quaker merchants (Kristen Block), Puritan economic thought (Mark Valeri), and the controversies over early nineteenth-century turnpikes in New England (Jason Opal). Multiple historiographical approaches were brought to bear on the subject. Jose Torre offered a grand intellectual narrative that swept from Plato to the early republic. Holly Snyder used synagogue records and merchant ledgers to examine how Jews infused their economic lives with spiritual content. Opal delved into the town records of early national New England. Quite obviously, the diversity of approaches to this subject underlies the difficulty of coming to one, satisfactory theory to explain it.

Perhaps a better metric for understanding religion in the early American economy is the range of recurring themes in the conference’s discussion, topics marking the issues that Americans did battle with in their efforts to make spiritual sense of their economic lives: the shifting definition of providence, the nature of free will, and the meaning of sacrifice. These are theological questions but they were practical ones too for the people studied here. At the same time, in this effort to blend two very different subjects, political economy, the nature of the body politic, and the realities of transatlantic trade in the age of sail played an equally important role. In the concluding discussion, reminders to bring God back into the conversation alternated with those calls to remember political realities under which people lived.

The University of Connecticut’s Christopher Clark concluded the day with a discussion he described as a “wealth of notions.” He noted the marked drift over the last twenty-five years away from viewing markets as hostile forces. He pointed out that this beneficent view of the economy--perhaps a relic of the boom years that he dated as from 1983 to about last week--underlay most of the papers, which looked for accommodations between religious actors and economic situations, rather than core conflict between religion and economy. Yet wide-ranging discussion that followed highlighted how difficult it can be for historians to keep both of these subjects in mind at once. In short, no answers were to be had, but the breadth of scholars represented points to a fruitful discussion to come. The papers for the conference are available on the conference website.


Phil said…
Welcome, Kate. Glad you are lending your voice, observations, and insight to this online community. I look forward to reading your new book very soon.
Amy said…
Hello - I am a historian in the UK and wondered whether you could tell me the source of your 'The Shopkeeper' woodcut featured in your blog on this page....
I'd be very grateful for any information.

Best wishes

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