Religion and Profit: An Interview with Katherine Carte Engel

Editor's note: It's raining early American religious history here at our blog! To go along with our previous interview a few days ago with Emma Anderson, today we feature an interview with Kate Carte Engel, author of the outstanding new work RELIGION AND PROFIT: MORAVIANS IN EARLY AMERICA. Kate teaches together with her husband at Texas A & M, and has previously guest blogged for us from the conference she recently attended on "Markets and Morality." Below she discusses how she came to study the Moravians, and how she conceptualizes religion and economics in American history.

1) I’ll start with a variation of a question I often ask students when introducing a subject: “Who are the Moravians, and why should I care?”

That’s a great question. Because the Moravians are not as known today as they were in the eighteenth century, they often get confused with other small denominations, particularly the ones with a Pennsylvania connection, such as the Amish or the Mennonites. They have a very unique heritage, though. What we call the Moravian church today is more formally known as the “Renewed Moravian Church,” because the group traces its routes to the followers of fifteenth-century Czech martyr Jan Hus. Their history took a dramatic turn, however, in the eighteenth century, when a small group of refugees moved to Saxony and came under the leadership of an aristocratic German Pietist, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. Under Zinzendorf’s guidance, they became some of the most important early evangelicals, and they are best understood within the German Pietist tradition. Most famously, they had a strong influence on John Wesley. They’re important for historians because of the pivotal role they played in the birth of Atlantic evangelicalism, and also because of their widespread and highly successful missionary projects.

2) How did you become interested in the Moravians, and the larger
issue of religion and economics, in the first place? Take us through your process, from initial conceptualization to finished book.

I actually came to the question of religion and economics before I found the Moravians. I had always been left hollow by the idea that religion somehow used to matter in the past, but doesn’t have an impact on the modern economy. It assumes a macrohistorical conflict between faith and the market that tends to steamroll the intricacies of the past. This narrative has been particularly strong in early American history because of the influence of Perry Miller. I think most early Americanists today have a gut feeling that the premise is flawed, or perhaps limited only to New England, but no other paradigm has really replaced it. If you look at a survey text, the section on New England will usually talk about Puritan religion, then talk about how they were (contrary to what students assume) actually good at business and quite engaged in trade and speculation. The larger idea that one should be surprised to find devout faith and entrepreneurialship in the same place is left unchallenged. But historical methods have changed a lot in the decades since Perry Miller wrote (and the century since Max Weber did), so I wanted to find a new way into the question.

As for the Moravians, that was profound good luck. First, I fell in love with the Mid-Atlantic and the eighteenth century. Then, I looked for a good way to explore my sense that religion and economy intersected in much more complicated ways than other historians seemed to argue, and I found the Moravians. The initial appeal was that Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was, between 1741 and 1762, one of the largest communal settlements in colonial America. Then, in 1762, the communal household was dissolved with almost no social distress. But the story got much more interesting from there. I had the wonderful experience of having my sources point me to a larger narrative than I realized was there. My little case study of a communal town turned out to be at the nexus of evangelical awakening, Atlantic trade, and imperial warfare. I think the Moravians’ importance to the question of religion and economics is ultimately that it forces one to recognize how contingent and changing both religious culture and economic choices are. They can’t really be investigated separate from a larger historical context.

3) It seems like the Moravians have been the subject of a lot of
scholarship in recent years -- from Jon Sensbach to Aaron Fogelman and many others. Are the Moravians, indeed, “hot,” and if so, why?

Well, I guess I hope they’re hot! One reason is that there has been such a needed resurgence of interest in religion among early Americanists, and in evangelicalism by scholars of American history. Then there’s the fact that the Moravians were in all the right places at the right times in the eighteenth century. They had missions literally all around the Atlantic rim, and they were active throughout British North America. They were creative and energetic, and they knew many important figures, from Benjamin Franklin and John Adams to John Wesley and George Whitefield. But most important, they kept AMAZING records. They wrote everything down (though, they wrote it in old German script), and they saved it all, often more than one copy. The Moravian archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Herrnhut, Germany, are overwhelming in their completeness. The Moravian community is also very supportive of research on a wide variety of subjects. They do not try to control the work done in their archives the way some religious communities do.

4) Your larger theme is religion and economics. What are the most
important issues you think religious historians need to understand/grapple with when thinking about economics?

The biggest hurdle, I think, is how we conceptualize the two areas of religion and economics. There’s long been an presumed separation between the two that grew out of what is ultimately an intellectual construction of the religious and the secular. As people like Tisa Wenger, Talal Asad, and Joel Chidester push us to think about the concept of religion in more historically contingent ways, we have to confront the implications of that for the intersection between the religious and the economic. The biggest challenge is to get beyond these categories and find ways to uncover interactions that were more subtle than a simple conflict between “religion” and “capitalism,” or the idea that religion is always a conservative force acting on the economy. On the other hand, we cannot lose sight of the fact that much religious teaching--certainly Christian teaching--is about right economic action. I believe the negotiation between religious ideals and economic choices was almost always an intimate one, specific to a transaction and the individuals who were engaged in it, even as it was also inextricably linked to the wider web of history. Our challenge is to find ways to see those moments.

5) Many groups in American history have struggled with a perceived
contradiction between “piety” and “profit.” Others, like the recent spate of prosperity gospel advocates, have provided facile answers to the possible disjuncture between religious altruism and the self-interest inherent in capitalism. How did the Moravians deal with this issue so (apparently) successfully?

The short answer is that I think modern people have created the conflict. The loaded word here is “capitalism.” As it’s commonly understood, it is dependent on self-interest. With this taken as a given, we interrogate how people managed it. (In other words, when we find “capitalism,” we assume the presence of an economic culture based on self-interest, at least in some measure.) But is self-interest necessary for any particular kind of transaction to function? If we come at it from another perspective, are the dangers of greed, theft, and dishonesty inherently different in a post-modern economy than they were in a “pre-capitalist” economy? You can cheat or lie in a face-to-face transaction just as easily as in a long-distance one, though the consequences and likelihood of being found out may be different.

I should note here that my primary concern is not categorizing the nature of the early American economy in the way an economic historian might. I’m concerned with how religious actors engaged economic choices.

The Moravians understood economic action to be like any other kind of action -- requiring of constant moral supervision. It was incumbent on a seller to help an ignorant buyer make a good choice, even if he could have gotten away with more. That principle held true in international commerce and in face-to-face transactions. To be honest, the Moravians would have been quite surprised to find that historians believed they were engaged in a losing battle against the rise of capitalism. They thought international trade, manufacturing, even distilling liquor, were all good ways to support missions. They also thought communalism was a good means to do that, and they saw no inherent conflict between communalism and international commerce. Greed, whether it came from a journeyman cobbler who worked without a salary or a wealthy merchant who earned commissions, was the problem.

6) You’re working now, I believe, on a project about religion and the American revolution. Can you say something more about your current work, and what directions you intend to take in the future?

I’m really excited about the American Revolution these days, and not just because I love teaching it in the American history survey. The Moravians in Bethlehem did their best to ignore it or avoid it. Reading records from those years sometimes made me want to shout: read a newspaper, folks! Of course, they did read the papers and they had good reasons for what they did, and I tried to write about that faithfully. But now I want to look at the era’s big events. More specifically, I’m interested in how the American Revolution forced international Protestant networks to remake themselves. The “Protestant International” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was replaced by a system much more structured by denominations. I’m interested in how those shifts were accomplished, and what their consequences were for Atlantic religion. Right now I’m having fun being back in archives, looking at new records and spinning out where it will all go.

7) Who are some of the early Americanists -- religious historians or
otherwise -- that you most admire or emulate, and why? Who have been your primary intellectual influences?

I’ve been inspired by lots of folks--its hard to think of just a couple. Of course, there are the brilliant writers like Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan who can make us laugh aloud and remake the field in the same sentence. I’ve also had the privilege to work with some fantastic scholars and really generous mentors. But at the moment I think I should mention Jeanne Boydston, a wonderful scholar, teacher, and human being who had an enormous impact on me and on most of the people who graduated from Wisconsin in the last twenty years. She is, and long will be, sorely missed.


Brad Hart said…
WHat an excellent interview! This book is going on my "To Read" list for sure. Oh, and keep the early American stuff coming!!!

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