Christianity has adapted—and thrived—in the midst of economic crises
It was the worst financial panic that Wall Street had seen in decades. The crisis came without warning, on the heels of one of the most rapid economic expansions in United States history. Investment had been booming and New York was its hub, financing business ventures on a global scale. Money was easy. Industries and consumers borrowed to the hilt.
But the boom ended on August 24, 1857, when the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company failed. A banking panic ensued. At least 5,000 American businesses collapsed the next year, prompting widespread unemployment. The recession eventually spread overseas.
In many ways, the fundamental economic problems of the Panic of 1857 are the same as those that began in the sub-prime mortgage market 150 years later. But in one spiritually significant way, the Panic of 1857 was distinct: It set off a religious revival among the businessmen of New York City.
A Dutch Reformed missionary named Jeremiah Lanphier launched a noon-hour prayer meeting a month after the crisis began. “Within three weeks,” writes John Corrigan in Business of the Heart, “more than a hundred men attended daily, and over several months’ time numerous other prayer meetings were established to meet the overwhelming response of the businessmen.” Other meetings were arranged for working-class laborers and minorities, and businesses routinely closed their doors over lunch to accommodate employees who attended the prayer meetings.
At Jeremiah Lanphier’s retirement in 1894, 37 years after he began his prayer meeting, The New York Times reported that “the interest has varied much, yet the aim and spirit of the service have continued unaltered.”
As the businessmen’s revival on Wall Street indicates, American Christianity and capitalism are intertwined. “The relationship between American Christianity and capitalism is symbiotic,” says Villanova professor Eugene McCarraher. The values taught by churches—hard work, honesty, respect—are necessary for business. (Today’s economy shows what happens when these values are flouted.) And economic growth provides an abundant source of money for churches to do God’s work. (The religious giving research firm Empty Tomb estimates that individuals gave $89 billion to churches and religious organizations in 2006.)
Economic crises clarify these connections. From one economic crisis to the next, Christianity and capitalism have evolved and adapted to one another. The current crisis may be too new to have developed a unique response among churches, but crises like it prompt Christians to reconsider how to relate to the economy.
The Long Depression
As America moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, economic crises were routine. A financial panic in 1873 set off what became known (until the 1930s) as the Great Depression. That recession, lasting until 1879, is still the longest on record, and its resulting economic pain lasted even longer.
Now known as the Long Depression, that decades-long period was characterized by deflation, a steady decline in prices. At the time, every dollar was linked to a fixed amount of gold. While economic production increased, the money supply (or the amount of gold) did not keep pace. With a steady amount of money and a growing amount of goods, prices fell.
Agricultural prices were the hardest hit. Farmers, pinched by declining incomes and steady mortgage payments, were irate with political leaders who refused to go off the gold standard. “Free silver” became their rallying cry.
William Jennings Bryan tapped into the economic pain and Christian sensibilities of farmers and rural dwellers, and became their “godly hero.” Winning the 1896 Democratic nomination for president, Bryan proclaimed to Republicans and their Wall Street backers, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
While Bryan stirred the emotions of rural Americans, Walter Rauschenbusch challenged industrial and financial elites. In 1907, the same year J.P. Morgan rescued the financial industry from collapse, Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis and kicked off another round of soul searching as Christians sought to apply their beliefs more faithfully. In the book, he argued that “if the Church directed its full available force against any social wrong, there is probably nothing that could stand up against it.” Rauschenbusch said it was the duty of the church to address the inequities fostered by industrialization and urbanization.
Rauschenbusch’s influence has remained significant: Christianity and the Social Crisis was reprinted in 2007, and its arguments have moved entire Christian denominations toward a more socially active—if regrettably less evangelistic—stance.
Photo: Wood engraving in Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 31, 1857
People swarm Seamen’s Savings Bank during the panic of 1857
The Great Depression and the Faith Mission
America’s most painful economic crisis had a very appropriate response from churches suddenly short of cash. Church giving suffered badly, and churches were often deeply in debt. According to James David Hudnut-Beumler’s 2007 history of church finance, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar, the Southern Baptist Convention was $45 million in debt before the crash of ’29.
However, the Depression did not stifle Christian ministry. Instead, it led to a flowering of non-profit religious organizations. “Despite being a stunningly inauspicious time to launch new organizations that depended heavily on direct fund-raising,” write historians Robin Klay, John Lunn, and Michael Hamilton, “these ‘parachurch’ agencies thrived.”
One way these organizations adjusted to the increasing difficulty of raising money was to ignore fundraising altogether. The Great Depression was the heyday of the “faith mission.” These efforts depended solely on God by sending missionaries to the field with no financial support. Embodied by the China Inland Mission, founded by Hudson Taylor in the previous century, faith missions, write Klay, Lunn, and Hamilton, believed that “God would directly and supernaturally provide for all their financial needs.” They “refused to ask for money, or even to make known their needs.”
A Christian economy?
Since the financial panic of last fall, Christians have once again begun soul searching and rethinking how their faith applies to the market.
Jay Richards, in his 2009 book Money, Greed, and God, lays out an argument for free market capitalism against Christian intellectuals who believe state-controlled economies fit with Christian values. Richards is concerned that support for capitalism is eroding among lay Christians. He argues that capitalism not only avoids the violence sometimes associated with creating planned economies, but it also best alleviates poverty. Capitalism, he says, is the economic system that “allows the most wealth to be created, that best fits both human nature and the human condition, and that best accords with human dignity.”
Others, like Eugene McCarraher, say the Bible and capitalism are at odds. McCarraher, a self-proclaimed socialist, would like to see Christianity more critically engaged with the economy. If Christians thought about the economy more, McCarraher believes, they would be less accepting of capitalism. “Christians have got to step back and look at capitalism from the standpoint of the Sermon on the Mount,” he says. “From that standpoint, the competitiveness and acquisitiveness that defines capitalism can’t be defended.”
This argument has been running for decades. Some Christian academics have been supportive of heavy government intervention in the economy, while most ordinary Christians generally agree with free-market capitalism led by individual choices. Yet, this theoretical debate rarely prompts soul searching in the economic decisions of ordinary Christians.
That bothers David Miller, the director of the Princeton University’s Faith & Work Initiative. Miller teaches business ethics at the university and consults with corporations on ethics and efforts to make the workplace more faith-friendly.
“Too often the church is either silent or critical on the economy,” Miller says. So Christians assume their “work doesn’t matter to God.” Therefore the majority of Christians have little or no faith support for their belief in the capitalist system—or even spiritual support for their own job. The attitude of many Christians, Miller says, is that a “good Christian would be a missionary or a preacher.” Those who work regular jobs “are second class citizens who give their money to those who are the real Christians.”
The cozy relationship between Christianity and capitalism has benefited both institutions, but it has also produced Christians who typically don’t relate their faith to how they spend their time five days a week. If Christianity does relate to the economy, for most churchgoers, it is only expressed through what they buy. There has been little effort by church thinkers to help a CEO balance her firm’s need to survive with her employees’ need to make a living. Churches don’t help laborers see their work as God’s work. Pastors and theologians could serve their congregations and the economy by guiding workers through these questions.
While pastors and theologians aren’t going to lead the economy out of its doldrums, a little effort for those who spend their days producing, investing, and making household financial decisions could produce long-term dividends for both the economy and the church.
Rob Moll is editor at large for Christianity Today and contributor to Dow Theory Forecasts. His book, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, will be published next year by Intervarsity Press.