The Rise of Christian Capitalism

EmilyCarr-Indian-Church-1929The Rise of Christian Capitalism

By Edward Coleson

 Nearly two centuries ago a caricature of humanity was born, a strange creature called the “economic man.” He was supposed to be utterly amoral and interested in only one thing—making money. He allegedly pursued the coin of the realm with unflagging zeal and unswerving devotion. He was said to have no cultural interests, no sense of community, and no humanitarian concerns. He was actually an automated money-making machine. It is this “straw man” that is the target in the present heavy attack against capitalism by a lot of evangelical Christians. Those who have taken the trouble to do at least a little of their homework know about the economics of Spencer and Sumner, so familiar as “Social Darwinism.”AAA

One can concede that these men and their theories were unchristian, but certainly not more so than Marx or Keynes and their ideas. What these evangelical critics do not know or refuse to consider is that there was a Christian economics in the early part of the last century, the basis of Victorian prosperity and progress. This is no figment of my imagination: it can be abundantly documented from history.

It would no doubt be an overstatement to claim that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, is a textbook in Christian capitalism. But it is also quite unfair to say, as did a prominent evangelical recently, that “Adam Smith, optimistically holding to fixed natural economic laws, did not realize that sin would promote greed….” He simply has not read the Wealth of Nations. On the contrary, Smith said, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public….”

Nor was he a partisan of big business, as is commonly supposed. “The government of an exclusive company of merchants is,” he wrote, “perhaps, the worst of all governments….” Since he did not trust merchants and manufacturers because of their “mean rapacity,” he hoped to deny them political power. Yet he was no anarchist in spite of his misgivings about our political leaders: “The violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind is an ancient evil, for which, I am afraid, the nature of human affairs can scarce admit of a remedy.”

Whatever the inadequacies of Smith’s theology, he seemed to have gotten the doctrine of natural depravity straight. Of contemporary interest is his assertion that governments are “the greatest spend thrifts” and that:

When national debts have been accumulated to a certain degree … the liberation of the public revenue … has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; … though frequently by a pretended payment.

He then expounds on the iniquity of that “juggling trick” called inflation, which he regards as worse than “a fair, open and avowed bankruptcy.” It should be interesting to see if we handle our enormous public debts any better than our rude forefathers.

It is necessary to emphasize Adam Smith’s attitude toward government because a multitude of our contemporaries are sure that a laissez faire capitalist is necessarily an anarchist—there can be no other logical position. There are many right-wing anarchists in our midst today, but this is not a necessary alternative to the welfare state, socialism, communism, or some other form of statism. William Blackstone, the great legal authority of that age, stated in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in 1765, that the laws have no validity, if contrary to the higher law, “dictated by God Himself.”

John Wesley, the popular preacher of that day, said the same thing: “Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right and wrong is wrong still.” Adam Smith’s economic system was based on this foundation: “Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way….”

If the “laws of justice,” the higher law “dictated by God Himself,” is the standard, then a farmer may grow any amount of any legitimate crop he chooses and dispose of it in any honest way, to take one of many possible examples.

It would seem that the Bible is so full of references to the centrality of God’s law, that it should be unnecessary to speak in support of the doctrine. However, there have been so many, from St. Paul’s antinomians, who were “not under law, but under grace,” to Joseph Fletcher’s “New Moralists,” that perhaps a word of explanation might be in order. Strictly speaking, the natural moral law of two centuries ago was an Enlightenment doctrine and was, to trace its ancestry, of heathen derivation—the Greek Stoics and the Roman Cicero were early advocates thereof—but this only proves that even pagans felt the need of God and His law. As Voltaire said, “If there were no God, we would have to invent one,” and one might add that if there were no higher law, we would have to invent its equivalent. Whatever the philosophical and theological problems with the concept of natural law, it was a basic tenet of our fathers two centuries ago, and the Hitlers and Stalins of our day have dramatically demonstrated that we can ill afford to be without something of the sort.

Another key concept of two centuries ago was the natural order, an idea quite foreign to modern thought. Needless to say, a multitude of people today would be horrified at the prospect of letting everyone across the earth produce all he could and then let the abundance flow across the earth like water. When Adam Smith was writing the Wealth of Nations two hundred years ago, many were equally frightened with full production and open markets. In fact, for centuries the nations of Europe had worked overtime, trying to restrict their meager production still more in spite of the poverty and hunger of so many of their people. The result was a bewilderingly complicated system, a patchwork of conflicting interests—a sort of economic crazy quilt—known to us as mercantilism.

The French, for instance, long before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, had a restrictive textile “code” which ran to more than three thousand pages. The French Physiocrats urged that there was a natural order into which the textile industry and everyone else would gravitate, which would guide them far more wisely than the government had or could. Adam Smith believed that the economy would run by itself, too. He insisted that behind the scenes was the “invisible hand,” which would guide our productive efforts in response to the enlightened self-interest of each individual as producer and consumer. He was certain that if the many political schemes for rigging the market in favor of selfish interests were “completely taken away, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord.”

If the appeal was to “Nature and to Nature’s God,” as Thomas Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence, they still recognized God, if in a detached and deistic way. To them these natural forces, which would run the economy so well, were like the law of gravity, and I guess we regard gravity in a rather impersonal fashion, too, whatever our theology may be.

If the founders of our political economy were hardly fervent evangelicals, the men who finally put it into practice were. We should remember that there was a long time lag between the publication of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 and the application of the theory contained therein, the “Repeal of the Corn Laws,” which was finally accomplished in 1846. During those long years, the Wesleyan revival was a powerful force, even decades after Wesley’s death. It was much more than revival, in the narrow sense, too. In 1772 the first of the great evangelical reforms was accomplished, the freeing of the slaves in England. The King’s Bench, the English Supreme Court, freed them because slavery was contrary to God’s law.

Years later a young aristocrat, William Wilberforce, M.P. (Member of Parliament), was converted and, after much soul searching, decided to devote his political talents to abolition and reform. He became the nucleus of a small group of influential evangelicals who lived in a London suburb, Clapham Common, and promoted all the worthy causes. Wilberforce was called “the authorized interpreter of the national conscience,” and he and his devout neighbors were dubbed the “Saints” or the “Clapham Sect” by their political opponents. According to Earle E. Cairns,  the Clapham Sect accomplished more of a constructive nature than any reform movement in history. It was out of this context of revival and reform that Victorian free enterprise and free trade were born.

The Clapham Sect make an interesting study, particularly when contrasted with today’s “Evangelicals of the Left,” if I may coin a term, too. It is beyond the comprehension of many contemporary Christians how any Bible-believing Christian can be a laissez-faire capitalist. Richard Pierard even wrote an eloquent book, The Unequal Yoke, dedicated to the proposition that such a position “violates the basic ethical principles of Christianity.”

Since he mentions me at least three times in the book, the volume is quite interesting. One may concede that many present day conservatives—“radicals of the right,” to use his language—are all mixed up, but are they more so than today’s left-wing evangelicals? It is true that the grandchildren of these same Claphamites formed another exclusive and influential clique, the Bloomsbury Circle—not laissez-faire capitalists like their fathers before them, but Fabian Socialists. This may suggest that the free-enterprise philosophy is untenable, but it is interesting to note that the Bloomsbury Circle was an immoral bunch and militantly anti-Christian. This “century-long migration of English … intellectuals from Clapham to Bloomsbury,” as a recent writer calls it, makes an interesting study. It is precisely the same transition that many evangelicals have been making in the last generation. It will be interesting to see if they can keep their Christian faith in the process.

The informed reader may wonder why I mentioned the Clapham Sect and the reform movement growing out of the Wesleyan revival at all. Was not British free trade the work of the Anti-Corn Law League and the consequence of “Manchester economics,” not the activities of the Clapham Sect? This is true. It is also true that the members of the league made it very clear from the beginning that their free trade program was based “on the same righteous principles” as the recent and very successful abolition movement. This, of course, could have been a gimmick; they were skillful propagandists, as indeed the abolitionists had been. However, this is unfair, as should be evident as we pursue the story. It is also unfair to claim (the famous Williams-Coup-land controversy) that the abolition of slavery can best be explained on economic grounds, that it simply faded away (with a little push from Wilberforce) when it ceased to be profitable. But as J. C. Furnas has pointed out, ships were still smuggling slaves into our South until the Civil War, with captains and crews receiving wages highly eloquent of how extremely well slave smuggling paid.

During the long years of debate over slavery (the English slave trade was abolished in 1807 and plantation slavery in the colonies in 1834), the economic argument did come up, but Wilberforce and his associates insisted that “a Christian country should be glad to give up profits which are made out of human shame and misery.”

This is Christian economics: the profit motive is legitimate, but there can be more important considerations. It should be added that they believed that what is morally right is the more expedient policy in the long run, that sound economics is simply Christian ethics. Adam Smith had said long before that slavery was uneconomic (free men were more productive) but the ancient evil continued.

Wilberforce did not wait for slavery to fade away spontaneously. This is an important point because conservatives today allegedly have a “do-nothing” social policy. Perhaps so, but the Clapham Sect and the Anti-Corn Law League were laissez-faire economists, evangelicals, and active reformers. It has been done. Furthermore, back in this “Age of Reform,” it appears that many people, like Alexander, were looking for other worlds to conquer. One successful venture lead to another.

Perhaps a few words of explanation are necessary in discussing the English Corn-Law problem. Firstly, “corn” to them is grain, probably wheat in this case. Secondly, the Corn Laws were the British “farm program,” an ancient attempt to keep the farmers happy, although some thought had been given to the consumers too. More recently, it seemed that the landed aristocrats who were running England were mostly concerned with their own interests and were indifferent to the suffering of the poor. Just providing bread, the meagerest sort of a diet, for the family has always been a major problem for ordinary people in any preindustrial society and still is in the so-called underdeveloped countries today—as some of us know, who have been out where people are hungry. Two centuries ago in England it cost a common laborer five day’s pay for a bushel of wheat. A generation later, with the Napoleonic Wars and bad harvests, the price eventually rose to about two week’s pay.

At this time of great crisis, Parliament decided to increase the tariff on imported grain and in effect, make bread even more scarce and expensive. Needless to say, this was too much for many people. As the reader knows, there have been loud protests in America recently that the price of food is getting out of hand; we who can buy a bushel of wheat, if we want one, for an hour’s pay, more or less, will find it hard to comprehend the depths of their poverty, but perhaps we can understand their feeling of outrage. This set the stage for about thirty years of chronic discontent, although in the short run most people felt there wasn’t much they could do about it. After all, the landlords ran the country and they were not disposed to let in cheap grain from abroad to relieve the situation. Finally, with the Reform Bill of 1832, the power of the landed gentry was curtailed, if not broken, and the way was cleared to do something about Corn Laws and high food prices, although nothing happened immediately. It is interesting to note that the new Parliament attended to a moral problem which was geographically quite remote: they abolished slavery in the colonies and voted twenty million pounds out of domestic taxation to compensate the slave owners. The more immediate problem of bread they attended to a little later. In all fairness, no doubt politics explains the delay, however, not a selfless Christian charity.

With the founding of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, organized opposition to the British “farm program” began to gather force. Started in Manchester by seven men meeting “behind a dingy red curtain in a room above the hotel stables,” the League quickly became a political power. While their objectives were clearly practical, the repeal of duties on imported grain and tariffs in general, the campaign:

was conceived in humanitarian and religious as well as economic terms. The very language of men like Cobden and even more later on of John Bright was dominated by Biblical metaphors and images. Texts sprang to their lips as easily as statistics….”

 The campaign became “the politics of the Gospel,” and they sought to make Manchester the center for the propagation of this new “Christian Economics” (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Kershner), “just as Jerusalem was the center of our faith.” A great conference for the clergy was held at Manchester in 1841, and soon ministers were denouncing the iniquities of the “bread tax” and preaching the blessings of free trade. In the early Victorian era when many people took their Bibles very seriously indeed, this proved to be a very effective propaganda approach. Certainly with John Bright, the devout Quaker, this was no act; while he, as a businessman, expected to gain by free trade, he could be equally adamant about ethical issues when he knew he would lose, such as when he opposed the Crimean War a few years later, and lost his seat in Parliament. Bright’s political policy was based on “an omnipotent and eternal moral law,” and he was not prepared to adjust his views to suit anybody, not even the folks he represented. If his fellow Victorians were not as consistent as he over the long run, still their moral earnestness gave the famous “Battle of the League” the quality of a holy crusade, a campaign for cheaper bread for the hungry multitudes.

Men like Bright and Cobden were businessmen and politicians, not theoreticians, but the philosopher soon appeared to supply the “Christian Economics.” Economics had had a respectable and moral beginning with Adam Smith, but had fallen on evil days with the pessimism of “Parson Malthus” and his famous population essay of 1798. This starvation brand of social theory had earned economics the somber nickname of that “dismal science.” As a recent writer has pointed out:

The British free-traders were much embarrassed …by the dismal parts of the “dismal science,” and avidly seized upon the purified version of economics presented by the Frenchman, Frederic Bastiat. In a sense, he is the “classical” Manchester theorist. A brilliant writer, he achieved world fame with his parable of the candle-makers….

In reading him, it is not hard to discover why Bright and Cobden “avidly seized upon” his “version” of economics. As Bastiat says in his Harmonies of Political Economy:

There is a leading idea which runs through the whole of this work, which pervades and animates every page and every line of it; and that idea is embodied in the opening words of the Christian Creed, I believe in God.

 One is reminded of Winston Smith, the hero of Orwell’s 1984, who took his beginning, the basis for straightening out the world, from the proposition that if “two plus two make four, all else follows.” For Bastiat, the existence and goodness of God formed the foundation for his philosophical system. For him as with Saint Paul, “All things work together for good to them” who are in harmony with the Creator and His divine plan (Rom. 8:28). From this he deduced the basis for his economic system: “All men’s impulses, when motivated by legitimate self-interest, fall into a harmonious social pattern.”

Therefore, there is no necessary conflict between nations or individuals, between capital and labor, between ruler and subjects, between parents and children. One is reminded of St. James’s question: “From whence come wars and fightings among you?” (James 4:1). Bastiat also believed that they came of “our lusts,” and represented an unnecessary and disastrous conflict where ultimately nobody wins and everybody loses. He was not alone in this belief. According to John Stuart Mill, “every true reformer” should pray that the Lord would:

“enlighten … our enemies, … sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions…. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom….”

 Bastiat rejected “the frightful blasphemy” that life on this earth is inevitably a struggle, “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson expressed it—God simply could not have made the world like that. To understand why Bastiat’s “purified version of economics,” based on the natural harmony of legitimate interests, had such great appeal to the League and others, it is well to remember that William Paley’s doctrine of Design still dominated English thought. Scholars were producing ponderous volumes showing the wonders of the Creator’s handiwork in a universe where all things work together in harmony. Bastiat’s harmonious economics was just part of the larger plan. He also arrived just in the nick of time to supply the League with convincing economic arguments for what they believed and wanted to do anyway. While the details of the “Battle of the League,” as it has been called, would exceed our present limited space, the broad pattern is not that complicated. The Anti-Corn Law League was an organization of eager and committed individuals who produced propaganda by the ton (no figure of speech—as many as three and a half tons of free-trade tracts were shipped from Manchester in a single week). They organized meetings, large and small, and spoke to any who would listen. When crops were poor and bread was high, people did tend to listen to them, too, but, when grain was more abundant and cheap, they found less interest. Sweeping reductions in tariffs by Robert Peel’s government placated the lukewarm and middle-of-the-road supporters of the cause. In fact, there seemed little hope of success when “Nature” suddenly intervened. The fall rains of 1845, “the wettest autumn in the memory of man,” finally turned the tide in favor of the League. “It was the rain that rained away the Corn Laws,” said the biographer of Richard Cobden.

With Ireland starving (a half million or perhaps two million did starve, depending on whose guess you want to believe) and with England only a little better off, something drastic had to be done, and the Anti-Corn Law League made the most of their opportunity. In a dramatic switch, Prime Minister Peel deserted his party and protectionism. In June of 1846 the repeal of the Corn Laws was accomplished. Some of the exultation of that moment of triumph may be sensed from this little poem, dedicated to R. Cobden :

God said, “Let there be light;” and to,

Light sprang forth at His word.

God said, “Let there be bread;” but no,

Man heeded not the Lord.

But Cobden rose like wisdom’s star

From knowledge’s bright sea,

And Knaves were hush’d and tyrants crush’d

And labour’s bread was free.

 More correctly, it was less expensive because the new flood of cheap grain from America could come in unrestrained—a great boon to our Western farmers, if not to English agriculture. It is interesting to note that Lord Ashley, that great evangelical reformer, voted for free trade in grain, although he was a landed aristocrat. He voted for it because it was right. It was this conviction that their cause was righteous which carried the day for the League.

With this first great hurdle cleared, England soon went on to abolish most of the remaining tariffs and emerged as the great free-trade nation. Soon the Western European nations were following the British example. Unfortunately, the United States did not follow the fashion. It is interesting to note that the high tariff policy which the North insisted upon nearly lead to war with the South a generation before the Civil War came—about the time, in fact, that English reformers were freeing their own slaves in the colonies, which they accomplished without war. Cobbett had rejoiced when he came over here in 1818 that America had “No Wilberforces. Think of that! No Wilberforces.”

We had no Cobden and Bright, either. We did have a disastrous Civil War, however, over the unresolved problem of slavery and tariffs. If we had no William Wilberforce, we did have John Brown of Harper’s Ferry. Our failure on slavery still haunts us, and our unresolved economic problems threaten daily to overwhelm us. In this hour of national crisis, can we learn from these Christian statesmen of long ago?

Perhaps one of the highest tributes to Victorian economic policy ever written was penned by an Austrian socialist, Karl Polanyi. He entitles the first chapter of his book, The Great Transformation, with the attractive title, “The Hundred Years’ Peace.” He then points out that nineteenth-century civilization rested on four institutions: the balance of power, the gold standard, the market economy (free enterprise and free trade), and limited government. After commending the system for producing this long period of relative peace in Europe (1815 to 1914–Waterloo to the “Guns of August”), and providing “an unheard-of material welfare,” he then complains that their good luck could not have continued—“a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia.” As is evident from reading the rest of the book, he regards capitalism as laissez-faire anarchism, as “survival of the fittest,” or, more correctly, the most cunning and ruthless. He does not see the possibility of freedom under law—God’s law—something we who call ourselves Christian have well nigh forgotten, too.

Like the author of the book of Hebrews, “What shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell …” of the many other accomplishments of those Christian statesmen of long ago: of the liquidation of a welfare system that even Polanyi with his socialist bias allows was “ghastly” in its social consequences; of a reduction of income taxes under William E. Gladstone from five to two percent; of a great increase of “law and order” in England; of a global investment program that spread prosperity and economic development across the earth much more effectively than our foreign aid attempts have—and much more. Little wonder that a recent writer has lamented, “In our own unpleasant century we are mostly displaced persons and many feel tempted to take flight into the nineteenth as into a promised land….”

Yet there is little use in trying to flee to the past. It would make much more sense courageously to face our present problems and the future. Whatever success they may have had long ago was by no secret formula: their Faith can be our Faith and their God our God, for:

Like the author of the book of Hebrews, “What shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell …” of the many other accomplishments of those Christian statesmen of long ago: of the liquidation of a welfare system that even Polanyi with his socialist bias allows was “ghastly” in its social consequences; of a reduction of income taxes under William E. Gladstone from five to two percent; of a great increase of “law and order” in England; of a global investment program that spread prosperity and economic development across the earth much more effectively than our foreign aid attempts have—and much more. Little wonder that a recent writer has lamented, “In our own unpleasant century we are mostly displaced persons and many feel tempted to take flight into the nineteenth as into a promised land….”

Yet there is little use in trying to flee to the past. It would make much more sense courageously to face our present problems and the future. Whatever success they may have had long ago was by no secret formula: their Faith can be our Faith and their God our God, for—

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chron. 7:14)


Article from; The Journal of Christian Reconstruction Vol. 2, Number 1; Symposium on Christian Economics. 1975.


  1. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 31–66.
  2. Earle E. Cairns, Saints and Society (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), 21.
  3. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Modern Library ed. (New York: Random House, 1937), 128.
  4. Ibid., 537.
  5. Ibid., 460.
  6. Ibid., 329.
  7. Ibid., 882
  8. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. I, Lewis ed. (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh and Co., 1902), 31.
  9. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. XI (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, reprinted from the edition of the Wesleyan Conference Office in London, 1872), 70.
  10. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 651.
  11. John M. Ferguson, Landmarks of Economic Thought (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1938), 50.
  12. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 423.
  13. Ibid., 651.
  14. Cairns, Saints and Society, 43.
  15. Richard V. Pierard, The Unequal Yoke (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott, 1970), 73.
  16. Robert Langbaum, The Victorian Age (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1967), 9.
  17. George Barnett Smith, The Life and Speeches of the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., vol. I (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1881), 133.
  18. Reginald Coupland, The British Anti-Slavery Movement, 2nd ed. (London: Frank Cass and Co., 1964), xvii-xxi; discussion of controversy by J. D. Fage, who wrote the preface to the second edition.
  19. J. C. Furnas, The Road to Harper’s Ferry (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1959), 162.
  20. W. E. F. Ward, The Royal Navy and the Slavers (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1969), 19.
  21. Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, 365.
  22. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, 4th ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 79.
  23. Asa Briggs, The Making of England, 1783–1867: The Age of Improvement (New York: Harper and Row, Harper Torchbook, 1965), 315.
  24. Eduard Heimann, History of Economic Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, Galaxy Books, 1964), 123–124.
  25. Frederic Bastiat, Social Fallacies (Santa Ana, CA: Register Publishing Co., 1944),1.
  26. Frederic Bastiat, Economic Harmonies (Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1964), xxi.
  27. Langbaum, Victorian Age., 121.
  28. Frederic Bastiat, Economic Sophisms (Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1964), 88.
  29. A. Cressy Morrison, Man Does Not Stand Alone (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1944), 7, 8.
  30. Dean Russell, Frederic Bastiat: Ideas and Influence (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1965), 75.
  31. Cairns, Saints and Society, 118.
  32. Brooks Atkinson, ed., The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Modern Library ed. (New York: Random House), 831–857.
  33. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Capricorn Books, 1966), 155.
  34. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), 80.
  35. Asa Briggs, Victorian People (New York: Harper and Row, Colophon Books, 1955), 7.
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