14 September 2012

Review of Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America

Valeri, Mark. Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America.
Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. xiii and 337 pages. Preface. Index. Illustrations.
In 2011, the American Society of Church History awarded their Philip Schaff prize to Mark Valeri’s 2010 work titled Heavenly Merchandize. Valeri is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the E. T. Thompson Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. His other books include Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy’s New England and Volume 17 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards. His scholarly interests include eighteenth-century American religion, Puritanism, and the social history of Calvinism.[1]
Heavenly Merchandize, as the subtitle of the work would indicate, argues that it was religion that shaped commercial practices in Puritan New England. Valeri attempts to show change over time not only in commercial practices, but also in the religious discourse in reference to those practices. To accomplish his goal, Valeri utilized diverse resources that included the personal correspondence of merchants and ministers, account books, sermons, sermon notes taken by merchants, and various church records.
His intent, on one level, was an attempt to correct a simplistic reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in which Puritans=Capitalists. Weber argued that the Protestant idea of an individual divine calling to an occupation led these Protestants to work harder than their Catholic counterparts.
This belief in a divine calling for all men led to the development of capitalism, according to the Weber thesis. Valeri concedes that some recent works, such as those by Stephen Foster and Charles Cohen, have attempted to correct this view by pointing out the tension between “a traditional social ethic and economic rationality.”
Foster argued that royal control and the revocation of the Massachusetts charter contributed to the triumph of market ethics. Heavenly Merchandize attempts to emphasize the “long intellectual journey traveled from the puritan settlers to their mid-eighteenth-century heirs.” (8, 254n)
While Valeri includes quite a bit of narrative background regarding the four men he emphasized in this work, he does so while analyzing their lives in the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Puritan social thought. The book focuses upon the lives of four merchants in colonial Boston: Robert Keayne, John Hull, Samuel Sewell, and Hugh Hall.
These four men were successful in their business dealings and claimed to be pious Christians, although Valeri noted that early Boston merchants tended toward the antinomianism of Anne Hutchinson, which among other things, argued for individual revelation and teaching contrary to established Puritan doctrine. The Puritan establishment treated Keayne more severely than Hall. By the latter’s lifetime, ministers viewed merchants as a positive influence on society.
[1] Mark Valeri, http://upsem.edu/faculty_staff/fulltime/valeri.html (accessed November 1, 2011).

Plaque Commemorating Robert Keayne

Plaque Commemorating Robert Keayne
Plaque Commemorating Robert Keayne

Robert Keayne

Robert Keayne came of age in England and joined the Merchant Taylors at relatively early age. In addition to his work as a merchant, Keayne became enamored by puritan teachings while still in England and immigrated to the New World in 1635. He left in his will large monetary gifts to the town of Boston for a “public market building,” a granary, books, and his church’s poor fund, among other causes. Overall he gave approximately thirty percent of his wealth “to civic and religious causes.” (11)
Valeri argues that in giving this large sum, Keayne was making an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation. Both civic and religious authorities had censured the Boston merchant for profiteering despite his claims that he was merely accounting for market fluctuations. The puritan leaders of Boston frequently preached against usury, profiteering, and other common mercantile practices as oppression of the poor. Church leaders frequently undertook disciplinary action against merchants for such practices, which they viewed as unchristian. To the first generation of the godly society, merchants were merely a necessary evil.

John Hull

Valeri used John Hull, another Boston merchant to illustrate religious attitudes toward merchants between the 1650s and 1680s. Religious censure of merchants declined precipitously during this period, as civil magistrates came to control more of the legal system. While the merchants did not endure formal censures or, worse, excommunications frequently, ministers still preached against profiteering.
The rise of the jeremiad in second-generation Massachusetts led to an emphasis on the sinfulness of society, and the greediness of the mercantile class drew the wrath of God in this milieu. These jeremiads were sermons that bemoaned the sin of the population in a way that hearkened to the biblical prophet Jeremiah. Ministers tied such catastrophes as drought, hard winters, and even King Philip’s War in some degree to the activities of greedy merchants through these sermons. There was no “full legitimization of New England’s expanding market” in this period. (110)

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall represented the third period that Valeri investigated. Around the turn of the eighteenth century, religious discourse changed dramatically. Sewall felt comfortable inviting ministers such as Samuel Willard and Cotton Mather to his palatial new house. When a massive hailstorm broke some of his windows as Willard and Mather made their first visit, Sewall’s minister friends interpreted the event more as a warning against greed and pride than as a punishment.
In an age marked more by patriotism, merchants became a vehicle to spreading English influence and power in a world threatened by a backward Catholicism. Ministers no longer viewed merchants as a necessary evil, but rather as proselytizers for the English way of life. The market became a positive good.
Valeri mentions economists such as William Petty who came to use data on monetary policy, rents, and incentives for trade as “a central program in the affairs of state rather than a merely domestic or private matter.” Merchants contributed to the rise of England in this new world scheme, and Boston’s ministers interpreted commerce in the following logic: “Protestantism led to wealth; wealth funded the empire; the empire combated Catholicism; the end of Catholicism brought civil liberties; and civil liberties allowed citizens to practice Protestant and market principles.” (134)

Hugh Hall

Valeri used the motif of a polite society in his discussion of Hugh Hall, a man who involved himself in many business activities, including the trading of slaves. The author described this final period as postpuritan. While many still considered themselves the heirs of the Puritan society, Boston became more cosmopolitan and tolerant and not even the most speculative economic activity drew the ire of the ministry.
Trade became more transatlantic and international in nature and the market behaved according to natural laws that corresponded in many ways to the deist view of God as a disinterested clockmaker, rather than as a result of flawed human activity. “Genteel behavior stemmed from inner virtue and conformed individuals to natural law,” argued Boston pastors such as Thomas Foxcroft. (218) This view was a dramatic departure from the Calvinist belief in human depravity.
Heavenly Merchandize was a very interesting account that attempted to trace the changing discourse between ministers and merchants in colonial Boston. While he did a good job of exposing some of the weakness of a simplistic view of the Weber thesis, Valeri’s work is largely a case study that uses representative figures. He very clearly admitted as much in the introduction to the work.
Also, it would be interesting to see a similar study of other areas influenced by Puritan thought to see if the same pattern of thought toward merchants held. The author provides a good starting point for future scholars who may want to attempt a wider overview of mercantile/ministerial interaction. Similar findings among more numerous subjects of inquiry would serve to support the main argument to an even greater degree.
Heavenly Merchandize did a good job of tracing the changing discourse related to economic activity, and for this reason deserves to be considered an important new work on Puritan social thought. Also, while it was not necessarily intended as a commentary on current discourse concerning the relationship between business and religion, it nonetheless sheds some light on the transformation in this discussion that allowed for the moral justification of modern economic practices.

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