Article — From the May 2005 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the May 2005 issue
If there is a whiff of creationism around this idea, it is no accident. By the time the term “economics” first emerged, in the 1870s, it was evangelical Christianity that had done the most to spur the field on toward its pres ent scientific self-certainty.
When evangelical Christianity first grew into a powerful movement, between 1800 and 1850, studies of wealth and trade were called “political economy.” The two books at the center of this new learning were Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). This was the period of the industrial transformation of Britain, a time of rapid urban growth and rapidly fluctuating markets. These books offered explanations of how societies become wealthy and how they can stay that way. They made the accelerated pace of urban life and industrial workshops seem understandable as part of a program that modern history would follow. But by the 1820s, a number of Smith’s and Ricardo’s ideas had become difficult for the growing merchant and investor class to accept. For Smith, the pursuit of wealth was a grotesque personal error, a misunderstanding of human happiness. In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Smith argued that the acquisition of money brings no good in itself; it seems attractive only because of the mistaken belief that fine possessions draw the admiration of others. Smith welcomed acquisitiveness only because he concluded—in a proposition carried through to Wealth of Nations—that this pursuit of “baubles and trinkets” would ultimately enrich society as a whole. As the wealthy bought gold pickle forks and paid servants to herd their pet peacocks, the servants and the goldsmiths would benefit. It was on this dubious foundation that Smith built his case for freedom of trade.
By the 1820s and ’30s, this foundation had become increasingly troubling to free-trade advocates, who sought, in their study of political economy, not just an explanation of rapid change but a moral justification for their own wealth and for the outlandish sufferings endured by the new industrial poor. Smith, who scoffed at personal riches, offered no comfort here. In The Wealth of Nations, the shrewd man of business was not a hero but a hapless bystander. Ricardo’s work offered different but similarly troubling problems. Working from a basic analysis of the profits of land ownership, Ricardo concluded that the interests of different groups within an economy—owners, investors, renters, laborers—would always be in conflict with one another. Ricardo’s credibility with the capitalists was unquestionable: he was not a philosopher like Adam Smith but a successful stockbroker who had retired young on his earnings. But his view of capitalism made it seem that a harmonious society was a thing of the past: class conflict was part of the modern world, and the gentle old England of squire and farmer was over.
The group that bridled most against these pessimistic elements of Smith and Ricardo was the evangelicals. These were middle-class reformers who wanted to reshape Protestant doctrine. For them it was unthinkable that capitalism led to class conflict, for that would mean that God had created a world at war with itself. The evangelicals believed in a providential God, one who built a logical and orderly universe, and they saw the new industrial economy as a fulfillment of God’s plan. The free market, they believed, was a perfectly designed instrument to reward good Christian behavior and to punish and humiliate the unrepentant.
At the center of this early evangelical doctrine was the idea of original sin: we were all born stained by corruption and fleshly desire, and the true purpose of earthly life was to redeem this. The trials of economic life—the sweat of hard labor, the fear of poverty, the self-denial involved in saving—were earthly tests of sinfulness and virtue. While evangelicals believed salvation was ultimately possible only through conversion and faith, they saw the pain of earthly life as means of atonement for original sin. These were the people that writers like Dickens detested. The extreme among them urged mortification of the flesh and would scold anyone who took pleasure in food, drink, or good company. Moreover, they regarded poverty as part of a divine program. Evangelicals interpreted the mental anguish of poverty and debt, and the physical agony of hunger or cold, as natural spurs to prick the conscience of sinners. They believed that the suffering of the poor would provoke remorse, reflection, and ultimately the conversion that would change their fate. In other words, poor people were poor for a reason, and helping them out of poverty would endanger their mortal souls. It was the evangelicals who began to see the business mogul as an heroic figure, his wealth a triumph of righteous will. The stockbroker, who to Adam Smith had been a suspicious and somewhat twisted character, was for nineteenth-century evangelicals a spiritual victor.
 The definitive source here is Boyd Hilton’s masterful book The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785–1865.
By the 1820s evangelicals were a dominant force in British economic policy. As Peter Gray notes in his book Famine, Land, and Politics, evangelical Anglicans held significant positions in government, and they applied their understanding of earthly life as atonement for sin in direct ways. Their first major impact was in dismantling the old parish-based system of aiding the poor and aging, a policy battle that resulted in the Poor Law Amendment of 1834. Traditionally, people who could not work or support themselves, including orphans and the disabled, had been helped by local parish organizations. It had been a joint responsibility of church and state to prevent the starvation and avoidable suffering of people who had no way to earn a living.
The Poor Law nationalized and monopolized poverty administration. It forbade cash payments to any poor citizen and mandated that his only recourse be the local workhouse. Workhouses became orphanages, insane asylums, nursing homes, public hospitals, and factories for the able-bodied. Protests over the conditions in these prison-like facilities, particularly the conditions for children, mounted throughout the 1830s. But it did not surprise the evangelicals to learn that life in the workhouses was miserable. These early faith-based initiatives regarded poverty as a divinely sanctioned payment plan for a sinful life. This first anti-poverty program in the first industrial economy was not designed to alleviate suffering, nor to reduce the number of poor children in future generations. Poverty was not understood as a problem to be fixed. It was a spiritual condition. Work-houses weren’t supposed to help children prepare for life; they were supposed to save their souls.