Warning: Arcane Book Review of Work on the Nineteenth Century Economic Thought of Evangelicals

Posted on June 3, 2014 by


I just finished a very interesting, but somewhat difficult, book on the economic thought of Evangelicals in Great Britain between around 1790 and 1880.  Sounds really boring?  Well, it was a little bit of slogging at times, but it was worth it.  The author is Boyd Hilton, the title is The Age of Atonement:  The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785-1865 (Clarendon Press, 1986).  So why in the world am I blogging about an almost 30 year old book on a seemingly arcane subject?  Simple, I discovered in it some fascinating historical information about what economic thinkers who were Christians believed, how they related their faith (as doctrine) to the economic realm.  In the process, I see how not to think about economics as a Christian, even free market economic thought, as much as I agree with it.  The nineteenth century Evangelicals can’t exactly be classified as the best Christian worldview interpreters.  Nor were they the worst.  In brief, allow me to elaborate.  If you don’t want the details, you can read the next paragraph and the last, but I hope some of you will take the time to read all of it.

First, for all their sincerity and their otherwise pretty orthodox theology, these Evangelicals didn’t know how to integrate Scripture very well, or to draw correct theological implications from it.  For example, Thomas Chalmers, the well-known Scottish theologian, while a fee market advocate, justified it on grounds that appealed to Thomas Malthus’ population theory.  For Chalmers, economic growth (“progress”) was not particularly desirable, mainly because he, like many Evangelicals of this time, viewed the world as a “stationary state,” that is, movements of the economy were cyclical and “natural.”  The term “natural” was based on the idea of natural design by God.  Temporal interference with nature was then “unnatural” and bad.  Hence, free markets were desirable.  Not particularly good theology. 

Moreover competition in free trade was not advocated for the purpose of growth but for higher, spiritual, purposes, such as individual trials, cleansing from sin, and spiritual education.  As Hilton put it, free markets produced spiritual habits (growth) through “temptation, trial and exemplary suffering.” (p. 70)  This is a far cry from the classical economics of the same time and from even conservative and Christian economic thought today.  I would also add that Chalmers, despite his lofty goals, does not make his case why a stagnant and cyclical economy is best suited to create overall spiritual good, as good as that might have been.  It isn’t that God should not use trials and a suffering to bring about growth in the grace and knowledge of God.  The problem is making a direct, biblically defensible, causal connection between sanctification and with free markets and positing a simple monocausal relationship.

 But there was more.  Poverty itself was believed to be a positive good—even at times for improvident wealthy people—in that it placed sinful man under duress and helped to turn them away from sin.(p. 84)  Public charity would only “short circuit” the working of God’s natural laws.  Once again, this conclusion is not wrong in itself, and God can definitely use it as part of His work in individuals.  But to say this is the known purpose for poverty is going beyond Scripture, as we know there are several possible reasons for poverty. 

But men like Chalmers did not always promote unbridled profiteering either, though profit and its pursuit was not a sin in itself.  Greed would provoke men to “over-production” and widespread greed, as Chalmers thought he saw in the 1820s, would result in major over-production, gluts and consequent numerous bankruptcies, though the nation would still prosper. (pp. 122-123)  Here Chalmers is utilizing 1 Timothy 6 to make his case, but not just in the pure individual realm, but also in the general economic realm.  Monetary and commercial problems were attributed not only to government action but also to human greed.  I don’t see this element of his thought as problematic from a Christian standpoint, but the latter explanation would not be acceptable to most economists today due to their naturalistic bent.

In addition, pre-millennial and post-millennial visions influenced how economic thinkers interpreted the events around them.  For example, some pre-millennialists, or apocalyptic Evangelicals, as they were called, were interventionists or paternalists, but not for the purpose of improving the world, which they believed was passing away, but rather to “protect…from the stormy blasts,” often citing Matthew 23: 37. (p. 213) 

Even the atonement was brought into the economic picture by Evangelicals of this period.  Just as Christ’s suffering brought good, the vicarious suffering of sinful individuals could have beneficial effects for themselves as well as for society.  But to produce these beneficial effects required a particular economic system—free markets and free trade—so that God’s natural laws would follow. (see pp. 179-183)

Finally, theological views also influenced attitudes toward corporations, especially toward the particular feature of corporations, limited liability.  The “retributive” Evangelical view of free trade led to Parliamentary action granting corporations legal liability limits to their stockholders. 

The many individual writers analyzed in this book I believe, for the most part, meant well.  Their views were not the result of pure self-interest and they sincerely sought to use Scripture as a foundation for their thinking on economic matters.  But with some exceptions, they failed because of a skewed interpretational approach or certain theological presuppositions that tended to distort their conclusions.  I apologize in advance for possibly boring the reader, but there is a lesson to be learned from looking back.  The lesson is for Christians who legitimately wish to view economics from a biblical perspective.  We (myself included) must exercise great caution in the way we use and interpret biblical texts.  We should never rip texts out of context.  We should always compare other related texts to clarify meaning.  We should be cautious in our application to economic issues asking whether a text or set of texts in fact is applicable to economics.  This book is worth the read if for no other reason than that it so well provides a warning from history to Christian economic thinkers today.