The Puritans and Money
By Leland Ryken
One of the most influential and controversial books of our century was Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930). Beginning with the observation that the rise of middleclass trade occurred chiefly among Protestants, Weber set out to explore the connections between the “the Protestant ethic” and “the spirit of modern capitalism.” He found many connections: a belief that one can serve God in one’s worldly calling, a tendency to live disciplined and even ascetic lives, a spirit of individualism, emphasis on working hard, and a good conscience about making money. Although Weber was highly selective in the data he chose to consider, his analysis uncovered much that is important about the Protestant movement.
The so-called Weber thesis produced some unfortunate results, however. Protestants have been pictured as elevating money-making to the highest goal in life, as viewing the amassing of wealth as a moral obligation, and as approving virtually every kind of business competition. A look at Puritan attitudes and practices toward money will show that the Weber thesis was a good idea that ended up seriously perverting the truth.
Is Money Good or Bad?
When Martin Luther became a monk, he took a vow of poverty. This reflected a long-standing Catholic view that poverty is inherently virtuous for a person. But the Reformers—including Luther himself—did not see it that way. The starting point in their thinking about money and possessions was that these things are good in principle.
The Puritans agreed with Calvin that “money in itself is good.” When Samuel Willard eulogized John Hull at his funeral, he saw no contradiction between the merchant’s having been “a saint upon earth” who lived “above the world” and his having been industrious in his business, so that it could be said of him that “Providence had given him a prosperous portion of this world’s goods.” According to Richard Baxter, “All love of the creature, the world, or riches is not sin. For the works of God are all good, as such.”
Samuel Willard theorized that “riches are consistent with godliness, and the more a man hath, the more advantage he hath to do good with it, if God give him an heart to it.” William Adams regarded economic endeavor as worthy of a Christian’s affection; he wrote that the Christian “hath much business to do in and about the world, which he is vigorously to attend, and he hath … that in the world upon which he is to bestow his affection.”
In affirming the goodness of money, the Puritans found it necessary to defend the legitimate aspects of money against its detractors. William Perkins did so in a sermon on Matthew 6:19–20, in which he listed what Christ did not forbid:
Diligent labour in a main vocation, whereby [a person] provides things needful for himself, and those that depend on him.… The fruition and possession of goods and riches: for they are the good blessing of God being well used.… The gathering and laying up of treasure is not simply forbidden, for the word of God alloweth here for in some respect. 2 Corinthians 12:14
The Puritans had no guilt about making money; to make money was a form of stewardship. The Weber thesis made mileage out of Baxter’s statement:
If God shows you a way in which you lawfully get more than in another way (without wrong to your soul, or to any other), if you refuse this, and choose the less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and you refuse to be God’s steward.
In the broader context of Baxter’s writing on economics, this call for efficiency and productiveness is simply an evidence of common sense and a strong sense of wishing to be a good steward of God’s gifts.
Why were the Puritans so sure that money was a good thing? Chiefly because they believed that money and wealth were gifts from God. “If we happen to have inherited much property,” wrote William Perkins, “we are to enjoy those in good conscience as blessings and gifts of God.” John Robinson commented, “The blessing of the Lord maketh rich .… And as riches are in themselves God’s blessings, so are we to desire them for the comfortable course of our natural and civil states.” If money and property are gifts from God, Richard Sibbes could affirm, “worldly things are good in themselves and given to sweeten our passage to heaven.”
Because the Puritans viewed prosperity as a gift from God, they decisively dissociated it from the idea of human merit. If it is a gift, how can it be earned? Not only does human effort not guarantee success; even if God blesses work with prosperity, it is God’s grace and not human merit that produces the blessing. Cotton Mather asserted, “in our occupation we spread our nets; but it is God that brings unto our nets all that comes to them.” “If goods be gotten by industry, providence, and skill,” wrote John Robinson, “it is God’s blessing that both gives the faculty, and the use of it, and the success unto it.” The Puritan ethic is an ethic of grace, not of human merit.
The Puritans’ defense of private property was an extension of their belief in the legitimacy of money. William Ames wrote that private property is founded “not only on human but also on natural and divine right.” Elsewhere Ames wrote that there is justice “in the lawful keeping of the things we have.” When John Hull, one of the first merchant princes of Massachusetts, lost his ships to the Dutch, he took consolation in God’s providence: “The loss of my estate will be nothing, if the Lord please to join my soul nearer to himself, and loose it more from creature comforts.” But when his foreman stole his horses, Hull took the view that “I would have you know that they are, by God’s good providence, mine.”
Puritan endorsement of money and property should not be construed as meaning that the Puritans elevated material goods above spiritual values. John Winthrop disparaged those who mistake “outward prosperity for true felicity.” Peter Bulkeley wrote that a Christian “may do many things for himself,” yet only so long as “this is not in opposition, but in subordination, to God and his glory.”
What About Poverty?
If riches are a blessing from God, then poverty must be a curse and a sign of God’s disfavor—right? Wrong, said the Puritans, who disagreed with a whole tissue of assumptions often attributed to them in the twentieth century.
In the first place, the Puritans disagreed that godliness is a guarantee of success. Thomas Watson went so far as to say that “true godliness is usually attended with persecution .… The saints have no charter of exemption from trials.… Their piety will not shield them from sufferings.”
If godliness is not a guarantee of success, then the converse is also true: success is not a sign of godliness. This is how the Puritans understood the matter. John Cotton stated that a Christian “equally bears good and evil successes as God shall dispense them to him.” Samuel Willard wrote, “As riches are not evidences of God’s love, so neither is poverty of his anger or hatred.”
With the causal link between success and godliness thus severed, the Puritans concluded several things about poverty. One was that poverty is not necessarily a bad or shameful thing. “Poverty in itself,” wrote Ames, “hath no crime in it, or fault to be ashamed of: but is oftentimes sent from God to the godly, either as a correction, or trial or searching, or both.” Richard Baxter concluded:
None are shut out of the church for want of money, nor is poverty any eyesore to Christ. An empty heart may bar them out, but an empty purse cannot. His kingdom of grace hath ever been more consistent with despised poverty than wealth and honor.
In fact, the Puritans claimed that poverty may well be God’s way of spiritually blessing or teaching a person. In dealing with biblical passages that promise God’s blessing to believers, Samuel Bolton wrote:
But shall we judge nothing to have the nature of blessing but the enjoyment of temporal and outward good things? May not losses be blessings as well as enjoyments?
And Thomas Watson, in a list of “things that work for good to God’s children,” included poverty in the list, with this comment:
Poverty works for good to God’s children. It starves their lusts. It increases their graces. “Poor in the world, rich in faith” (James 2:5). Poverly tends to prayer. When God has clipped his childen’s wings by poverty, they fly swiftest to the throne of grace.
In thus vindicating poverty, the Puritans were careful to distinguish themselves from Catholic teaching about poverty as meritorious in itself. William Ames made this clear when he denounced the monk’s vows of poverty as “madness, a superstitious and wicked presumption, being that they sell this poverty for a work of perfection … which will much prevail for satisfaction and merit before God. ”
The Puritans used the phrase “evangelical poverty” to describe their ideal of learning spiritual lessons from such poverty as God might send them in their ordinary callings in this world.
The Puritans did not idealize poverty as something to be sought. Contrary to Catholic monastic theory, the Puritans theorized that poverty is no sure way to avoid temptation. Richard Baxter commented:
Poverty also hath its temptations … For even the poor may be undone by the love of that wealth and plenty which they never get: and they may perish for over-loving the world, that never yet prospered in the world.
The Puritans also rejected the ethic of unconcern that is content to let the poor remain poor. In their view, poverty is not an unmitigated misfortune, but it is certainly not the goal that we should have for people. “The rich man by liberality must dispose and comfort the poor,” said Thomas Lever in a sermon. “God never gave a gift,” preached Hugh Latimer, “but that he sent occasion at one time or another to show it to God’s glory. As if he sent riches, he sendeth poor men to be helped with it.” Latimer even went so far as to say that “the poor man hath title to the rich man’s goods; so that the rich man ought to let the poor man have part of his riches to help and to comfort him withal.”
On the subject of poverty, then, the Puritans taught that it is sometimes the lot of the godly and that it can be a spiritual blessing. It is not, however, meritorious in itself, and poor people require the generosity of people who have the resources to help them.
The Dangers of Wealth
Instead of regarding success as a sign of God’s approval or of their own virtue, the Puritans were much more likely to look upon prosperity as a temptation. A marginal note to Genesis 13:1 in the Geneva Bible speaks volumes: “Abraham’s great riches gotten in Egypt hindered him not to follow his vocation,” implying that his riches could easily have become a temptation to him. “Both poverty and riches,” wrote John Robinson, “have their temptations …. And of the two states, … the temptations of riches are the more dangerous.” Thomas Lever claimed, “He that seeks to be rich … will fall into diverse temptations and snares of the devil.” Richard Rogers woke up a little after midnight and was convicted of the fact that the blessings of God “waxed too sweet to me, and … dangerous.”
Much to our surprise, the Puritans saw an inverse relationship between wealth and godliness. It did not have to turn out this way, but in their view it usually did. “Remember that riches do make it harder for a man to be saved,” warned Richard Baxter. Samuel Willard believed that “it is a rare thing to see men that have the greatest visible advantages…to be very zealous for God.” Richard Sibbes noted that “where the world hath got possession in the heart, it makes us false to God, and false to man, it makes us unfaithful in our callings, and false to religion itself.”
In elaborating this theme of the dangers of wealth, the Puritans gave an anatomy of the reasons why money is dangerous. Foremost is the tendency of money to replace God as the object of ultimate devotion. Worldly goods “are veils set betwixt God and us, they stay our sight in them that it cannot pierce to God.” “How ready is [man] to terminate his happiness in externals,” noted Thomas Watson. John Robinson said the same: “If a man be rich, and full, he is in danger to deny God, and to say in pride, and contempt of him …, who is the Lord?” Richard Rogers noted regarding the wealthy bishops and clerics of the Anglican church that they “did never seem grossly to have departed from God till they grew in wealth and promotion.”
A second reason why riches are dangerous is that they instill reliance on self instead of on God. Richard Baxter was of the opinion that “when men prosper in the world, their minds are lifted up with their estates, and they can hardly believe that they are so ill, while they feel themselves so well.”
The acquisition of wealth, said the Puritans, also has a way of absorbing so much of a person’s time and energy that it draws him or her away from religion and moral concern for others. Richard Mather, in his farewell sermon, said:
Experience shows that it is an easy thing in the midst of a worldly business to lose the life and power of religion that nothing thereof should be left but only the external form, as it were the carcass or shell, worldliness having eaten out the kernel and having consumed the very soul and life of godliness.
Cotton Mather was equally alarmed by the trend toward materialism in New England Society: “Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.”
The Puritans also realized that money is dangerous because it generates an appetite that it can never satisfy. Money never keeps its promises, they observed. “Riches are like painted grapes,” wrote Henry Smith, “which look as though they would satisfy a man, but do not slake his hunger or quench his thirst. Riches indeed do make a man covet more, and get envy, and keep the mind in care.”
If money is as dangerous as all this, shouldn’t a person simply avoid it? Not according to the Puritans. William Ames claimed that “riches… are morally neither good or bad, but things indifferent which men may use either well or ill.” Thomas Adams told his city congregation, “We teach you not to cast away the bag, but covetousness.”
How Much Is Enough? The Puritan Ideal of Moderation
For the Puritans, the crucial issue was not how large a person’s income was, but how much money was spent on oneself. The Puritan ideal was moderation. Such an ideal has, of course, appealed to many people besides the Puritans, but the concept of “temperance” was associated with the Puritans in their time.
The Puritans conceived of moderation or temperance as a golden mean between extremes. John Downame wrote that “the mean [median] estate is much to be preferred before the greatest prosperity .… The mean estate… preserveth us from forgetfulness of God, irreligion, and profaneness.”
If moderation is the goal, it needs to be protected against its opposites. One of these is greed for wealth, which is often intertwined with covetousness. In a sermon on Matthew 6:19–20, Perkins listed the following as the thing that Christ forbids: “sundry practices of covetousness, whereof the first is excessive seeking of worldly wealth, when men keep no measure or moderation.”
Another thing that moderation stands opposed to is luxury. The Puritans looked askance at a luxurious lifestyle, no matter what form it took one’s house, clothing, recreation, or eating habits. When Richard Baxter denounced the “wealthy vices,” he included a discussion of sensuality, overeating, and overindulgence in sports and recreation. His “directions against prodigality and sinful wastefulness” included comments against “pampering the belly in excess … or costliness of meat or drink,” “needless costly visits and entertainments,” and “unnecessary sumptuous buildings.”
Such warnings against luxury were common among the Puritans. Having defined the essence of luxury with the formula “wealth more than necessary for nature and person,” William Perkins proceeded to show his negative assessment of it: it is “as a knife in the hands of a child, likely to hurt, if not taken away.” Samuel Ward, in his college diary, listed as one of the “sins of the university” that of “excess in apparel.”
It would be wrong to conclude that because the Puritans were opposed to luxury they were ascetic. They did not think that denying oneself legitimate indulgences was inherently virtuous. In fact, they were as clear-sighted about the temptations of poverty as they were about the temptations of luxury. Baxter’s list of temptations ran like this: “overmuch care about their wants and worldly matters,” discontent, covetousness, envy of the rich, neglect of spiritual duties, and neglect of “the holy education of their children.”
What Is Money For?
The more we explore Puritan attitudes, the more apparent it becomes that the key to everything they said on the topic was their conviction that money is a social good, not a private possession. Its main purpose is the welfare of everyone in society, not the personal pleasure of the person who happens to have control over it.
The genius of Puritanism was its clear-sightedness about what things are for, and that genius did not desert them in money matters. Everything depends on how a person uses his or her money. Baxter stated, “The question is how they use that which they labour so hard for, and save so sparingly. If they use it for God, and for charitable uses, there is no man taketh a righter course.”
What are the ends or uses of money? The Puritans can speak for themselves on this topic. “Riches may enable us to relieve our needy brethren, and to promote good works for church and state.” Money exists “for the glory of God and the good of others.” “The more diligently we pursue our several callings, the more we are capacitated to extend our charity to such as are in poverty and distress.” “God’s children look to the spiritual use of those things which the worldlings use carnally.” In none of these comments about the purpose of earning money does one get the impression that income is something people have a right to spend on themselves simply because they have earned it.
William Perkins provides an adequate summary on using money:
We must so use and possess the goods we have, that the use and possession of them may tend to God’s glory, and the salvation of our souls …. Our riches must be employed to necessary uses. These are first, the maintenance of our own good estate and condition. Secondly, the good of others, specially those that are of our family or kindred …. Thirdly, the relief of the poor…. Fourthly, the maintenance of the church of God, and true religion …. Fifth, the maintenance of the Commonwealth.
The belief that money is a social good is also the key to Puritan views on the taking of interest. In the sixteenth century the Puritans were overwhelmingly opposed to the practice of taking interest on money that had been lent. They were opposed to it because of Old Testament prohibitions against it and because of what they felt to be the spirit behind the practice, namely, covetousness and greed. As society changed, becoming less agrarian and more industrial, Puritans increasingly made a distinction between interest and usury (exploitive interest).
At first glance, the two attitudes seem contradictory, but in fact they are not. Look at what the anti-interest and pro-interest Puritans had in common: they both agreed that money is a social good and that therefore hoarding and exploitation are not permissible. In an increasingly commercial society, the most compassionate act became the willingness to lend money at a modest rate of interest. In Baxter’s words, “There is an usury which is against neither justice nor charity,” and he went on to describe conditions under which it is charitable.
Why did the Puritans view money as a social good when, as our modern view shows, it is so much more natural to view it as a person’s own possession? The Puritan outlook stemmed from a firm belief that people are stewards of what God has entrusted to them. Money is ultimately God’s, not ours. In the words of the influential Puritan book, A Godly Form of Household Government, money is “that which God hath lent thee.”
The Puritan Critique of The Success Ethic
Modern Western culture is based overwhelmingly on the success ethic—the belief that material prosperity is the ultimate value in life and that a person’s worth can be measured by material or social standards. By contrast, the Puritan Thoman Watson asserted that “blessedness… does not lie in the acquisition of worldly things. Happiness cannot by any art of chemistry be extracted here.” Samuel Hieron was far from the success ethic when he prayed:
“Oh, let not mine eyes be dazzled, nor my heart bewitched with the glory and sweetness of these worldly pleasures …. Draw my affection to the love of that durable riches, and to that fruit of heavenly wisdom which is better than gold, and the revenues thereof do surpass the silver, that my chief care may be to have a soul enriched and furnished with Thy grace.”
The Puritan Critique of The Self-Made Person
American culture has been strangely enamored of the image of “the self-made person”—the person who becomes rich and famous through his or her own efforts. The idea of having status handed over as a gift does not appeal to such an outlook. Yet the Puritans denied that there can even be such a thing as a self-made person. Based on an ethic of grace, Puritanism viewed prosperity solely as God’s gift. John Preston wrote regarding riches that “it is God that gives them, it is he that dispenseth them, it is he that gives the reward…. The care of the work only belongs to us.”
The Puritan Critique of Modern Business Ethics
It has become an axiom of modern business that the goal of business is to make as much profit as possible and that any type of competition or selling practice is acceptable as long as it is legal. The Puritans would not agree. For one thing, they looked upon business as a service to society. “We must therefore think,” wrote John Knewstub, “that when we come to buying and selling, we come to witness our love towards our neighbor by our well dealing with him in his goods.” William Perkins said, “The end of a man’s calling is not to gather riches for himself… but to serve God in the serving of man, and in the seeking the good of all men.”
Nor would the Puritans agree with modern methods of competition or profiteering. When citizens in Boston complained that Robert Keayne charged excessive prices, the magistrates fined him two hundred pounds, and he very nearly found himself excommunicated from the church. John Cotton used the trial to lay down some business principles in a public lecture on economics. Cotton denounced as false the following premises:
That a man might sell as dear [expensively] as he can, and buy as cheap as he can…. That he may sell as he bought, though he paid too dear, etc., and though the commodity be fallen, etc. That as a man may take advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may of another’s ignorance or necessity.
In England John Knewstub showed what a gulf lies between the Puritans and modern commercial practices when he wrote disparagingly of businessmen who:
come to buying and selling as it were to the razing and spoiling of some enemy’s city …, where every man catcheth, snatcheth and carrieth away whatsoever he can come by. And he is thought the best who carrieth away the most…. But the Holy Ghost will bring us to another trial of our love.
The Puritan Critique of The “Simple Life” Philosophy
Modern materialism has produced its own antithesis in the form of people who view affluence and possessions as inherently tainted. The Puritans were closer to such an outlook than to one supporting an affluent lifestyle, but they cannot be fitted comfortably here either. William Perkins wrote, “These earthly things are the good gifts of God, which no man can simply condemn, without injury to God’s disposing hand and providence, who hath ordained them for natural life.” The Puritans were also wary of a blanket condemnation of people who have a higher standard of living than some other people. In Perkin’s words:
We must not make one measure of sufficiency of goods necessary for all persons, for it varies according to the diverse conditions of persons, and according to the time and place. More things are necessary to a public person than to a private; and more to him that has a charge than to a single man.
The Puritan Critique of Socialism
A final force in modern life of which the Puritans would not approve is socialism, whether in its overt form of governmental ownership or in its subtle form of the welfare state. William Ames wrote, “Ownership and differences in the amount of possessions are ordinances of God and approved by him, Prov. 22:2; II Thess. 3:12.” John Robinson commented:
God could … either have made men’s states more equal, or have given everyone sufficient of his own. But he hath rather chosen to make some rich, and some poor, that one might stand in need of another, and help another, that so he might try the goodness and mercy of them that are able, in supplying the wants of the rest.
As I have suggested, the Puritans would have shared some of the assumptions of many different groups on the economic scene today. But they would stand aghast at what secularism and self-interest have made of principles that they placed in a Christian context.
One of the ironies in the history of the Puritans is that their very industriousness and plain living tended to make them relatively affluent. Their virtues produced corresponding temptations. On the one hand, the Puritans held attitudes conducive to the amassing of wealth and property: the view that money and property are good in principle, disbelief that poverty is meritorious in itself, and a conviction that the disciplined and hardworking lifestyle is virtuous.
On the other hand, to curb the potential for self-indulgence that followed in the wake of their lifestyle, the Puritans had an even longer list of cautions: an awareness that God sends poverty as well as riches, an obsession with the dangers of wealth, the ideal of moderation, a doctrine of stewardship in which God is viewed as the ultimate owner of goods, and a view of money as a social good.