The Puritan Critique of Modern Attitudes Toward Money

To show the cleavage between Puritan and modern attitudes, I have arranged Puritan views as a series of critiques of modern outlooks.

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.

Summary

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.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #19 in 1988]

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