That Which God Hath Lent Thee

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.

Richard Baxter (1615–1691)

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.”

Cotton Mather (1663–1727)

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.”

Richard Rogers, in the privacy of his diary, summarized the perspective in which the Puritans affirmed wealth: “So it may be said of our outward prosperity that for as much as God giveth us such great encouragement, we can willingly delight with others in things which are good. But we must find that our hearty embracing of the doctrine of God and love of it and labouring after a good conscience to find joy in Christ’s redeeming us is that which maketh our lives joyful, for this cannot by any malice of man nor devil be taken from us.”

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. CH

By Leland Ryken

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

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