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The Gospel of Wealth

The Gospel of Wealth

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Working Hard. Industrialization created amazing disparities between rich and poor in the United States, and the rapid pace of change concerned many American Protestants. One early, but prominent, stream of Protestant reaction emphasized acquiescence to the social consequences of industrialization. Many regarded this tendency as an unexpected result of the growing liberal practice of loosening the doctrinal restrictions that had bound preceding generations. Prominent liberal Protestant clergymen followed the lead of Henry Ward Beecher in blessing the new industrial order. Protestantism carried over from the eighteenth century the Calvinistic belief that God created the world with an intrinsic system of rewards and punishments. Under the divine scheme, those who worked and lived ethically prospered, while the lazy or irresponsible poor suffered deservedly from poverty. Beecher insisted that even in the most compact and closely-populated portions of the East, he that will be frugal and save continuously, living every day within the bounds of his means, can scarcely help accumulating. This doctrine made sense to middle-class Protestants, who were prospering as a group, but it ignored the reality that the wages of most working-class families fell far short of sufficiency. In the view of the emerging Protestant middle class and elite, the key to both success and holiness was for individuals to help themselves. This strong cultural preference often led to the assumption that wealth was a sign of spiritual attainment. As William Lawrence, an Episcopal bishop, put it, Godliness is in league with riches. This was comforting news to the Protestant elite as they sat in the pews of the magnificent new urban churches and listened to sermons by Beecher and other princes of the pulpit.

Opportunity. The reverence for worldly success was widely accepted outside the boundaries of the new industrial elite, in part because it resonated so strongly with values inherited from an earlier period of American history. The Baptist minister Russell Conwell emerged as a celebrated proponent of the gospel of opportunity. Conwell delivered his famous sermon, Acres of Diamonds, an estimated six thousand times to audiences estimated at thirteen million in the closing decades of the century. The sermon recounted the allegedly factual case of a farmer who lived in destitution until he began to work his land conscientiously. In the course of plowing vigorously, the farmer discovered acres of diamonds on the land. Conwell rejected suggestions that pursuit of wealth was spiritually corrupting. To make money honestly is to preach the gospel, he claimed. In modern America, he asserted, any upright and hardworking individual could discover success in his own backyard.

Responsibility. Conwell and others in the tradition also emphasized honesty, charity, and civic responsibility. Because of his vast wealth and willingness to write and speak publicly about his moral, economic, and political ideas, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was one of the best-known religious skeptics of the era. In 1889 he wrote a book called The Gospel of Wealth, which espoused Conwells beliefs. (A British editor writing a headline for Carnegies 1889 essay titled Wealth actually coined the phrase Gospel of Wealth.) Carnegie believed in the central moral and economic role of moneymaking: Dont shoot the millionaire, for he is the bee that makes the honey. He stressed, however, that the rich had both the moral right to complete control of their wealth and a moral obligation to use their wealth for the public good. This then is the duty of the man of wealth, Carnegie wrote, to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent on him; and after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community. As American industry expanded, however, the individualistic Protestant ethic supporting unrestrained expansion to maximize profits tended to overwhelm such moral restraints. In practice, this approach meant that many Protestants absolved the economic sphere of life from the moral and religious constraints they still sought to apply to personal relationships.

Sources

Agnes Rush Burr, Russell H. Conwell and His Work: One Mans Interpretation of Life (Philadelphia: Winston, 1926);

Joseph Frazier Wall, The Andrew Carnegie Reader (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992).

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