Material History of American Religion Project

The Religion of Life Insurance

Much of the Material Religion Project is looking at the business side of religion, but it's also worth noting the religious side of American business. Alexander Welch, an assistant professor of English at Yale, wrote about "the Religion of Life Insurance" in the Christian Century, 11 December 1963.

A pamphlet published by the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York in 1855 summarized the conquest of chance by actuarial science thus: "Life Assurance, then, rests on Divine Law, as its only true basis; and the assured, in so doing, at once places himself under the protection of this law. Hence it banishes speculation from society, and brings all things in subjection to Divine government and will." This language, typical of that used in many similar promotions of insurance in the 19th century, is by no means to be regarded as merely hypocritical. The entire history of life insurance is bound up with the history of religion since the 18th century, and the concept on which such insurance is based remains the chief contemporary expression of the hope for life after death. Though the religious implications in the prospectuses issued by this multibillion-dollar business are no longer explicit, the religious aura is still to be discerned. "The religion of life insurance" is, in fact, a phrase used by sober-minded James A. Byrd, executive vice-president of the National Association of Life Underwriters, as reported in a 1963 issue of Life Association News. . . .

I have come to the conclusion that life insurance is the characteristic institution of a Christian society whose faith in immortality has decayed or is declining. For if our belief in immortality had the original Christian force and literalness we would have no need for life insurance. If we truly felt the next life to be more important than this, we would hold the same to be true for our heirs. When a man of the 12th century felt that his life was in the hands of God, he presumably felt that the lives of his wife and children were there also. Life insurance has inherited and transformed the religious hope of immortality in an age that has lost religious assurance. Confirmation of this hypothesis, or at least of the quasi-religious function of life insurance today, is not hard to uncover. The religious heritage survives in the everyday idiom of the insurance world: witness the calls to renew our "faith" in life insurance; the eagerness to "tell the story" of life insurance. As might be expected, a patriotic and a biblical idiom are often heard in combination: "Our democracy was founded on spiritual foundations," says one agent; "we must help others help themselves by building their future upon the rock, not upon the shifting sands." . . . .

Minor religious intonations can be detected in the mottoes and trade symbols of the insurance companies. A brilliant example is "The Light that Never Fails." That is the motto of Metropolitan Life, second-largest corporation in the world, which claims to protect 44 million people—a figure which, if authentic, makes Metropolitan also one of the largest sects. Symbols of other firms—the sun, an eye shining out from a pyramid—go back to earlier rituals of immortality. Like religious congregations, insurance companies feel close affinity to the buildings in which they are housed. Architectural design is featured prominently in their advertising and self-portrayal. In many American cities—Boston is a prime example—the insurance company structure dominates the horizon as did the cathedrals the medieval town. The world's third-largest corporation in assets, Prudential, seems to have made of architectural dominance a deliberate policy. . .

Alexander Welch, "The Religion of Life Insurance, I: Assurance of Immortality," The Christian Century 80:50 (11 December 1963), 1541-1543.

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