Material History of American Religion Project

Pagan Ownership and Christian Civilization

Project director James Hudnut-Beumler is become particularly interested in the history of stewardship. Stewardship is a realm of pastoral theology focused on human responsibility for God's creation. As church members—especially in Protestant Christian churches know—stewardship is often coded language for fund-raising. Every year—usually around this time of year—church members are urged to be good stewards by increasing their pledge to the church for the coming year.

This meaning of stewardship had its origins in the middle of the nineteenth century, but like many aspects of institutional Protestantism it hit its stride around the beginning of the twentieth century. This reflected the rise of church administrative bureacracies that needed more stable funding, increased dependence on salaries (in place of property) as a source of wealth, and a decline in other sources of church income—notably, pew rental.

It's no surprise, then, that the theology of stewardship became imbued with the social gospel theology of the progressive era, as reflected in this excerpt from A Man and His Money (1914). Harvey Reeves Calkins was a stewardship secretary for the Methodist Episcopal Church; in his book, targeted at clergy and laymen alike, he argued that stewardship was "the very kernel of Christ's teaching." In this excerpt he argues for stewardship as model for living, as opposed to asceticism or ownership, both of which he identifies as pagan. Note that his criticism of asceticism reflects the anti-Catholicism of the era. Note also that, in Calkins' eyes, stewardship shares roots with socialism, but stewardship is preferable.

Before leaving the doctrine of ownership, to which we have given quite sufficient space, we may briefly note two dark streams of error which have flowed out from it, and carried heathen teachings very far into the religious and political life of Christian civilization.

The first is the pagan practice of asceticism. If ownership is accepted as the true doctrine of property, then asceticism is its necessary religious accompaniment. The sin of covetousness lies very deep in the human heart, and both philosophy and religion have sought in vain to dislodge it. Their argument has always been the same, and the logic of it is imperative. Here it is: The ownership of riches and the increase of material wealth clog the higher spiritual nature; therefore the cure of covetousness is poverty. To the sincere soul that seeks freedom from the cloying cares of property, heathenism has ever the same monotonous reply: "This wealth of yours—get rid of it." From the Athenian philosopher, whose garments hung in rags about him, that he might show his contempt for creature comforts, to the modern Hindu sadhu who sincerely hopes to overcome the evil of his nature by the suppression of desire, the familiar heathen notion of ownership stands out as the necessary enemy of the higher life.

Error begets error. When Christianity was loaded with the pagan doctrine of ownership, the accompanying practice of asceticism was fastened at the same time upon the Christian Church. The teaching of Jesus Christ was wholly misconstrued. He warned men against the deceitfulness of riches; it was interpreted the possession of riches. The apostle wrote of the love of money, and sincere men, confused by pagan teaching, decried the power of money. Property was regarded as an earthly treasure, it was not recognized as a heavenly trust. Hence stewardship, which was the very kernel of Christ's teaching, was foreign to the Christian conception of a holy life, and asceticism became the Christian ideal and type of holiness, just as it has always been the familiar type of holiness among Hindus, Buddhists, and other pagan people.

Heathen practices soon followed heathen conceptions. Men of piety and devotion, who could ill be spared from the active affairs of the world, withdrew themselves from their fellow men and shut themselves away in monastic cells. The social body, robbed of its rightful savor of godly men, became yet more corrupt. While good men prayed by themselves apart, evil men dominated the people. In the name of religion property was supinely and ignorantly "devoted" to the church by men who had no other notion than that the property was actually theirs under the law of ownership. There was no Christian understanding that property was to be intelligently administered as a holy and personal trust by the very men to whom it had been given by the Divine Owner. The church, enriched by vast gifts, became itself the owner and lord of proud possessions, and, as with all other owners, covetousness and greed corrupted its heart. It was not wealth but ownership that corrupted the church, and asceticism had no power to heal it, for pagan penance is no part of Christian holiness; nor does human poverty exalt the Lord of the whole earth.

The sinister effect of such elemental error has been felt through all the Christian centuries. To him who administers his possessions as a sacred trust wealth is a token of divine confidence, and voluntary poverty is a breach of faith. The Protestant Reformation gave a powerful impulse to Christian conceptions of property, and we shall note more recent movements that mark a wholesome advance. Nevertheless, the hateful recrudescence of heathenism in the midst of Christianity still obscures the Christian law of stewardship. Pagan doctrines still strangely persist in spite of Christian ideals. Asceticism, in some form, continues as a helpless antidote for ownership. Wealth is still the synonym for worldliness, and poverty, remains the privilege of piety. Thank God for an awakening generation, which shall presently write new chapters concerning a Man and His Money!

There is a second dark stream of error which had its rise in that same pagan doctrine of ownership. Asceticism tinctured the religious life of Christendom, but this second influence was to permeate its political and social life for many centuries. We refer to the feudal law of vassalage. When the absolutism of Roman law met the individualism of Teutonic custom there seemed no possible way to unite the two. Nevertheless, they were united. The way of it was this:

When the Teutonic tribes threw themselves into Roman territories they carried with them their own ideas of personal allegiance to individual chiefs, whereas, for hundreds of years, the Roman subjects of these provinces had been drilled into an impersonal allegiance to the state. By force of arms these subjects were compelled to transfer their allegiance from a fallen state to the particular chief who had invaded their own particular territory. But there was no solidarity among the invading bands; the barbarian chiefs were answerable to no central authority. Moreover, they were often at war among themselves, and it was frequently the case that the conquered subjects of one chief would be presently required to swear allegiance to a second conqueror, who, with his band of marauders, swooped down upon them; and this would be followed by a third, and then a fourth, and so on.

This condition of things could not continue indefinitely. It therefore came about that when a conquering tribal chief required allegiance he would himself, in exchange for this allegiance, promise protection against the depredations of other chiefs, and, as a pledge of this protection and a reward for military service, he would grant the tenure of the land which he had acquired by force of arms. As a further element of protection on the one hand, and a surety also for allegiance on the other, officers, like magistrates, were apt pointed, rules and regulations were adopted, and the needful machinery of a petty government was set in motion. Thus a little tribal "state" was born, uniting the two ideas of individual lordship and also legal authority. The greater chiefs would make grants of land to the lesser chiefs, on pledge of fealty, and these in turn would give the tenure of the land to their own sworn followers, who became their vassals.

In the course of time the whole of central and northern Europe became divided into these petty lordships, some larger, some smaller, but all based on the one underlying principle ownership as the result of conquest and vassalage as the price of life and protection. This was feudalism, and out of feudalism, as a base, were developed the modern nations.

Woodrow Wilson, in The State, remarks, "The most notable feature of feudalism is that, in its system, sovereignty has become identified with ownership." [Italics Wilson's] The far-reaching results of that notable fact are still apparent on both sides of the Atlantic. It is that same notable fact which has caused the revolutions and the bloodshed of these latter centuries. Ownership means sovereignty; he who owns the land shall have primary dominion over the fruitage of the land; he shall therefore hold in absolute subjection the dwellers on the land. Who shall arrogate unto himself such power as this? Such power belongeth unto God, not man! And yet absolute human power, even such as this, is the logical result in human government of that same pagan doctrine of which we have been writing—ownership. Runnymede and Lexington, and the shock of a thousand battles have proved how absolutely men have repudiated such a monstrous theory of government. Strange human perversity that will repudiate the bitter fruit, and still cherish the mother stem that bore it!

Yet, even so, the eyes of men are clearer than they were yesternight. It is dawn, and the lark is awing, even though shadows of the night still linger. Autocracy in human governments is doomed. Slavery is gone. Gone also is that scandal of feudal politics, "to the victors the spoils." Special privilege and class domination are anachronisms that cannot long survive Ownership itself, though still a name in our jurisprudence, and a form of words in our legal codes, is less and less sure of its own standing. Men are not certain that ownership is wholly respectable; and when a man or a doctrine loses caste there remain but short shrift and scant courtesy. That also is human! Socialism has made a notable contribution to contemporary thought; but socialism itself is only a passing and partial phase of a larger human doctrine which roots in eternal God. It is the hour and the victory of stewardship, and men are ready for the word.

Harvey Reeves Calkins, A Man and His Money (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1914), 50-56.

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