The Material History of American Religion Project

The economics of American religion

No matter how spiritual you think you are, religious life in America does not come for free. For four hundred years Americans have raised and spent money, prepared budgets, paid ministers, and built buildings. Historians of American religion, by and large, have ignored these transactions. Project director James Hudnut-Beumler, however, has been researching the economic history of American religion; he discussed his research with the newsletter recently.

Q: What got you interested in studying the history of money in American religion?

A: I got interested in studying the history of financing religion in America and how money is spent and what it is spent for, I think, when I was reading through some of the New England colonial religious leaders’ personal writings and reflections on their struggles in the ministry. Increase Mather, for instance, on how nothing was cheap in New England except for milk and ministers. And Jonathan Edwards complaining about his salary. And I got wondering, were things as bad as they said, given what we knew about the purported high social status of Puritan clergy in New England. I wanted to ask the question, “what’s wrong with this picture?” Is it the narrative that says that they were underpaid or is it the modern narrative that says religion was never in such high esteem as in 17th-18th New England that is wrong? Or, is there something going on that makes both true in a more complex way than we might suppose?

Q: Were there also contemporary issues for you?

A: Sure. I think one of the things that directed my attention to this as a possibility for research was the stint I did at the Lilly Endowment where I worked as a program officer. There I saw a long parade of people coming in to our offices looking for grants to support religious institutions that had once great pasts and still great hopes but not much in the way of contemporary financial resources. And they were asking us by and large to restore them to moments of former glory. That got me wondering about organizational life cycles and about why people support religious institutions—congregations to be sure, but also seminaries, ecumenical institutions, apostolates, missionary enterprises, and what have you.

Myths about the economics of American religion

Q: You talked in a previous presentation about the myths in the economics of American religion. What are those myths and where do they come from?

A: Let me tick off a few of those myths. There are a couple of myths about capital. One is that the reason we are experiencing a loss of financial wherewithal in the mainstream denominations in America is that congregations are keeping so much at home, building buildings and spending it on themselves. What I found is that congregations have from the very beginning of American history spent a lot of money on buildings, on creating a space with which to both experience community and the worship of God. So spending on buildings cannot be the major reason for decline in the contemporary period. There are also myths about labor. One pervasive one is that the entrance of women into the ranks of the Protestant clergy has created a clergy glut and forced down salaries. I labeled this as a myth of mis-association about 10 years ago, but I am vindicated by the fact that many of these denominations are now experiencing shortages and salaries still haven’t gone up. Something else is a work in constraining that labor market.

Another sort of myth would be about finance. There the argument would go that back in the nineteenth century everyone, especially Protestants, tithed—gave 10% of their income. Going back and testing this was an interesting sort of econometric problem. Trying to figure out what kind of incomes they actually had in a typically sized congregation and what 10% of gross congregational income would be was difficult. Nevertheless, it looks to me like 4% of income or less is typical throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for church giving—pious rhetoric quite aside. Those are some of the myths.

Q: So, in response to those myths it sounds like your narrative is it was never thus.

A: I think that is so, and my work as a historian is to show how it was rather than say “No, no, it’s not like you think it was,” but it certainly has a contemporary effect. In fact, I think we are telling ourselves stories that basically amount to declension narratives. People were more religious then, more faithful. More people gave more, cared about religion. They don’t care so much any more. It a prophetic trope: I need to call you back to faithfulness. Indeed, if the good old days were no more flush in terms of financial support or religious behavior than now, then we ought to be searching for other sources for religious vitality rather than playing the “if only we had better givers we would be a great church” kind of games.

Q: And going back to beat ourselves up in comparison to the past isn’t necessarily productive.

A: Definitely not, but to a psychologist of religion, for instance, the fact that it was not so but that we still want to beat ourselves up about how much worse we are raises all kinds of interesting questions.

Q: You talk about the stories you are looking at. Who are the important characters in the stories that you tell? Who are the important actors in the economic history of American religion?

A: The interesting thing about taking an economic approach to the history of American religion is that, unlike theological texts and sermons and even books that could at least theoretically be created by a single individual, economic actions are group actions. Buildings are created by groups. Congregations are brought into being by groups. Missions are launched by many people. So the actors are manifold. You find evidence of the actions in different kinds of historical data. You find ledgers, you find buildings, you find records left behind by lay people who are proud of the building that often contains a statement of to the effect that “this is given to the glory of God and in memory of our ancestors who bequeathed to us in such and such a town this glorious church.” There are a lot of actors and we see theology in action and we see it somewhat unedited. Thus, that last statement about the glory of God and in honor of our ancestors shows the way in which real people often mix family religion and an official sort of doctrine in what’s for them a rather easy mix.

Q: So, although this is microeconomics there is a macro level of history here, because you are looking at the interplay of not just individuals but groups, with and theology and psychology acting themselves out over a pretty broad scale, with a large number of people.

A: Right. I think of myself as a social-cultural historian of American religion. To use the economic tools and theoretical apparatus of economics is really to get at broad scale historical questions and to look at phenomena in the past in a way that one can’t do using some other theoretical apparatus.

Doing economic history

Q: Not all of us have an economic background. What kinds of skills or tools does a historian of American religion need in order to study the economic history of American religion?

A: I think there are two dispositions that someone needs to bring as a historian to economic data in American religious history. The first is a willingness to find and make relevant comparisons. That is, if you find out a Methodist minister in 1890 made X dollars you need to go and find out, okay, how does that compare to a clerk in a textile mill or some other comparable figure, a teacher, a physician, is it higher or lower? Then you ask obvious questions in historical analysis. What would it mean social status wise if it were higher or lower? The second disposition necessary is a willingness to use a little bit of math to figure out what a particular dollar figure or pounds figure means in real dollars in its time and in our time. If you tell me that someone made $700 in 1890, I want to know what did that buy then and—for my own mental purposes of understanding—what it might buy now.

Q: What sorts of theoretical backgrounds have you found useful for this? Who did you need to read?

A: I certainly have been helped be my undergraduate economics background. I have also been schooled by the sociologists and economists of religion–Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, and Larry Innacone. I don’t go with them all the way in their rational choice presuppositions and supply side theories of American religion. Nevertheless, I think they are to be commended for using a sort of hard-minded analysis to get at questions that American religious historians have through time addressed with special pleading by saying, for instance, that there is some charism in the Baptists and Methodists that explains how they won the frontier. I think the sociologists and economists have pressed us historians like me who want to combine and synthesize the analysis into a position of choosing rational social explanations whenever they will suit rather than pulling out the “God” or “exemplary leadership” card at the first instance to explain historical developments.

Q: Many people are uncomfortable about talking about money in the church. Why is that and what are the implications of that?

A: I think that one of the reasons why people don’t want to talk about money in church settings is a matter of escape. And it probably is escape in both a good and bad sense. I think there are two reasons why people throughout time have wanted to avoid talking about money in the church. One, fairly obviously, is their own senses of insecurity in the world and being told they must share with others. Claims of all religious traditions upon their adherents have to do in some measure with sharing worldly goods with one another and in most cases in the name of the deity with the poor. So, avoiding talking about it helps us get off that hook. The other reason is that we are so preoccupied by money, by economic security, by the things that money buys in the rest of the world that we quite naturally hope for a safe place where money will not intrude–where it is only souls in spiritual alliance with God, and where money can’t buy salvation or happiness or anything else that is truly important. At the very same time it’s an escape from our responsibilities to one another and an escape from the almost demonic force that money plays in our lives.

You asked about implications. The implications are that with all this sort of conflict going on with being material selves as well as spiritual selves it’s probably desperately important to be able to talk about money in a non-self-serving way in the church. Unfortunately, back to the history, in the history of American religion, priests and ministers have again and again been cast as the people who are forced to ask for the support for the congregation, knowing that two-thirds of that support will go to pay religious professionals. So it is quite understandable that given their identification with the spiritual goods of the congregation that they don’t want to talk about it either.


Q: To what degree do you think your work and interest is driven by normative concerns? For instance, do you want readers of your book to come away thinking that pastors ought to be paid better? Is there an agenda behind what you are doing?

A: I have two agendas, I think. One is as a historian that the past be represented truthfully. The other is as a person who cares about health and wellbeing of religious life today. I care that religious life and its organizational arrangements be just and based upon truth and not deception. What I have learned in doing the study, and particularly the side of the study that is about how religious leaders have sought to secure financial support for their organizations, is there has been an incredible amount of pious deception foisted upon people to get them to pay for their religion in American history.

Q: Are the economic questions and issues that you have been looking at different for different religious communities? For instance, Catholics as opposed to Protestants, or Jews opposed to evangelical Christians. Are those groups facing different issues or are those issues taking different forms?

A: Yes, and this is where the economic vocabulary comes in quite handy to distinguish between types and to see some things that we don’t see with, say, liturgical lenses or lenses bequeathed to us out of the Reformation division of Christian churches into Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anabaptist, and what have you. The economic lenses let us think about things like the nature of the firm. What is a congregation? How is a Catholic congregation different than a Lutheran congregation, different than a Jewish congregation? Well, the leadership is different. And here is another term from economics–scope and scale. The geographically defined parish is a different scope, intentionally a different scope than a gathered Baptist congregation. As to scale, a Catholic congregation which might typically have 4,000 household units is going to be quite different in its purchasing power, in its ability to finance itself, than a 220-member congregation, which is closer to the median size of American Protestant congregations. And finally, for new religious movements we might talk about means of access and barriers to entry into the religious market. One thing we learned about doing religion in America is that it is very easy to start a new religion. In fact, the tax codes, zoning codes, the cultural presuppositions about being religious lend themselves to becoming a new kind of faith community and gathering a congregation with even tax exempt property and clergy in a way that is almost unimaginable either in Eastern or Western Europe.

Q: What do you see as being uniquely American about the economics of American religion?

A: In America you can have any religion you can pay for or can volunteer for. Alexis de Tocqueville was right in seeing the organizational possibilities of religious and social life in America. You don’t have to go to the government first and register. Is that uniquely American? No. In the British Isles and now in Africa, religions can start up very easily and yet it’s quintessentially American.

Q: Does the church think differently about business matters than other economic institutions, either for profit or not for profit institutions?

A: The church does think differently than certainly for profit corporations and even not for profit institutions. Why? Because in the church the people play multiple roles simultaneously that would be disaggregated in these other social institutions. They are simultaneously the donors and the recipients of most services. They often supervise in some greater or lesser way the religious professionals and are directed by those religious professionals in their moral and spiritual lives.

Q: And are also the owners.

A: Exactly. So they are owners, recipients, board directors. Even in a not for profit agency what you usually have is some sort of hierarchy of people who don’t need the services directly being on the board. There are executive managers and directors carrying out the mission and other people receiving it, and still other people being the donors for the enterprise. Religious congregations are organized quite differently.

Q: How does being placed in a consumer capitalist society shape American religious life?

A: Even in American religion you have a sort of “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” mentality we get from the culture. That is, we buy religious things, t-shirts, vision quests, Promise Keepers trips that demonstrate our religious lives and commitments in the same way as we demonstrate our brand preferences by wearing the Nike swoosh. We also are slow to accept the old buildings and underpaid volunteer opportunities out of which vital religious life can be constituted. Even in my lifetime I have seen congregations that were once small gatherings that nevertheless thought they were doing God’s business in their particular place judge themselves more and more harshly according to the examples of larger congregations with more programs. I think all those things are direct results of consumer market capitalism.

Q: Does your historical research lead you to have any opinions on recent proposals to give government support to faith-based charities?

A: Well, yes. I suppose it does although I ought to say that my stronger opinions about the proposal are based upon normative concerns. My historian’s opinions are as follows. Religious people by and large at the congregational level keep terrible records. Terrible in the sense that trends keep shifting, there are no standards within time or across time for a particular way of keeping books and for keeping funds separate. It has been a real challenge as a historian. I would hate to see the unsophisticated leaders of many congregations enter the government financing arena without the thoughtful accounting and managerial sorts of people that we see at a typical Catholic charity or a Salvation Army installation.

Historiographic questions

Q: A theoretical questions about the work you are doing. What does your study of the economics in American religion tell us that we didn’t know before?

A: Let me highlight three things that I think we didn’t know before or certainly escaped me in the literature of American religious history. The first is the fact that, because we have 350 year old churches in the United States, we somehow believe that in the past they were built and basically maintained the way we see them now for 350 years. In fact, what we see is a far more interesting cycle of renovation upon renovation upon renovation almost every generation and then maybe restoration. So actually, instead of sort of a long faithfulness in one place, the restoration could be seen as a kind of ossification into a museum of a 350 year old religious experience. So, people have furnished and built religious places of worship that are not merely functional but instead represent some kind of in-time creation that represents the best they can do for God and their neighbors in that fellowship.

The second thing I had never seen is some accounting of whether religious leaders who are less well off or better off than the broad spectrum of American workers and their families over time. And what I discovered is that the patterns are very subtle, but there are ups and downs over time. In this pattern, the last 30 years have been characterized mostly by downs, downs in the sense that other typical household of four is now making close to double a minister’s salary in a mainline church whereas in 1960 it was about equal. Nevertheless, we have been through those cycles before. And so, I think what we learn is a much more textured view of the support of the clergy and their relationship to the economic status of their people.

The last thing I think has really escaped notice is that the early national period in American history is not only a time in which church is separated from state in the political sphere, but also a time in which religion is privatized—privitized in the same sense as when we talk about privitizing golf courses and garbage collection. It stopped being a public service. It might be a multiple public service, or it may even have existed in a place or Pennsylvania or New York where there were lots of semi-established churches, but there was always the expectation that religion was a public good either to be publicly supported now or in some ideal world. But by 1835 throughout the United States religion was seen as something that the adherents of religions are going to have to support on their own. User-based religion became the norm. I think that is as remarkable a transformation as the democratization of American religion that scholars have focused on in the last 15 years.

Q: What are the most important sources for the research that you have been doing? Where have you been looking for this?

A:I have been looking at ledgers, at denominational reports and congregational level reports. In looking at them, I’ve noticed that even what the people who assembled the records thought was important to measure changes over time. Thus the tracks of those decisions, of what to count and why, themselves become historical data to analyze. And, somewhat surprisingly, I have been looking a lot at texts written by and for religious leaders on how to raise money and the problems with raising money, and texts by Protestant ministers wives about how to live on less than you might hope for.

Q: Could your work be useful to ministers and churches?

A: Certainly. I think I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t think it were useful to compare, to understand the past of one’s current practice and associations. So I think it will be useful to see certain enduring and certain changed features in relief with contemporary congregational life. To go a bit further, I think that the deceptive pasts uncovered by some of this historical material suggests that financing religion and congregational life, sharing within and beyond the congregation deserves greater candor and openness and discussions of worth and value as opposed to conning people—even in the most good natured way—out of their money to keep a good thing going.

Concluding thoughts on the project

Q: We are wrapping up the project. This will be the last newsletter of the project. So, it might be good to look at what we have been doing in the last four years or so. What were the initial goals of the Materials History of American Religion project and how do you think we have done at meeting them?

A: I think the initial goal of the project was to look at the past in American religion through non-textual artifacts–movies, films, economic ledgers, food practices, products, material experiences like hearing and being a child and going to confession, devotional practices and the material through which the spiritual devotion was delivered. We wanted to look at those things to see if they told us more of something additional about American religious life beyond all the texts we had concentrated on in our field. I think that the project has succeeded beyond my initial dreams in terms of producing well-received books and ideas of encouraging graduate students in American religion and encouraging teachers working with students in seminaries, colleges, and universities to look beyond the great text. I don’t mean in place of the great text, nor with expectation that we will find a great anti-text, the religion of the proletariat or something like that. Instead, I think we’re looking for a richer view of the past that corresponds—and here is the interesting part—more to our own highly sensual experience of religious life in the present.

Q: What do you think are the most important things we have learned from the project?

A: We had a website for the project and one of the most important things we learned by having the website was that there were a lot of people who are not professional historians who are interested in religion in the past. They wrote us long e-mails and volunteered objects, offered expert opinions about arcane objects and documents. And a further thing we learned that this was a way, by offering up these material objects and out of the ordinary documents for public comment in the electronic form of the internet, to draw out such people. This then posed a way in which nonexperts could become engaged in talking about what American religious history means.

Q: What do you see as some of the cautionary warnings of what we have done? Are there potential pitfalls in the kind of study that we have been engaged in?

A: Sometimes a film, a movie, even a balance sheet is too easy to enter into discussion with, or examination of, so that we think it is easier to interpret than it really is. Every one of these material objects has a cultural context and that is where all the hard work with textbooks and narrative histories comes in. One of our colleagues, Colleen McDaniel, is fond of saying of the photograph she works with, “These things don’t interpret themselves.” But, the danger is that people will see a photography, or one of these other things, and misinterpret them just as badly as any other primary text and perhaps worse.

Q: What’s next? What should be next on the agenda for the study of American religion? What questions have we left unanswered or have we raised?

A: I think that the Material History Project by pointing to a much broader range of primary texts or nontextual artifacts in American religion almost creates an animal kingdom with no taxonomy. And in some ways I think after a period of figuring out what various objects mean historians need to come back and theorize somewhat about the materialization of religious experience and at a more basic level we need things that would resemble a field guide to American religion in terms of buildings, food objects, dress, and what have you. Not dissimilar from a field guide for birds or flowers.

James Hudnut-Beumler is the director of the Material History of American Religion Project, and is Dean of the Divinity School and Ann Potter Wilson Professor of American Religious History at Vanderbilt University. He was interviewed by Daniel Sack, the associate director of the project.

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