American Protestant churches are always asking for money. That hasn't changed for at least two centuries. But listen carefully to the fundraising appeals of yesteryear, and to the shifting rationales given over time, and what emerges is a seldom-heard story of how economic pressures have helped shape what it means to be faithful in our time.
This tale comes to light from the careful and thorough pen of James Hudnut-Beumler, a historian of American religion and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. His new book, In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, connects the longevity of American Protestantism to anxious, often uncomfortable attempts to systematize the practice of voluntary giving. All this effort, he suggests, has spawned a distinctly American spirituality that links discipleship to check-writing.
"Paying for God" has been necessary in America ever since the Founding Fathers uncoupled church and state. In the first two centuries, European settlers in America relied on fees, licenses, and taxes to support their churches. But once these measures were no longer allowed, what took place, Hudnut-Beumler says, was "the largest instance of privatization in all of American history."
This change meant fresh freedom for religious institutions – but it also meant a changed relationship between churches and their congregants. Ever since, notes Hudnut-Beumler, "Religious people pay for God in the sense of paying to be in relation with God through religious institutions they support, and they sometimes pay for God as one might pay for lunch for a friend who is a bit short of money."
To keep congregations and themselves afloat, ministers began early in the 19th century developing how-to guides for inspiring benefactors and keeping them committed. Hudnut-Beumler's method puts a magnifying glass to this rarely studied subgenre of religious literature.
Though the discussion bogs down in primary source material at times, the thoroughness pays dividends in the form of colorful, telling quotations from each period. Shortly after the Civil War, for instance, author C.P. Jennings helped "reinvent the tithe." He and other clergy relied on verses in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Malachi to make a case for the tithe as a spiritual law.
"Every one owes the tythe to Jesus Christ," reads a Jennings quote. "Not less than one-tenth of a man's income will discharge the debt. It is to be paid before any other debt. Jesus Christ should be the preferred creditor."
In these pages, readers discover the origins of practices that have become hallmarks of Protestant culture: pledge cards, pep talks over church suppers, cash collections taken during worship – all were intentionally orchestrated inventions to enhance feelings of commitment. Even congregational endowments get explained as gifts "needed to assure no man on account of station received more or less the attentions of a priest than he deserved." In other words, endowments ensure pastors don't spend their days pandering to the rich.
Readers also catch a rare glimpse of religious beliefs evolving in response to circumstances. With the persistent need for handouts, Hudnut-Beumler argues, clergy who had known high esteem in the 18th century "moved from a conception of the ministry as an office to one of a profession and on to something that paid even less well." And as churches moved away from the rented pew to the more democratic free-will offering, those in the pews began hearing unfamiliar yet Bible-based messages about "robbing God" who was portrayed as the "owner" of all.
Patience is a required virtue for this book's readers. Although the writing style is quite accessible and the text runs just 230 pages, Hudnut-Beumler often dwells on individuals and buildings that are surely more interesting to his fellow historians than to anyone else. What's more, the big themes that help make sense of American culture and religion are often presented so subtly that they're easily missed.
Nevertheless, valuable insights are there for the taking. Two fine chapters convey the seldom-seen, emotionally trying sacrifices that ministers and their spouses have been making for generations. Hudnut-Beumler also puts his fingers on helpful clues for understanding modern faith. For instance, he traces a recent boom in quasi-entrepreneurial suburban congregations to races to serve niche spirituality markets and capitalize on low-interest rates.
"In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar" isn't for all readers. But those hungry to understand the drivers behind a key institution in American life will do well to take a look at this fresh approach.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance writer in Newburyport, Mass.