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In this essay Gillis J. Harp notes that some American Evangelicals find it difficult to conceive of a species of conservatism that preserves a moral political economy and some notion of a paternalistic state protecting the less fortunate. Yet this is the kind of conservatism that characterized the thinking of one key strand within the larger fabric of historic Evangelicalism. This thread emphasized community and opposed excessive individualism, and it sometimes sought to contain the impact market forces can have on traditional institutions and the poor. Against laissez-faire individualism, these Evangelicals stressed an organic view of the social order, the state as a moral agent, and the importance of mediating institutions such as family and church. Evangelicals have shortchanged themselves by ignoring this part of their past and some reclamation of this historic thread is long overdue. Its recovery could help make Evangelical social thought less indebted to classical liberalism and Enlightenment categories. Mr. Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College.

Dave Ramsey is a popular radio host who dispenses tough, commonsense financial advice. Or, as he puts it, “We give the same advice your grandmother would, except we keep our teeth in.” Ramsey’s critique of our debt-ridden, consumerist society is a breath of fresh air on talk radio these days. An Evangelical Christian, he recently enraged some of his conservative radio audience by supporting Arkansas legislation to ban usurious check-cashing services from the state. Many expressed their outrage that their favorite conservative financial advisor was embracing “socialism.”

Audibly defensive, Ramsey explained that he was no supporter of an intrusive state but that capitalism always needed an ethical component and that dogmatic free-marketers were essentially embracing amoral anarchy. Check-cashing outfits were exploiting folks who were simply down on their luck (including, notably, many in the nation’s military) and the state had to erect ethical barriers when entrepreneurs took advantage of the marginalized. Many listeners were not persuaded. If people act stupidly about such things, it is not the state’s responsibility to protect them from the harsh realities of the market.

The incident was revealing in at least one important respect: it demonstrated the popularity of libertarian views among some American Evangelicals. Indeed, it highlighted how difficult it is for certain Evangelicals to conceive of a species of conservatism that preserves a moral political economy and some notion of a paternalistic state protecting the less fortunate. Yet this is the very sort of conservatism that characterized the thinking of one key strand within the larger fabric of historic Evangelicalism. Though rarely dominant among Protestants, this position was articulated by leading figures such as the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, anti-slavery crusader William Wilberforce, plus a lesser-known succession of American Evangelicals during the nineteenth century.

Why did American Protestants lose touch with this strand within the larger tapestry of their tradition? First, as Louis Hartz argued in the 1950s, with no medieval heritage, even self-proclaimed conservatives in America assume the negative state tenets of Lockean liberalism. Though he exaggerated the monolithic dominance of Lockean thought, Hartz did help explain some of the difficulties of being a traditional conservative in America.1 American Evangelicals have naturally been influenced by this liberal consensus. Moreover, as Mark Noll observes, during the nineteenth century, American Evangelicals often came to view classical laissez-faire principles as rooted in nature:

Increasingly throughout the period before the Civil War, Evangelicals came to assume the God-given character of liberal political economy. By “liberal” in the context of the nineteenth century, historians mean the tradition of individualism and market freedom associated with John Locke and especially Adam Smith. (In one of the more interesting linguistic accidents of recent decades, many traits now associated with political “conservatives” were mainstays of “liberal” economics of the nineteenth century.) For American public life after the Constitution, the language of liberalism—emphasizing the freedom of individuals from hierarchical restraint and the formation of community upon the unfettered choices of free individuals joined by contract—became the dominant assumption about proper economic life.2

Second, and closer to our own era, neoclassical economic schools have dominated American conservatism since its renaissance after World War II. The movement’s fusion of libertarians and traditionalists saw cooperation in several areas (particularly in opposing communism), but the libertarian understanding of the nature and role of the state usually prevailed.3 While Roman Catholic conservatives like Michael Novak and William F. Buckley, Jr. at least had to acknowledge the traditional social teaching of their church in these areas, a discourse often critical of unfettered markets and of a political economy that purported to be value neutral, Evangelicals had mostly forgotten a similar thread within their own tradition. The presentism and sectarianism of contemporary American Evangelicalism have effectively cut Evangelicals off from both the social teaching within Roman Catholicism and a similar historic filament within their own ecclesiastical tradition. When exposed to movement conservatism during the 1950s and 1960s, Evangelicals had virtually no alternative frame of reference. To be sure, Evangelicals eschewed libertarianism when it came to abortion, censorship, or sabbatarian laws. But without any surviving connections to this earlier kind of Christian conservatism, some American Evangelicals’ views on economics and social welfare became virtually indistinguishable from those of secular-minded conservatives. 

Not that there have not been some dissenting voices in modern times. On the Left, a few Evangelicals like Ronald Sider and Jim Wallis have criticized the social and political views of Evangelicals since the 1970s and 1980s. For example, in his recent The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Sider aims some sharp criticism at the corrosive individualism that has come to pervade many Evangelical Christians.4 Yet their critique often looks more like the baptized platform of the Democratic party. It has mostly been based upon Anabaptist separatism and pacifism, mingled with twentieth-century reformist liberalism, not upon the social traditionalism of, say, a Lord Shaftesbury. Some, working within the neo-Calvinist school of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd, have asked larger philosophical questions about the uncritical acceptance of certain Enlightenment assumptions about individuals and society. But their influence has been fairly limited to those of Dutch Reformed background.5 On the Right, conservative Evangelicals like Marvin Olasky have championed a “compassionate conservatism” that sought to combine paternalistic remedies with market-oriented structures. Aside from the faith-based initiative under George W. Bush, however, its larger political influence has been minimal.6

There has been, to be sure, criticism of the lack of historical consciousness that has impoverished Evangelical piety and worship narrowly defined.7 But few critics (either inside or outside Evangelicalism) have observed how this same presentism has wider implications, impoverishing Evangelical political, social, and economic thought. Evangelicals can begin the hard work of constructing a more historically informed, truly catholic position not only by casting their nets wider to enfold all branches of the church, but also (and this is the main focus of this article) by recovering a neglected thread within their own Protestant tradition. This thread emphasized community and opposed excessive individualism, and it sometimes sought to contain the impact market forces can have on traditional institutions and the poor. Against laissez-faire individualism, these Evangelicals stressed an organic view of the social order, the state as a moral agent, and the importance of mediating institutions such as family and church. To the others’ secular assumptions, they offered a social theory steeped in Protestant theology. Evangelicals have shortchanged themselves by ignoring their past and some recovery of this historic thread is long overdue. 

This article follows an historical definition of Evangelicalism as a Protestant movement

rooted in the eighteenth-century transatlantic revivals that typically held to the unique theological authority of the Bible, believed a common core of Protestant doctrine regarding God and salvation, cultivated personal piety, and bore witness to the gospel, especially through evangelism but also in works of charity.8

Nevertheless, in order to root the following overview in its fuller context, it is best to begin back in the sixteenth century prior to the emergence of modern Evangelicalism. As Max Weber and others have argued, the Reformation may well have “fostered the economic virtues of diligence, frugality, honesty, prudence, and sobriety.” Nevertheless, many Protestant Reformers did remain loyal to the sort of organic medieval vision that valued community over competitive individualism.9 Italian politician and historian Amintore Fanfani notes “Luther’s conservatism in economic matters, to which his patriarchal ideas on trade and his decided aversion to interest bear witness,” and stresses how even Calvin “condemns as unlawful all gain obtained at a neighbor’s expense, and the amassing of wealth.”10

More pertinent to this article’s focus on the Anglo-American tradition are the views of the English Reformers. While the Anglican Reformers focused primarily on theological and ecclesiastical matters, some did address larger social concerns. The “Commonwealth party” was a disparate group within King Edward VI’s court that included preacher and Protestant martyr Hugh Latimer and one-time Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset. They and others warned about the dire social consequences of economic change, in particular, carving up the kingdom’s common lands into private free-hold fields. This process of enclosure enriched some Englishmen, especially those connected with the lucrative wool trade, but turned many one-time owners into renters and others into dependant agricultural laborers or homeless “masterless men.” The landed gentry appear to have benefitted disproportionately from this redrawing of boundaries. 

The practices of the new grasping landed gentry infuriated Latimer. In 1548, preaching at St. Paul’s Cross, an open-air pulpit next to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Latimer fulminated:

You landlords, you rent-raisers, I may say you step-lords, you have for your possessions yearly too much and thus is caused such dearth, that poor men that live on their labor cannot with the sweat of their faces have their living… It is to the King’s honor that the commonwealth be advanced, that the dearth be provided for, and the commodities of this realm be so employed as it may be to the setting of his subjects at work, and keeping them from idleness… The enhancing and bearing goes all to your private commodity and wealth.11

Latimer savaged landlords for enclosing common lands and hiking rents which had resulted in the escalation of food prices and thus increased poverty among the rural poor. Nor was Latimer alone in his social concerns. Historian A. G. Dickens, in The English Reformation (1964), lists several individuals who shared Latimer’s views and criticized the emerging socioeconomic order in traditional terms.12 These critics sought to restrict the enclosure process and set food prices. In other words, they hoped to hem in new economic forces when they saw them harming traditional communities and threatening those at the bottom of the social pyramid.13

A century later in the mid-1600s, Puritans in both old England and New England saw themselves as extending the Reformation.14 Like the Commonwealth party before them, some Puritans also continued to erect barriers to the untrammeled operation of market forces. Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony experimented with diverse laws to proscribe excessive profit taking, though with limited success. Some colonists viewed the restrictions as arbitrary, and there was certainly no tidy consensus on the practice. Still, it is instructive to survey the case of one Robert Keayne, a shop-owner in Boston who was brought up on civil charges as well as censored by his local church in 1639 for charging exorbitant prices for his goods. Keayne’s explanation of his practices prompted Pastor John Cotton to outline to his congregation a list of “false principles” in trade and commerce. This remarkable set included the following “errors:”

1. That a man might sell as dear as he can, and buy as cheap as he can.
2. If a man lose by casualty of sea, etc., in some of his commodities, he may raise the price of the rest.
3. That he may sell as he bought, though he paid too dear, etc., and though the commodity be fallen, etc.
4. That, as a man may take advantage of his own skill or ability, so he may of another’s ignorance or necessity.15

It is an extraordinary list in light of subsequent American history! Certainly not all American Puritans would have agreed with Cotton’s particular choice of “false principles” but Cotton was among the most influential and learned of the first generation of New England clergy, and Governor Winthrop appears to have sided with his pastor in this case.16 In light of such examples, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison rejects popular portraits of the Puritans as modern entrepreneurs. As he puts it succinctly:

Puritanism has been called a protest against medieval economics. The beginning of lais-sez faire American success-worship has been connected with Puritan theology. This is all moonshine. The founders of New England got their economic ideas from St. Thomas Aquinas. They strictly forbade usury and profiteering; they pursued that medieval will-o’-the-wisp—the “just price”; they regulated production, prices, and wages, and even attempted to naturalize the trade guild.17

Over the decades, this approach to commercial activity was, however, often eclipsed by other views. Puritan New England prospered materially. Individual wealth seeking prevailed in the struggle with institutions such as churches and towns designed to establish and protect the kind of traditional social order that the first generation of Puritans prized. In addition to economic change, the individualism of the eighteenth century’s religious revivals also contributed to the emergent acquisitive mindset. Richard Bushman explains the shift in colonial Connecticut when the modern Evangelical movement actually emerged:

As, in the expanding economy of the eighteenth century, merchants and farmers felt free to pursue wealth with an avidity dangerously close to avarice, the energies released exerted irresistible pressure against traditional bounds. When the Great Awakening added its measure of opposition, the old institutions began to crumble. By 1765, while the structure still stood, the most perceptive leaders were looking for new methods of ordering society in an age when human loyalties would be forthcoming voluntarily or not at all.18

Though the revival assuaged the guilt about materialism that some felt, its conception of the social order was different from that of John Winthrop’s generation; it was definitely more voluntaristic. As Bushman describes things:

Guilty men surrendered to God, admitted their culpability, and called upon Him to save them by His grace. But the God to whom they surrendered was not He whose authority invested social institutions. Newborn men relied wholly on the God they had discovered in a personal experience.19

Despite prosperity and the individualism of the revivals, some of these traditional social views did not completely evaporate, even among those most shaped by the Evangelicalism that spearheaded the eighteenth-century revivals in Britain and America. The disintegrating forces of individualism were less evident in a few quarters of British political culture—though economic change was certainly dismantling the old aristocratic order there as well. Arguably, the best examples of the sort of paternalistic conservatism informed by Christian ethical concerns were eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Tory politicians of Evangelical conviction who sought to ameliorate the social damage stirred up by the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.

There has been considerable debate about the connections between Puritanism and eighteenth-century Evangelicalism. Recently, some historians have stressed the continuities that tied the two movements together.20 Some Evangelicals were convinced of the continuity in their teaching and spoke appreciatively of the Puritans. They also understood their “reformation of manners” as analogous to the Puritan efforts to build a holy commonwealth in England during the preceding century. William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the great abolitionist reformer, described his faith as identical to that of the sixteenth-century Reformers and many of the seventeenth-century Puritans: “Christianity in its best days,” he wrote in A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797),

was such as it has been delineated in the present work. This was the Religion of the most eminent Reformers, of those bright ornaments of our country who suffered martyrdom under queen Mary; of their successors in the times of Elizabeth; in short, of all the pillars of our Protestant church; of many of its highest dignitaries.21

Wilberforce is better known today because of the high-profile campaign against slavery and the slave trade. Though they may be puzzled by the Anglican churchmanship of figures like Wilberforce, American Evangelicals have often chosen him in recent years as a sterling example of a socially engaged Evangelical Christian (the most recent evidence of his popularity being the popular film Amazing Grace). Other socially conscious English Evangelicals of this period may need to have their stories retold. Among them was Richard Oastler (1789-1861) who contributed to Wilberforce’s anti-slavery crusade but also came to be called “king of the factory children” for his tireless agitation for factory legislation to reduce hours and improve working conditions especially for children in Britain’s mills and mines. Apparently an 1830 encounter with a mill owner, John Wood, inspired Oastler. As he recounted the meeting years later:

John Wood turned towards me and reaching out his hand in the most impressive manner, pressed my hand in his and said: “I have had no sleep tonight. I have been reading the Bible and in every page I have read my own condemnation. I cannot allow you to leave me without a pledge that you will use all your influence in trying to remove from our factory system the cruelties which are practised in our mills.” I promised I would do all I could. I felt that we were each of us in the presence of the Highest and I know that that vow was recorded in heaven.22

Oastler was instrumental in securing the passage of the Factory Act in 1847 that limited the hours children could work in mills to a maximum of 10 hours, and he spoke frequently against mill owners who mistreated their workers. Like Wilberforce, Oastler was born into a wealthy gentry family but was raised a Wesleyan before he joined the established Church of England, becoming a leading Evangelical Anglican layman. Nor did his social position insulate him entirely from the attacks of his opponents. He was imprisoned for debt in the early 1840s in part because of his strong denunciations of manufacturers. Oastler and some of his fellow rural Tories defended the values of a traditional pre-industrial England and opposed utilitarian innovations such as the New Poor Law (1834), that shifted responsibility for the poor away from local Church of England parishes. His personal motto befitted his social conservatism: “Altar, Throne and Cottage.”23

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885), was a later Tory Evangelical associated with factory reforms. Shaftesbury saw himself as standing in the succession of the Puritans and Wilberforce. When sponsoring a bill to end mail delivery on Sunday, he made a note in his diary of how he was denounced as a “Puritan” in some quarters. Elsewhere in his diary, he made positive reference to “the Puritans of old.” Reading an account of Wilberforce’s life prompted Shaftesbury to comment: “There are many things said in it of him [Wilberforce] that might be said of me, but they never will be.” He explained that he had also experienced considerable resistance in Parliament, even sometimes from individuals who might have been allies. “The pressure upon purse and upon time was very great;” he concluded, “the pressure upon strength was greater, but the pressure on the mind was greatest of all. I endured terrible anxieties.”24 Shaftesbury definitely had impressive Evangelical credentials, including serving as president of both the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Pastoral Aid Society, as well as working on behalf of the Church Missionary Society. Meanwhile, active in Parliament, he guided the Coal Mines Act (1842), which forbade women and children less than 13 years old from underground labor, through the House of Commons. Further, Shaftesbury played a key role in the passing of the Factory Act of 1874, which excluded children under nine years from factory labor and restricted women and children to 10 hours a day in the textile industry. 

Personally, Shaftesbury had little fondness for the grasping spirit of many of the Industrial Revolution’s leading lights. He held that his factory reform crusade was “impeccable Toryism” and one biographer contends that he may have been motivated “as much from dislike of the mill owners as from sympathy with the mill workers”25 But his actions reflected a deep sense of noblesse oblige rooted in his Christian faith. Shaftesbury’s entry in the original edition of the Dictionary of National Biography summed up beautifully his brand of traditionalist conservatism:

In religion Shaftesbury was a very cordial and earnest supporter of Evangelical views… But his heart was especially moved by whatever concerned the true welfare of the people. Though the reverse of the demagogue, retaining always a certain aristocratic bearing as one who valued social rank, he was profoundly interested in the people as the most ardent democrat. Hating socialism and all schemes of revolutionary violence, he most earnestly desired to see the multitude enjoying a larger share of the comforts of life. He had thorough confidence in the power of Christianity to effect the needed improvements, provided its principles were accepted and acted on, and its spirit diffused among high and low.26

Together, these Tory Evangelicals all subscribed to a traditional understanding of freedom rooted in classical and Christian thought, not based on Enlightenment liberalism. It emphasized submission to God’s laws and recognition of human beings’ fallen natures. J. P. Ellens explains that such old-fashioned ideas of freedom

focused not [on] the free individual but [on] the good society. The traditional conception was, as Peter Miller has shown, that individual goods, including individual liberty, were subordinated to the “common good.” [Hence] the traditional formulation of individual aspirations… [found] their fulfillment, and limitations, in a virtuous community.

Ellens notes how, though some Christian traditionalists clung to this older conception, English Protestant “Dissenters [came to] jettison the traditional view of the state as a political community ordained by God to teach public virtue (and hence happiness and freedom), for a liberal view of a contractual institution subject only to the wishes of a sovereign people.”27

It is harder to identify this sort of paternalist Protestant conservative concerned about the social ramifications of economic change in America than in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain.28 Yet, though more internally conflicted than their Old World counterparts and enjoying less support from their social milieu, they did exist. Some found a home in the antebellum Whig party. Perhaps some of the best examples of American Evangelical “Tories” were conservative Whigs. Many northern Whigs understood their principles as reflecting their New England Puritan heritage. Dean Hammer explains the internal tensions that characterized those American conservatives in the nineteenth century who sought to preserve elements of the original Puritan vision, despite its already noted retreat and revision:

It was not a Jeffersonian republicanism that they [the Whigs] drew upon; rather, in formulating a republicanism suitable to a commercial world, the Whigs looked to the Puritans. In recalling the Puritans, the Whigs drew on a legacy noted for its ambivalence toward prosperity and commerce. The Puritan was to combine, in the words of John Cotton, “diligence in worldly business, and yet deadnesse to the world….” Although immersing himself in his earthly calling, the Puritan was to achieve a metaphorical removal of the body and soul from this temporal existence.29

Though they were keen advocates of commercial activity, some Whigs worried about its social implications, and remained concerned to protect virtue. One essential way to do this was through local communities tied to the Christian faith and rooted in history. Again, Hammer explains:

The Whigs read into the American past the moral basis for their economic and political vision, a vision in which the individual remained closely tied to a corporate [that is, communal] order. At a time in which an individualist ethos was penetrating American economic, social, and political life, the Puritans served as a reminder for the Whigs that the individual does not exist apart from the community nor the community from history.30

Northern Protestant clergy were often among the Whig party’s strongest supporters. Congregationalist Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) saw himself as working squarely within the New England tradition identified above, though he was a critic of aspects of Evangelical revivalism. Bushnell’s conception of the state as a moral agent definitely reflected Puritan thinking, mixed with a healthy dose of Romanticism. “The days of the ‘social compact’ theory… are gone by,” asserted Bushnell in his Views of Christian Nurture,

and it is now held by almost all the late writers, that we naturally exist as organic bodies, just as we do as individuals, and that the civil government is born with us, in virtue of our organic unity in bodies or States – that the State must legislate for itself in some way, just as the conscience legislates for the individual. Government is, in this view the organic conscience of the State – no matter what may be the form, or who presides.31

Some Evangelicals also echoed Whig concerns about the social consequences of acquisitive individualism. Mark Hanley’s survey of antebellum sermons reveals some sharp clerical criticism of a freewheeling market and its social implications. Though Hanley’s sample may well represent a minority, his study confirms that not all Northern Evangelicals were naively boosterish about American material progress.32

Political economist Henry C. Carey (1793-1879) was a favorite among conservative Whigs for his emphasis on class cooperation and the alleged deleterious social consequences of free trade. In Carey’s influential The Harmony of Interests, he argued that the teachings of Ricardo and Malthus and the policy of free trade undermined the humane and personal economies of local communities. Although Carey was certainly no enemy of commercial and industrial development, his economic reasoning was thoroughly localist and moralistic. Declared Carey:

The man who makes his exchanges in distant markets spends much time on the road and in taverns, and is liable to be led into dissipation… That “there is no friendship in trade,” is most true, and yet trade is the deity worshipped in this [free trade] school. In it “commerce is king,” and yet to commerce we owe much of the existing demoralization of the world. The anxiety to sell cheap induces the manufacturer to substitute cotton for silk, and flour for cotton, and leads to frauds and adulterations of every description. Bankruptcy and loss of honour [sic] follow in the train of its perpetual revulsions.33

“Ignorant selfishness,” Carey commented in the same volume, “is the characteristic of the savage. It disappears as men acquire the habit of association with their neighbor men.”34

One of Carey’s closest friends, Pennsylvania iron manufacturer Stephen Colwell (1800-1871), is an even better model of an American Evangelical Tory. Colwell became a wealthy businessman but wrote extensively about how the poor and the property-less often suffered from the new economic order. Though his theological views were sufficiently conservative to allow him to sit on Princeton Seminary’s Board of Trustees, Colwell attacked his fellow Reformed brethren for their lack of concern for society’s marginalized. In a series of articles published in the conservative Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review during the early 1840s, Colwell excoriated English political economy and argued that American slaves were better off than most industrial workers in British factories (he did this not to defend slavery—he was a member of the American Colonization Society—but to emphasize just how bad conditions were for British workers). He agreed with French Catholic thinker Alban de Villeneuve-Bargemont that “wherever the theories of civilization and political economy which have prevailed in England shall have been longer established and more extensively applied,” there one sees “a proportionate increase of the poor.”35 Colwell’s controversial book, New Themes for the Protestant Clergy: Creeds without Charity, Theology without Humanity, and Protestantism without Christianity, assaulted Evangelical churches and especially their clergy for preaching a gospel seemingly unconcerned about the suffering of the poor and oppressed. Notably, Colwell here rejected classical political economy as “a science of wealth… explicitly excluding all moral considerations.” Such a system was un-Christian, said Colwell, for “it makes it not only the interest, but the natural course, of every one to prey upon his fellow-men to the full extent of his power and cunning, [and] is well fitted to carry selfishness to its highest limits, and to extinguish every spark of mutual kindness.”36Like his friend Carey, Colwell advocated protectionist trade policies to circumscribe and blunt the impact of economic forces.

Of course, the most extreme examples of New World paternalism came from Southern apologists for slavery. Moving beyond the paternalism of Colwell, writers such a George Fitzhugh defended the South’s peculiar institution along radical lines, declaring that it was inextricably rooted in the interdependent, organic relationship between master and slave. Like the patriarchal family, a slave society was designed to protect inferiors. By contrast, the market society of the North promoted anarchic competition and rapacious habits among its citizens. “Laissez-faire, free competition begets a war of the wits,” claimed Fitzhugh, “which these economists [Adam Smith and others] encourage, quite as destructive to the weak, simple and guileless, as the war of the sword.”37 Appropriately, Fitzhugh quoted the comment of uber-Tory Thomas Carlyle that American institutions were simply “anarchy and a street constable.”38

What was absent from Fitzhugh’s vision, of course, was the Evangelical humanitarianism of a Shaftesbury or a Wilberforce. There was certainly a logical consistency to Fitzhugh’s line of argument but it remains difficult to determine how sincere his romantic vision of a quasi-feudal society was, or whether it was mostly a clever debating tactic to keep Northern opponents off balance. The fact that Fitzhugh became a booster of Southern capitalist development after the Civil War has made some scholars skeptical. Still, Eugene Genovese contends that, despite their perverse defense of racial inequality and chattel slavery, Antebellum Southern conservatives were part of an authentic conservative tradition that still has much to teach Americans. Referencing thinkers from John Taylor of Caroline to Fitzhugh, Genovese attempts in The Southern Tradition to recover a thoroughly religious conservatism which is organic and eschews economic growth for its own sake.39 As the preceding examples have suggested, some features of this tradition were not limited to the South.

In the decades following the Civil War, however, one sees first the marginalization of this sort of traditionalist conservatism and, ultimately, its virtual disappearance. By the turn of the century, a new laissez-faire conservatism had prevailed, exemplified by the writings of Yale’s William Graham Sumner. Richard Hofstadter argued that this new sort of conservatism was remarkable in that “it lacked many of the signal characteristics of conservatism as it is usually found.” Hofstadter described it as

a conservatism that appealed more to the secularist than the pious mentality, it was a conservatism almost without religion. A body of belief whose chief conclusion was that the positive functions of the state should be kept to the barest minimum, it was almost anarchical, and it was devoid of that center of reverence and authority which the state provides in many conservative systems. Finally, and perhaps most important, it was a conservatism that tried to dispense with sentimental or emotional ties.40

Earlier social systems that had sought to reflect Christian principles were unscientific. Sumner concluded tersely in What Social Classes Owe to Each Other that “it is out of the question to go back to status or to the sentimental relations which once united baron and retainer, master and servant, teacher and pupil, comrade and comrade.”41 Shaftesbury would have been horrified.

But how did American Evangelicals respond to Sumner’s secular vision? Afew did refuse to accept key features of the new conservatism and hung on to the older traditionalist position. In the late nineteenth century, they included the administrators of conservative Protestant colleges such as Princeton and Yale (at the latter school, the old-fashioned President Noah Porter clashed with Professor Sumner). One could add also Yale political scientist, Theodore Dwight Woolsey (1801-1889), Columbia’s Elisha Mulford (1833-1885), and the University of Penn-sylvania’s Robert Ellis Thompson (1844-1924). These traditionalists fought a losing battle against the prevailing individualism with a social theory that was thoroughly organic and historical rather than abstract, contractual, and voluntaristic. To the others’ secularism, they offered a social theory soaked in Christian moralism. But theirs was an increasingly irrelevant rearguard action.42 One of the last holdouts, Princeton Seminary’s William Brenton Greene (1854-1928), wrote on social subjects throughout the Progressive era, disdaining the liberal Social Gospel and, in the words of one historian, pursuing “an independent interpretation of modern social phenomena from the standpoint of the historic Calvinist (and medieval) theocratic ideal, which sees society as organic and interdependent.”43

Thinkers like Greene were the exception by the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, the cultural context that had provided modest support for the remnants of Puritanism’s moral economy was rapidly evaporating. The “new capitalism” of the 1920s heightened the internal contradictions. Daniel Bell explains how the old values were no longer upheld by the economic order:

The real social revolution in modern society came during the 1920s, when the rise of mass production and high consumption began to transform the life of the middle-class itself. The effect of the Protestant ethic as a social reality and a life-style for the middle class was replaced by a materialistic hedonism… The glorification of plenty, rather than the bending to niggardly nature, becomes the justification of the system. But all of this was highly incongru-ent with the theological and sociological foundations of nineteenth-century Protestantism, which was in turn the foundation of the American value system.

In the 1920s, and in the 1950s and 1960s, these incongruities were eschewed with the blithe as-surance that there was a consensus in the society on the moral verity of material abundance… The fact of transition is evident. The overt contradictions in the language and ideology – the lack of any coherent moral or philosophical doctrine – have only become manifest today.44

In short, the remaining props that had once provided Evangelicals a serviceable theological platform for the social and economic order were kicked out during the twentieth century. More specifically, during the teens and twenties, state intervention became associated with theological liberals and thus suspect among most conservative Evangelicals.45 Distracted by doctrinal battles within their denominations during the Fundamentalist controversy, few Evangelicals stepped back to renovate their social vision.

There were, of course, conservative critics of the emergent order. Among the more important here were the New Humanists and the Nashville Agrarians. The former included Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More who influenced later postwar conservatives such as Russell Kirk and George F. Will. The Agrarians certainly echoed the traditional themes of localism and anti-industrialism in I’ll Take My Stand (1930). Still, both were marginal groups with little mainstream social or political influence. Moreover, unlike most of the subjects of this essay, these critics were rarely Christians, let alone conservative Evangelicals (More did ultimately convert to high-church Anglicanism and Allen Tate to Roman Catholicism).46 Accordingly, there were virtually no Evangelicals among those traditionalists who participated in the post-World War II conservative revival. Significantly, neither Kirk nor Richard M. Weaver wrote favorably about the Protestant Reformation. Both tended to caricature it as the fount of Progressivism.

With few surviving connections to an earlier kind of historically rooted, Christian conservatism, American Evangelicals’ social and economic views sometimes became virtually indistinguishable from those of secular-minded conservatives. For instance, the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell identified conservative Evangelicals not only with the social issues of the Reagan administration but also with its economic views. More recently, popular Evangelical author and television preacher D. James Kennedy implied in his book How Would Jesus Vote? that Christ would never have supported anything like the Social Security system. Similarly, Focus on the Family’s James Dobson endorsed libertarian Rand Paul in the latter’s November 2010 Kentucky senate race.47 Christian and less indebted to classical liberalism and Enlightenment categories, especially to the abstract and one-dimensional model of human nature the latter have often promoted. The ideals of Latimer, Shaftesbury, and Colwell contrast with the anti-traditional character of aspects of the modern economic order and, despite their limitations and blind spots, they could help Christian conservatives transcend the stale partisan categories of both the Left and the Right. Recovering this thread can facilitate a better understanding of our current ideological impasse and enable Evangelicals to express a genuinely prophetic message, rather than mimic a tired secular position be it either classical or welfare state liberalism. At the very least, it might convince some of his listeners that Dave Ramsey was not embracing socialism when he supported state intervention to restrict usury.  

Cite this article
Gillis Harp, “Reconsidering the Liberal Captivity of American Evangelicalism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:1 , 51-66


  1. Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955). For an insightful critique of Hartz, see James T. Kloppenberg, “In Retrospect: Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America,” Reviews in American History 29 (2001): 460-476. To clarify, I am not arguing that the traditionalist Evangelicals I have identified in this essay were always correct. Nor do I hold any brief for an intrusive bureaucratic statism. Left free, market mechanisms usually work very well.
  2. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1994), 75.
  3. George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York: Basic Books, 1976).
  4. See Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience:Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 2005), 91-93.
  5. For a helpful treatment of the writings of Robert Goudzwaard, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others, see Craig M. Gay, With Liberty and Justice for Whom? The Recent Evangelical Debate over Capitalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 131-152.
  6. Marvin Olasky, Compassionate Conservatism: What it Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America (New York: The Free Press, 2000). Olasky reflects on its limited results in See also Jeffrey C. Issac, “Faith-Based Initiatives: A Civil Society Approach,” The Good Society 12 (2003): 1, 4-10.
  7. See Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994) and D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), among many others.
  8. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Evangelicalism,” in The Oxford Companion to Canadian His-tory, ed. Gerald Hallowell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), Oxford Reference Online. Accessed August 4, 2011,
  9. Winthrop S. Hudson, “The Weber Thesis Reexamined,”Church History 30 (1961): 88-99.
  10. Amintore Fanfani, Catholicism, Protestantism and Capitalism (London: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 144.
  11. Hugh Latimer, quoted in Patricia Cricco, “Hugh Latimer and Witness,” The Sixteenth Century Journal, 10 (1979): 31.
  12. See A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation (New York, Schocken Books, 1964), 224.
  13. Another good example here would be Robert Crowley (1517-1588). His entry in the Dic-tionary of National Biography aptly describes Crowley’s critique: “The stewardship theory of property ownership was the kernel of Crowley’s social gospel under Edward VI, and he felt that only a reorganized church could bridle the avarice and exploitation of the commons by a new élite of protestant clergy and landlords in the aftermath of the monastic dissolutions. Under Elizabeth the focus of his radicalism changed, though his work (1575) to ameliorate the plight of imprisoned debtors showed social concern.” Basil Morgan, “Crowley, Robert (1517×19–1588),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, Sept. 2004; online edition, Jan. 2008 [, accessed July 13, 2010]).
  14. See William Perkins, “A Treatise Tending Unto a Declaration of Whether a Man be in a State of Damnation or Salvation.” The third part, “A Dialogue of the State of a Christian Man, Gathered Here and There Out of the Sweet and Savory Writings of Master Tyndale and Master Bradford,” contains effusive praise for these early English Reformation leaders. See William Perkins, Works (Cambridge: John Legate, 1608), I: 381-395.
  15. Cotton, summarized by John Winthrop, in James Kendall Hosmer, ed., Winthrop’s Journal: ‘History of New England,’ 1630-1649, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner’s, 1908), 317.
  16. Donald E. Frey, “Individualist Economic Values and Self-Interest: The Problem in the Puritan Ethic,” Journal of Business Ethics 17 (1998): 1573-1580.
  17. Samuel Eliot Morrison, Revisionist History, (Accessed October 1, 2009)
  18. Richard L. Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and the Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765 (New York: Norton, 1970 [1967]), iii.
  19. Ibid., 267.
  20. Michael A. G. Haykin and Kenneth J. Stewart, eds.,The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2008), esp. the chapters by Michael Haykin, Paul Helm, and Thomas Kidd. See also David A. Currie, “Cotton Mather’s Bonifaciusin Britain and America,” in Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A Rawlyk, eds., Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles and Beyond, 1700-1990 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 73-89.
  21. William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, 14th ed. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1820), 239-240. Wilberforce criticized the established church for the “Great Ejection” of Puritans following the Restoration: “I must here express my unfeigned and high respect for this great man [i.e., Richard Baxter], who with his brethren was so shamefully ejected from the church in 1666, in violation of the royal word, as well as of the clear principles of justice.” Ibid.
  22. Cotton Times: Understanding the Industrial Revolution, (Accessed October 1, 2009).
  23. John Cannon, “Oastler, Richard,” The Oxford Companion to British History, ed. John Cannon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), Oxford Reference Online. Accessed August 4, 2011,
  24. Cited in Edwin Hodder, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, K. G. (London: Cassell & Company, 1887), 378-379. Source of the preceding quotation is Ibid., 548.
  25. G. F. A. Best, Shaftesbury (New York: Mentor, 1975 [1964]), 88, 107.
  26. Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee, eds., Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949), 12:136.
  27. J. P. Ellens, “Which Freedom for Early Victorian Britain?” in Richard Helmstadter, ed., Freedom and Religion in the Nineteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 88, 90.
  28. The eighteenth-century Evangelical revivals were certainly transatlantic in character. See chapters by Walsh, O’Brien and Stout in Noll, Bebbington & Rawlyk, eds., Evangelicalism.
  29. Dean C. Hammer, “The Puritans as Founders: The Quest for Identity in Early Whig Rhetoric,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 6 (1996): 167-168. I have omitted the original footnote numbers imbedded in this passage.
  30. Hammer, “Puritans as Founders,” 183.
  31. Horace Bushnell, Views of Christian Nurture and of Subjects Adjacent Thereunto (Hartford, CT: Edwin Hunt, 1847), 18.
  32. Mark Y. Hanley, Beyond a Christian Commonwealth: The Protestant Quarrel With the American Republic, 1830-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994). For a critique, see Mark Noll’s review in Church History 64 (1995): 306-308.
  33. Henry C. Carey, The Harmony of Interests, Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Commercial(Philadelphia: J. S. Skinner, 1851), 203, 206.
  34. Ibid., 204. Carey became an Episcopalian, though his father had been an Irish Roman Catholic. See Andrew Dawson, “Reassessing Henry Carey (1793-1879): The Problems of Writing Political Economy in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American Studies 34 (2000): 470.
  35. Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 113.
  36. Ibid., 117.
  37. George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South or the Failure of Free Society (Richmond: A. Morris, 1854), 21.
  38. Ibid., 31.
  39. Eugene Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).
  40. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 7.
  41. Quoted in Ibid., 8.
  42. See Gillis J. Harp, “Traditionalist Dissent: The Reorientation of American Conservatism, 1865-1900,” Modern Intellectual History 5 (2008): 487-518.
  43. Earl William Kennedy, “William Brenton Greene’s Treatment of Social Issues,” Journal of Presbyterian History 40 (1962): 93.
  44. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1996 [1976]), 74, 75, 76.
  45. Allen D. Hertzke, “Evangelicals, Populists, and the Great Reversal: Protestant Civil Society and Economic Concern,” conference paper delivered at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, September 28, 1996.
  46. Robert Crunden, The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945(Austin: University of Texas, 1977); Peter Viereck, Conservatism Revisited (New York: Free Press, 1965); Paul V. Murphy, The Rebuke of History (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001).
  47. Regarding Falwell, see Michael Lienesch, “Right-Wing Religion: Christian Conservatism as a Political Movement,” Political Science Quarterly 97 (1982): 413-414. Kennedy’s views are developed in D. James Kennedy, How Would Jesus Vote?: A Christian Perspective on the Issues(Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2008), 101. For the Dobson endorsement, see:

Gillis Harp

Gillis Harp is Professor of History at Grove City College.