Illustration of 19th-century factories and churches intertwined

In Review

Religion, Economics, and the Stories We Tell

Illustrations by Ben Jones

By Devin Singh

In Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Ben Friedman provides an accessible and engaging story of how certain key concepts in modern economic thought, such as the market mechanism, competition, and comparative advantage, were shaped in part by the ferment in religious thought initiated by the Protestant Reformation. He argues for both explicit and direct, as well as implicit and residual, links between doctrinal debates about divine providence, human sinfulness, or the possibilities of social progress, and these new economic ideas. Friedman’s investigation has two center points: one is the thought and context of Adam Smith, whose Wealth of Nations (1776) remains a touchstone for the field of economics; the other is the so-called clerical economists of nineteenth-century America, who combined their theological convictions with visions of manifest destiny and economic growth that shaped the trajectory of this nation.

In telling this story, Friedman takes us from the sixteenth-century continental Reformers and French Jansenists, for instance, all the way to the twentieth-century political divide in the United States between conservative defenders of unregulated free markets and liberals advocating better state-market interaction. He threads this tale through the English Puritans, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the American colonial project in all its religious diversity.

Friedman claims that modern economics was shaped by the rejection of the Reformed doctrines of predestination and total depravity, on the one hand, and the embrace of free will, human goodness, and the possibility of progress and happiness, on the other. Such religious optimism shaped the United States, in particular, as the site of experimentation for new economic thought. In this way, Friedman hopes to challenge some of the truisms in the discussion of religion’s role in the ascendancy of capitalism.

I first want to situate Friedman’s book within the broader scholarship and conversation on religion and capitalism. I will note other key studies that have engaged the topic in adjacent and at times overlapping ways. This will help to highlight the contributions Friedman makes and may also, I hope, be helpful for readers interested in exploring this topic further.

Second, I want to situate the periods and themes covered in Friedman’s book within a longer arc of history around this question of religion’s relationship to the economy and to economic thinking. This should also be useful in highlighting the significance of his claims and evaluating the weight he places on the connections he makes. I also hope this will raise questions of periodization as we think about making historical and genealogical arguments about the influence of ideas across disparate times, cultures, and geographies.


In terms of the scholarship on this topic, the first book that will come to mind for many is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).1 Of the many claims in Weber’s book, most memorable is his assertion that the Reformed doctrine of double predestination helps generate entrepreneurial activity by the anxious quest to confirm one’s status as a member of the elect. Friedman takes Weber’s claims head on, arguing instead that it was the theological rejection of predestination and associated views of total depravity that influenced the economic models of market society. The deism of natural theology and the optimistic, activist energy of Arminian Methodists, for instance, left more of a mark on modern economic thought and activity. There is, of course, much more to Weber’s thesis, and much that remains compatible with Friedman.2

A second founding text in this field of religion and capitalism is R. H. Tawney’s 1922 work, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, whose title should sound familiar.3 Contending with and extending Weber’s study, Tawney’s main focus was on the commercial revolution in England, and he centered on the Puritans as inheritors and transformers of both medieval Catholic and continental Reformed attitudes toward wealth and work. Friedman’s tale begins where Tawney’s ends, focusing on Smith, Hume, and the wider Scottish Enlightenment response to an English mercantile society already well in motion.

A third landmark book in the religion and economics conversation is Albert Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests (1977), which traces how Christian concerns about subduing desire informed early modern conversations about using self-interest to tame and redirect the passions.4 The result was a vision of business and commerce as pacifying and unifying, with the market forming the basis for a new social polity after religion and monarchy had failed. Friedman’s book extends Hirschman’s claims into and within the American context.


Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, by Benjamin Friedman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021, 560 pages, $38.

It is indeed remarkable to see the continuity of thought between seventeenth-century continental thinkers and nineteenth-century Americans.

It is indeed remarkable to see the continuity of thought between seventeenth-century continental thinkers and nineteenth-century Americans. For instance, Hirschman cites Jacques Savary’s influential 1675 textbook, The Perfect Merchant, where Savary expounds the idea that God willed the interdependence of peoples and nations through commerce and distributed resources around the world to force humans to cooperate with each other.5 This view would get taken up and emphasized by Montesquieu in his theory that commerce brings a civilizing influence to society. In Friedman’s story, we encounter the American Episcopalian economist John McVickar, whose influential 1830s economics textbook advances a similar idea: “For what other reason, do you suppose, has [God] given to different countries such different soils and climate and production, but that they should freely exchange with each other, and thus all be happier and more comfortable?”6 Friedman thus gives us a sense of how continental ideas propounded by the likes of Montesquieu, ideas very much enmeshed in French Jansenist and Reformed debates about the place of self-interest in charitable society, come to inform American visions for blessed commerce two centuries later.

An additional interesting set of studies within the field of religion and economics has focused on the theological background to Smith and the presence, or lack thereof, of implicit theology in his work. For instance, Smith famously used the metaphor of the “invisible hand” to describe how individual, self-interested economic activities can nevertheless accumulate toward a positive net economic benefit for a society. Some have intervened to argue that Smith’s image of such spontaneous market order cannot be understood without reference to theological views of divine providence.7 In other words, Smith’s claims about the unforeseen and surprising possibilities of market equilibrium may rely on fundamental and unquestioned assumptions about a rational, ordered universe established and superintended by God.

Friedman weighs in on this debate, and advances two claims that, while certainly not contradictory, are in some tension: On the one hand, Smith was indeed the product of his time, a time saturated in natural theology as well as orthodox Calvinism and its more liberal variants. Smith cannot be fully grasped without understanding this context, and Friedman goes to great lengths to provide us the rich history of doctrinal debates that inform Smith’s milieu and help us understand some of his motivations. But, on the other hand, Friedman claims, Smith’s “invisible hand” references are decidedly nontheological.8

What Friedman appears to be rejecting is a view of Smith as using secular language to cloak his belief in an interventionist God directly managing the economy. But this crass occasionalism is typically not what scholars have claimed. Few would argue that Smith believed God acted as a puppet master over economic exchange, and Smith was clearly intent on explaining the market by immanent and internal principles. Orthodox Calvinism had a sophisticated distinction between primary and secondary causality and rejected the notion that divine sovereignty meant that God was inside and immediately present within every act and decision in the cosmos. With differing senses of divine decree and levels of causality, creaturely freedom could coexist with divine providence according to this schema. Smith could certainly have had this sense of providentialism in mind when invoking the “invisible hand,” allowing for a theological echo or trace to support his assumptions of market equilibrium.

In relation to the forces shaping Smith’s outlook, Friedman mentions Smith’s condemnation of the frivolity of the rich, with their consumption of useless trinkets and baubles. Smith acknowledges that such consumption is generative for the economy, but his is really more of a moral argument that is very much in line with a Puritan ethic, and it resonates with the asceticism that Weber highlighted. Combined with his affirmation of the value of work, Smith’s rejection of useless luxury places him squarely within the Puritan ambit, his ostensible deism notwithstanding.

This image of a Puritan Smith is accentuated when we consider the contrasting picture of Christian attitudes to luxury painted by Charly Coleman in his recent book, The Spirit of French Capitalism.9 Coleman retrieves a set of themes from French Catholic theology in the eighteenth century that focus on divinely willed abundance and wealth in ways that make consumption and leisure central engines of capitalism. Coleman reminds us that Protestant ascetism may not be the only or the essential factor driving the rise of market society, and here Smith’s Calvinist and even Puritan background comes to the fore in his condemnation of luxury as unnecessary excess.

A final book of note here is Eugene McCarraher’s recent intervention, The Enchantments of Mammon, which makes great reading alongside Friedman’s text.10 McCarraher recounts a similar tale but with a different purpose, to argue against the secularization thesis and idea of the economic disenchantment of the world. He attempts to show instead that economic thinking remains infused with notions of sacramentality, divine presence and purpose, and even alchemical and mystical sensibilities. In McCarraher’s view, a Romantic ethic also very much shaped the trajectory of economics. His claims are worth thinking about together with Friedman’s, in order to consider the extent to which this Romantic ethic coincides with Friedman’s retrieval of optimistic postmillennialism and faith in human progress. McCarraher’s argument also raises the question of whether Friedman’s tale means that theological residues remain and continue to matter for economics, or whether something like the secular has fully gained sway in the field, as most economists assume.


My second set of comments concerns the place of Friedman’s story in a longer tale of the historical relation between religion and economics. Friedman’s purpose was to focus on the influence of Protestant thinking on capitalism, and so it makes sense for him to limit the scope that he exposits. But just as the Arminian thinking he highlights was a reaction to Reformed thinking before it, so is Protestant thought itself a reaction and response to medieval Catholic thought that preceded it. Of course, in narrating a history, it is necessary to bracket out certain prehistories, but the process raises questions of whether and how to account for the traces that remain of what is opposed or reconfigured in previous thought and practice.

What does it do to the significance of nineteenth-century American economic thinking to see within it forms of continuity (and, to be sure, discontinuity) with a 1500-year-old view of God-ordained economic interdependence and peace?

I note three cases that raise the issue of periodization and the importance of accounting for prehistory. The first is the notion of commerce bringing divinely ordained peace and stability, a theme that Friedman extends from Albert Hirschman’s study. The link between Friedman’s nineteenth-century American economists and Hirschman’s seventeenth-century French philosophers extends back even further, however. Hirschman cites the Princeton economist Jacob Viner’s work on the role of providence in theories of social order.11 Viner himself traced this idea of divinely ordained commerce for the sake of interdependence and peace back to the fourth century. The theologian Erik Peterson argued that we find some evidence of this view among certain patristic thinkers. Eusebius of Caesarea, for instance, writing in the fourth century, appeared to see the peace and stability brought by Roman imperial integration, infrastructure, and economy as divinely ordained.12 What does it do to the significance of nineteenth-century American economic thinking to see within it forms of continuity (and, to be sure, discontinuity) with a 1500-year-old view of God-ordained economic interdependence and peace?

As a second case, Friedman looks to Adam Smith as the true formulator and perfecter of the theory of the market. Of course, Friedman acknowledges earlier notions of market exchange in thinkers such as Pierre Nicole and Bernard Mandeville. Nevertheless, in Friedman’s telling, the model of the market is quintessentially modern. While I think it is right to say that the ancient world had no conception of the market as such, as historians such as Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley have claimed, we do find evidence in medieval thinking about the market in the abstract.13 As Joel Kaye has shown, scholastic thinkers in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries reveal sophisticated theories of prices, supply and demand, long-distance trade, equilibrium, and other market forces that exceed human attempts at governance and control.14 The Latin term mercatus was already being employed to speak of the market as such.15

The point with both the example of providential commerce and ideas of the market is not to diminish the contributions that Friedman makes. Rather, within this longer arc, the histories he highlights are at once relativized and heightened in significance. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century developments are now seen as iterations on themes almost two millennia old. This places them in a narrative that makes them less unique or seen as bolts out of the blue. But it also reveals that these modern developments were making their own transformations within a much larger story, able to draw from it and be elucidated because of it.

My third and final case illustrating the larger historical context around Friedman’s tale feels to me the most weighty. In setting the stage for the market dynamics upon which Smith would reflect, Friedman mentions the rise of mercantile society in a passing and passive way: “Britain’s economy, still mostly agricultural, evolved toward an ever greater role for commercial markets. Subsistence farming had long since ceased to be the norm (if it ever was). Most farmers now looked to markets, and increasingly so, for their economic existence.”16 The use of terms such as “evolved” and the reference to farming as having “long since ceased” risk portraying the process as natural and inevitable, even as one whose drivers are unknown and unclear.

But we do know many of the reasons why farming ceased in Britain as the market system arose: violent dispersals of peasants off the land, the end of Poor Laws and rights of gleaning and gathering, the closing of the commons, privatization, the creation of vulnerable and dependent proletarian wage labor, and the like. This shift was also motivated by the internationalization of trade, in part shaped by chattel slavery, indigenous enslavement, and the colonial extractive project. To be sure, this is not the history Friedman is telling, but in this case it is quite relevant and bears mention.

We know that economic change is always also political, cultural, and social change. To this we can add religious change.

Economics as a discipline is frequently and, I think, rightly critiqued for portraying economic change in abstract ways, as if markets emerge spontaneously and will find the most efficient means of exchange if left to their own devices. Most of the story Friedman tells resists this, and on the whole his work is a laudable example of showing why noneconomic factors matter for the history and development of economics. We know that economic change is always also political, cultural, and social change. To this we can add religious change.

At this crucial moment in the history Friedman retrieves, however, at the dawn of market society, the view of inevitable and natural market evolution rears its head, and not insignificantly. For it sets the stage for Adam Smith to then encounter a market society, reflect on the market in the abstract, and project the market as an ideal type to which all might aspire. In so doing, Smith will describe the perfections of the market in Newtonian terms, drawing on the language of physics to suggest that market relations might just resemble natural physical laws, and therefore reflect the deeper grain of the universe. In so doing, this historically contingent and agonistically constructed set of social relations takes on a metaphysical weight that then acquires the aura of an eternal truth or at least a deep structure of reality.

In neglecting the story of the often violent, fully intentional and directed, and clearly political construction of markets in England, Friedman risks supporting this reified and abstract view of the market as natural, inevitable, and spontaneous. Friedman also then removes from consideration the role of theology in this construction that will set the stage for Smith.

Smith will certainly use and be influenced by theological debates in his day as he creates this market model, as Friedman describes beautifully. What we miss, however, are the theologians who argued for the closing of the commons and the value of impoverishment and suffering to redeem and refine the character of the poor. For instance, George Herbert’s 1652 text The Country Parson extols the virtues of “improvement” of both private land and of the souls of laborers forced to till it.

We also miss the theological protests of Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers, who, a century before Smith, mount theological arguments against the emerging market, the exploitation of labor, and the immiseration of the poor and argue for divinely ordained notions of communal property and shared ownership.

We further miss the theological constructions that justify slavery and allow it to serve as a central engine in the development of capitalism. While Friedman notes the nineteenth-century clerical economists’ varying positions on slavery and abolition, this acknowledgment appears more tangential to his exploration, precluding analysis of the profound imbrications of American religion with racialized economy that continue to this day.

In other words, there is a real and contentious theological construction of the market society well before Smith that will provide the material reality and fodder for his abstract theorizing. Of course, Friedman cannot include all history here, but I suggest that this important prehistory is of a piece with the ideas Smith develops and is discernible in the trajectories taken in the United States. Including this prehistory would also help remind us of the varied role of theology, used for and against markets and used to create both economic arrangements and the theories about them.

Having wrestled with the relation between religion and economics for the past 25 years now (and really for far too long), I have become persuaded that all theologies generate economics, and all economics contain implicit if not explicit theologies. What is unique or striking about a theological movement is not the fact that it issues in or shapes economic thought and practice. What is noteworthy is the constellation of theological ideas, political currents, cultural affinities, and economic factors that propel any particular assemblage into prominence and lead to its dissemination and enforcement. Ben Friedman has decisively shown how a discrete set of Protestant theological claims came to exert sway on the field of economics and on American economic thought and practice. He shows why understanding this religious background is essential to grasping the force and sway of these ideas, and may thus be relevant for their transformation, and for all this we are in his debt.


  1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Stephen Kalberg, rev., updated ed. (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. As Friedman concedes, his interests differ from Weber’s, since he is considering formal economic thought that emerges among the classical political economists, whereas Weber was sociologically and psychologically interested in economic activity among Protestant believers. There are certainly ways that the two works might be seen as complementary rather than contradictory.
  3. R. H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (Verso, 2015).
  4. Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton University Press, 1977).
  5. Ibid., 59-60.
  6. Benjamin M. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021), 262.
  7. Paul Oslington, Political Economy as Natural Theology: Smith, Malthus and Their Followers (Routledge, 2018); Lisa Hill, “The Hidden Theology of Adam Smith,” European Journal of History of Economic Thought 8, no. 1 (2001): 1–29.
  8. This is noteworthy because, at least on the surface, it would seem to help Friedman’s overall thesis about the importance of understanding Smith’s religious context if he were to side with interpreters who view some implicit theology at work in Smith here. But Friedman takes pains to argue that the uses are nontheological, and, I think more importantly, are varied depending on what work of Smith is in question.
  9. Charly Coleman, The Spirit of French Capitalism: Economic Theology in the Age of Enlightenment (Stanford University Press, 2021).
  10. Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019).
  11. Jacob Viner, The Role of Providence in the Social Order: An Essay in Intellectual History, Jayne Lectures for 1966, American Philosophical Society (Princeton University Press, 1972).
  12. Erik Peterson, “Monotheism as a Political Problem: A Contribution to the History of Political Theology in the Roman Empire,” in Theological Tractates, ed. Michael J. Hollerich (Stanford University Press, 2011). I elaborate on this view of Eusebius and other patristic thinkers in Devin Singh, Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford University Press, 2018).
  13. Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Rinehart, 1944); M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, updated ed. (University of California Press, 1999).
  14. Joel Kaye, A History of Balance, 1250–1375: The Emergence of a New Model of Equilibrium and Its Impact on Medieval Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
  15. See the important discussion in Stefan Schwarzkopf, “Markets and Marketization,” in The Routledge Handbook of Economic Theology, ed. Stefan Schwarzkopf (Routledge, 2020).
  16. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 48.

Devin Singh is Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College. His book Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford, 2018) examines the ways early Christian thinkers made use of monetary and economic concepts as they created Christian doctrine, and how this close relationship between theology and money has lent a sacred aura to economics as it developed in the West.

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