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The Almighty Dollar: In Which God Do We Trust: Chapter 2 - America’s Exceptional Individualism

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This chapter seeks to identify the roots of middle class economic morality in America today.  To accomplish that task the author looks at a "wide range of economic, political and religious/philosophic influences in the formation of American society to understand today's predominant ethos toward wealth."

The Almighty Dollar: In Which God Do We Trust:
Chapter 2: America's Exceptional Individualism

The Frontier

What are the roots of middle class economic morality in America today?  We must look to a wide range of economic, political and religious/philosophic influences in the formation of American society to understand today's predominant ethos toward wealth.  Historian Frederick Turner's 1893 study of the frontiers impact on American character offers a valuable, if incomplete, perspective on how economic, political and religious factors merged in a uniquely American way.  Turner asserted that the agrarian frontier was fundamental in the formation of both economic abundance and the development of American character.  The frontier represented a place where four key factors presented themselves to American immigrants and settlers:  (1) "free" land lay available at the edge of "civilization", (2) a reduced role of institutions which meant increased stature of the individual, (3) a relatively simple lifestyle, and (4) democratic growth and change occurred constantly.  Turner saw these factors as nurturing the following qualities in American character:  coarseness, strength, practicality, restless energy and exuberance.  Perhaps above all the agrarian frontier encouraged a spirit of individualism along with an antipathy to control by others.[1]

Turner's frontier hypothesis has been critiqued by many, including mid-twentieth century historian David M. Potter.  Potter faults Turner for being "infatuated with agrarian democracy" and downplaying the effects of the industrial revolution.  Potter believes that other natural resources and technology were equally important along with "free" land as key building blocks for generating America's economic wealth.  Nevertheless, Potter agrees that American optimism and belief in progress are rooted in the hardships faced in frontier life and that American individualism draws important sustenance from the self-sufficiency required on the frontier.  With a broader definition of frontier to include science and technology frontiers, Potter asserts that vast numbers of Americans developed and embraced the "frontier" habits of fluidity, mobility, change and expectation of progress.  These attitudes in turn helped build the abundance, which has so characterized America's growth and development.[2]

Louis Hartz, a contemporary of Potter, identifies another factor that may help explain American attitudes to the frontiers they faced.  Borrowing from comments by Tocqueville, Hartz considers how, unlike Europe, Americans were "born free" in the sense they did not live under a feudal aristocracy--their ancestors, or they, themselves, having "fled from the feudal and clerical oppressions of the Old World."3  While financial and other corporate interests exploited many on the frontier, instead of seeing themselves as part of an exploited class, most frontiersman and many laborers embraced a liberal individualism that withered in many parts of 19th century Europe.

Religious scholars Bruce Birch and Larry Rasmussen echo many of the sentiments of Potter and, to some extent, Turner.  They outline seven sources of American affluence:  (1) a vast virgin continent, (2) low cost labor (desperate immigrants and slaves), (3) great stores of mineral wealth and fossil fuels, (4) relatively cheap national defense as a result of a "two-ocean moat", (5) a "free" late start on the industrial revolution, (6) agricultural advantage through technology and land, and (7) religious, economic and political doctrines that encouraged exploitation of nature and cultivated the competitive spirit.[4]

Underlying these sources was a frontier mentality that strongly influenced American character.  Unlike other societies, Birch & Rasmussen assert that frontiers have never been seen as limits by Americans, but more often as opportunities:  
for Americans in particular, frontier has meant virtually the opposite: not the stopping place, but the next starting place.  It has meant an invitation to conquest and control, and a challenge to expansion.  It has meant above all, not making do with what one had, but the acquiring of more--more land, more resources, more wealth, more room, more opportunities...[Americans] carry a deeply ingrained attitude of the unlimited.  More of most anything will always be available.  If it is not yet available, we will manage the future so that it will be. [5]

The combination of the frontier challenge and access to resources and technology mixed with a range of cultural assumptions that fostered a "secular religion and ethic that...bound together the most diverse" elements into a uniquely American view of life and progress.   Combining an infinite storehouse of resources with God's commission to control nature, Americans readily saw it as God's call to exploit resources to improve their standard of living.  Quality of life and betterment were achieved through expanded material abundance.  Effective problem solving and hard work could overcome any failures along the way.  Birch and Rasmussen identify these key sentiments of the emerging American ethos: (1)" the good life is one of productive labor and material well-being," (2)" the successful person is the achiever," (3) "both social progress and individual interest are best served by competitive, achievement-oriented behavior," (4) "a work ethic is essential to human satisfaction and social progress," (5)" the diligent, hardworking, and educated will attain their goals," and (6) "there is freedom in material abundance, when people have more, their freedom of choice is expanded and they can and will be more."[6]

In the very midst of its frontier period, the most famous of commentators on American character development, Alexis de Tocqueville, captured important themes of American society.  As Turner did a half-century later, Tocqueville noted how Americans exhibit such unusual doggedness in facing adversity:  
His reverses teach him that none have discovered absolute good; his success stimulates him to the never-ending pursuit of it.  Thus forever seeking, forever falling to rise again, often disappointed, but not discouraged, he tends unceasingly towards that unmeasured greatness so indistinctly visible at the end of the long track which humanity has yet to tread. [7]

He also captured the overriding practicality of American philosophy:[8]

The practice of Americans leads their minds . . . to fixing the standards of their judgment in themselves alone.  As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding...This disposition of mind soon leads them to condemn forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth. [9]

Most intriguing are his insightful observations on American religious thought and practice.  First he noted how "in the United States, religion is...mingled with all the habits of the nation and the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives a peculiar force."  Importantly he identifies how American clergymen have accommodated themselves to the concerns of current life:[10]
The American ministers of the Gospel do not attempt to draw or to fix all the thoughts of man upon the life to come; they are willing to surrender a portion of his heart to the cares of the present, seeming to consider the goods of this world as important, though secondary objects...they are at least interested in its [productive labor] progress and they applaud its results...they do not forbid him honestly to court prosperity in this [world].[11]

Further he identifies how Americans developed the principle of "self-interest rightly understood."  This philosophy of life "produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial.  By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command."[12]

Tocqueville believed this philosophy led Americans to a controlled view of religion.  When Americans do respond to matters of the heart, their heads are not far behind.  His experience of American ministers is that they have accommodated their preaching to this American reality:  
American preachers are constantly referring to the earth, and it is only with great difficulty that they can divert their attention from it....and it is often difficult to ascertain from their discourses whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this. [13]

The Religious Aspects of American Individualism
Tocqueville's comments on 19th century American preachers are more understandable if we consider not only the frontier fields in which they grew but also the religious roots from which they blossomed.  The Puritans brought to New England a strong dose of Calvinist convenantalism.  John Winthrop, lawyer and early lay leader among the Puritans, articulated the strict austerity of the first Puritans in America:
...we are entered into Covenant with him [God] for this work, we have taken out a Commission.  The Lord hath given us leave to draw our own Articles...but if we shall neglect the observance of these Articles which are the ends we have propounded, and dissembling with our God, shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnal intentions, seeking great things for ourselves and our posterity, the Lord will surely break out in wrath against us [and] be revenged of such a perjured people and make us know the price of the breach of such a Covenant. [14]

But as their colonies grew and prospered, the Calvinism of the Puritans evolved into a Protestant work ethic that likely would have baffled John Calvin.[15]  The words of William Bradford, early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, illustrates how soon religious sanction was given to economic gain:  "If God show you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another way, without wrong to your soul or to any other, if you refuse this and choose the less gainful, you cross one of the ends of your Calling and refuse to be God's steward."[16]   Reinhold Niebuhr sees this reversal in the church/state view of economic activity as foundational for American religion:  
The religious sanction of material gain was a new thing in history and undoubtedly helped to fashion the moral temper of modern society in which diligence is the great virtue and greed the besetting vice.  It is the puritan heritage of America which gives a clew to the paradox of our national life.  It explains how we can be at the same time the most religious and the most materialistic of all modern nations. [17]

Reinhold Niebuhr's brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, outlines three important modifications to Calvin's original doctrines that gave rise to what became American Calvinism.  First as commercial interests became the main supporters of the church, the individualism of the commercial classes became increasingly important in Calvinist thinking.  Second the authority of the church was, at least partially, replaced by the authority of individual conscience and Calvin's strict application of social ethics was relaxed.  Indeed the ethics of economics were largely removed from religious consideration.[18] Third increasing affluence inspired greater self-respect as Calvinism became more middle class.  The doctrine of God's sovereignty over all lost some value relative to man's sovereignty over nature.  Progress came from man's conquest of nature and the application of human reason.  Niebuhr quotes Dowden to capture this dramatic change:  "it is highly desirable to supplement Divine providence by self-help."[19]

Pietism was another important religious influence on American Protestantism.  Pietism, which found a welcome home in much of American Protestantism, stressed the personal experience as central to one's faith.  In reaction to doctrinaire Lutheranism and Calvinism, John Wesley emphasized "one's living relationship with a personal God." Not stressed was direct systemic alteration.  Religion had to do with persons and their inner lives and not with institutions and their interactions.[20]

Congregational theologian Jonathan Edwards, one of the best-known 18th century evangelists in America, helped lay the foundation for the great evangelical revival of that century and those that followed in the nineteenth century through his writing and preaching.  The movements emanating from the work of Wesley and Edwards reflected the growing individualism of American society.  Combining the subjectivist religion of Pietism and the great revivals with individualism led to a strong privatizing of religion.

Birch and Rasmussen identify three additional factors, which influenced the development of American individualism.  First, Adam Smith's concept of the "invisible hand" was interpreted to support a capitalistic individualism based on narrow self-interest.  Second, Social Darwinism mixed in a "survival of the fittest" philosophy.  Third, Anglo-Saxon utilitarianism helped lead an ethos of "unrestrained pursuit of individual happiness or self-fulfillment, even when the cost to self and others is high.  In the United State today, even religion is construed as a means to individual happiness.  If it helps use it.  If it doesn't, turn elsewhere."[21]

Birch and Rasmussen point out how these factors led to a redefinition of the traditional Protestant work ethic in 18th and 19th century America.  First, the frugal, simple life-styles of traditional Calvinistic deferred pleasures were abandoned.  Second, "prosperity as such became a sign of divine favor" and prominent religious leaders proclaimed a gospel of wealth.  (e.g. Episcopal bishop William Lawrence.)  Third, poverty itself replaced idleness as "the clear mark of moral depravity and moral failure."[22]

The religious historian Mark Noll has edited an intriguing collection of studies about the formation of American Protestant attitudes to money and markets in the period from 1790 to 1860 that help clarify this redefined Protestant ethic.  Noll believes that Protestants nominally remained rooted in the traditional Christian virtues regarding economics--namely that humans are stewards of wealth owned by God; there is danger in the love of money; and Christians have a duty to be benevolent.  That said, Protestants generally strong commitment to disestablishmentarianism and pietism began a process of separating life into distinct spheres: "in practice their pietism drove them to functional division of life into a scared sphere, which received comprehensive and self-conscious attention, and a secular sphere which did not."  Accordingly, early 19th century Protestants came to believe that transformation came through personal revival, not through changing the structures of society that "increased the likelihood that dimensions of society they now neglected would influence them unselfconsciously."[23]

Richard Pointer offers a paradigmatic example in his study of Philadelphia Presbyterians in the second quarter of the 19th century.  In the face of economic growth and business success, "New School" Presbyterians such as Albert Barnes "emphasized individual human freedom and responsibility in attaining salvation, a view consonant with a market economy predicated on individual acquisitiveness."  At the same time, Barnes, like his "Old School" Presbyterian counterparts, decried "Americans' unrestrained passion for wealth" especially as promoted in get-rich-quick schemes.  Philadelphia's Presbyterians remained rooted in the Franklin-like virtues of the Protestant work ethic--work and self-discipline, frugality and economy, honesty and benevolence as the true path to economic success.[24]

However by 1825, Presbyterian preachers, whether trained at Princeton, Union or Jefferson seminaries, were students of a moral philosophy that taught "the universe operated according to a divinely established moral law...[and] God's moral ordering of the universe included making both individual success and social prosperity dependent on virtue."  The implications for personal responsibility and control were profound:  "If personal success and national prosperity depended on human virtue, human beings were on their own to determine the earthly fate within the bounds of the moral law."[25]

There were numerous tensions emanating from this philosophy as it intertwined with traditional Christian virtues.  In the face of economic ambition and success, Presbyterian pastors simultaneously portrayed economic gain as legitimate while cautioning against immoral zeal in seeking it.  Presbyterians heard a decidedly mixed message according to Pointer:  "A life of Christian discipline kept people from conforming to America's current passion for wealth, but at the same time it heightened their likelihood of reaping large earthly rewards."[26]

Looking at more than 130 Protestant publications in the period, Noll concludes that Protestants were comfortable in simultaneously supporting traditional Christian views on money and stewardship while also embracing prosperity views of the gospel:  "Protestants regularly, consistently, and without sense of contradiction both enunciated traditional Christian exhortations about careful financial stewardship and simply took for granted the workings of an expanding commercial society."  Gaining wealth was perfectly acceptable to God, as long as it was used appropriately.  In sum, Protestant writings from this period show that religious words about money were used in a variety of contradictory ways including to "regularize, excuse, dignify, mystify, ennoble, and occasionally resist the workings of an expanding market capitalism."[27]

New Thought Theologies

At about the same time, New Thought theologies began to bloom in the diverse seedbed of America's religious soil.  In 1840, Phineas Quimby, inventor and hypnotist, advanced the idea of using the mind to cure the body.  His students added more explicitly Christian components in exploring the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds.  Warren Felt Evans, a Methodist minister published The Divine Law of Cure in 1886 calling for a union of science and religion.  A student of world religions, Evans, felt that all great religious leaders, from Confucius to Buddha to Zoroaster, and most completely in Jesus the Christ, exemplified the union of intellect with religious fervor. Embracing the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds and as a firm believer in the ability of individuals to tap the divine to effect change in their lives including finding health and wellness, Evans saw Jesus' ministry to the sick as evidence of "the spiritual origin of disease" and of God's power to cure our seemingly physical diseases:
Where intellect and love are harmoniously united and blended, and act in perfect concordance, the resulting product is spiritual power...In God there is a perpetual conatus, an irrepressible endeavor, an unchangeable willingness to heal our diseases of mind and body.  In all our struggles against every morbid condition, within and without, we can, with unerring certainty, count upon God. [28]

Another student of Quimby's, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science church in 1879 in Boston, Massachusetts.  Baker Eddy's religious movement was based on the belief that "tuning into God's inner-dwelling presence and achieving oneness with his spirit restored health and well being."[29]  Baker Eddy gained followers and her church grew rapidly until the time of her death in 1910.  Like Evans, Baker Eddy embraced the union of science and religion, and affirmed the infinity of divine love, and the power of the mind to overcome sin and disease:
the sympathy of His eternal Mind is fully expressed in Divine Science, which blots out all our iniquities and heals all our diseases...Science supports harmony, denies suffering, and destroys it with sympathy of Truth.  Whatever seems material, seems thus only to the material senses, and is but the subjective state of mortal and material thought. [30]

H. Richard Niebuhr sees New Thought as growing out of Unitarianism and transcendental meditation practice of the early 19th century and embodied a "lift-yourself-by-the-bootstraps" mentality.  Niebuhr outlines how New Thought replaced the conflicts of sick souls with the struggles of sick minds and sick bodies.  The problem of evil was replaced by the sweet benevolence of God.  Niebuhr sees Christian Science and New Thought as religions "of a bourgeoisie whose conflicts are over and which has passed into the quiet waters of assured income and established social standing."  Furthermore, he notes how New Thought and Christian Science presented a "gospel of self-help [that] has excluded all remnants of that belief which formed the foundation of Puritan heroism."[31] We will see how the New Thought schools of theology and related offspring joined with American Calvinism and the American frontier spirit to become a foundation for late 20th century purveyors of the prosperity gospel movement.

[1] David M. Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1954), 142-154.
[2] Potter, 155-165.
[3] Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955), 3.
[4] Bruce C. Birch and Larry L. Rasmussen, The Predicament of the Prosperous (The Westminster Press, 1978), 31-32.
[5] Ibid., 21.
[6] Birch and Rasmussen, 45.
[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Part the Second, The Social Influence of Democracy, trans. Henry Reeve (1840) as revised by Francis Bowen, further corrected and edited by Phillips Bradley, (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1945), 34.
[8] Tocqueville was not the only foreign visitor to observe this practicality.  For example in 1842, Charles Dickens noted Americans' strong commitment to commercial activity:  "healthful amusements, cheerful means of recreation and wholesome fancies must fade before the stern utilitarian joys of trade," Mark A. Noll, introduction to God and Mammon: Protestants, Money and the Market, 1790-1860, ed. Mark A. Noll (Oxford University Press, 2002), 3.
[9] Tocqueville, 4.
[10] "In America, every clergyman may be said to do business on his own account, and under his own firm.  He alone is responsible for any deficiency in the discharge of his office, as hi is alone entitled to all the credit due to his exertions.  He always acts as principal and is therefore more anxious and will make greater efforts to obtain popularity, than one who serves for wages," Noll, God and Mammon, 4.  These comments by the Austrian Francis Grund during a visit in the 1830s illustrate that other European visitors identified the business like attitude of American clergy.
[11] Tocqueville, 6, 27.
[12] Ibid., 123.
[13] Tocqueville, 127.
[14] Edwin S. Gaustad and Mark A Noll, eds., A Documentary History of Religion in America: To 1877, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 69.
[15] Calvin himself was very distrustful of wealth, and he set a strict moral code for his followers and established a very hierarchical church-controlled society in Geneva.
[16] Reinhold Niebuhr, 102.
[17] Ibid., 103.
[18] Birch and Rasmussen, 50.  They identify a similar process of secularization unfolding in American life as "different arenas of life came to have lives of their own, with their own dynamics, meanings and even value systems."
[19] H. Richard Niebuhr, 101-104.
[20]  Birch and Rasmussen, 49.
[21] Birch and Rasmussen, 52.
[22] "No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault--unless it be his sin," Ibid., 53. This quote by Henry Ward Beecher amplifies the changing attitudes toward poverty.
[23] Mark A. Noll, "Protestant Reasoning about Money and the Economy, 1790-1860: A Preliminary Probe," in Noll, 270.
[24] Richard W. Pointer, "Philadelphia Presbyterians, Capitalism, and the Morality of Economic Success," in Noll, 172, 175.
[25] Ibid., 179.
[26] Pointer, 183.
[27] Noll, 271, 281.
[28] Edwin S. Gaustad and Mark A Noll, eds., A Documentary History of Religion in America: since 1877, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), 230, 232.
[29] Stephanie Mitchem, Name It and Claim It? Prosperity Preaching in the Black Church  (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007), 52.
[30] Gaustad and Noll, Since 1877, 237.
[31]  H. Richard Niebuhr, 105.

Table of Contents:



Chapter 1:  A Revolution in Attitudes Toward Prosperity & Wealth
  The Moral and Economic Philosophy of Adam Smith
  Weber and Tawney on Religion and Economics

Chapter 2 - America's Exceptional Individualism
  The Frontier
  The Religious Aspects of American Individualism
  New Thought Theologies

Chapter 3 - Evolution of the Protestant Ethic in 20th Century America      
  The Gospel of Success
  Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Theologies
  The Prosperity Gospel Today
  Related Ethical Defenses of Wealth Accumulation
  The Reach of Wealth Accumulation Defenses

Chapter 4: Toward Developing A 21st Century Faith & Money Ethic
  Introduction and an Historical Note
  Challenging the Spirituality of Accumulation
  Biblical Perspectives on Reuniting Faith and Money
  Ministries for Transforming Our Relationship with Money


Appendix: Faith and Money Resources


A M.A. thesis submitted in candidacy for the degree of Master of Arts in Religion and Theology
Copyright ښ 2008 by Michael Troutman} , 3156 Elliot Av
Minneapolis, MN 55407 - 612-822-6059
[Michael Troutman} , 3156 Elliot Av
Minneapolis, MN 55407 - 612-822-6059

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