Merchants and Ministers: A Review

Schmiesing, Kevin. Merchants and Ministers: A History of Businesspeople and Clergy in the United States. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017. 248 pp. $105.00.

The story this book tells will be unfamiliar to many readers. The role of business in the development of American history is a contested one, and robber barons and Wall Street tycoons often feature as villains. This is a book in which they do not make their entrance with the presumption of villainy, and in which they and the clergy—usually not villains either—by and large get along. Or, even when they don’t, the reasons why are complex and nuanced.

Schmiesing is a Fellow of the Acton Institute, and he lays his cards on the table at the beginning by showing his awareness of the narrative he is trying to complicate: “Must leaders of commerce and leaders of clergy always be at loggerheads? Are their fundamental motives and ways of life so divergent that peaceful cooperation must ever remain an unattainable ideal?” (1)  Schmiesing’s answer to that is a “qualified no,” and he spends the rest of the book explaining why. While allowing for problems of definition (who counts as a businessman? who counts as a clergyperson?), it otherwise attempts to be a straightforward story throughout the eras of U.S. history of the relationship between the two. Schmiesing tells his story not through sweeping generalizations or systematic sociological studies, but through tales of the “innumerable individual relationships” (2) of clergy and businesspeople in specific situations.

Schmiesing divides his narrative into seven parts: colonial, revolutionary, antebellum, Gilded Age, Progressive era, mid-20th century, and post-1960 reflections. Separating out the Gilded Age and Progressive Era from each other seems a bit odd, but Schmiesing knows that the polarizing tendencies he wants to critique are in many ways rooted in this brief period between 1870 and 1920, and he wants to cover the ground carefully. Quite refreshingly, he discusses both Protestant and Catholic clergy and businesspeople.

The individual stories within chapters are often fascinating, displaying the complications and reversals and negotiations of relationships between real people. Let one serve as an example, the story of the friendship between railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and Methodist pastor Charles Deems (111), which developed because Deems was pastor to Vanderbilt’s wife.  Vanderbilt insisted on giving Deems a church (the Church of the Strangers in New York); Deems said he would accept it in the name of the “Lord Jesus Christ,” but Vanderbilt said as an unbeliever he would only give it just as a gift between friends. Deems said he would accept it in the name of Christ and that it should be owned by trustees, but Vanderbilt protested “You hammer away at some of them fellows about their sins and they’ll turn around and bedevil you so that you will have to quit. I’m going to give it to you myself” (111). Their friendship eventually led to Vanderbilt giving the money to build the university that bears his name.

The book has hundreds of stories like these, and will introduce readers to many people they did not know previously, and show them more famous figures in a new light. It may not totally convince of its thesis, but it will at least give believers in other hypotheses new evidence to chew on. Its bibliography is a very good introduction to historical literature on business and religion and the relationship between the two.

I have some reservations about the work. The first is that it would have been extremely helpful for Schmiesing to also consider rehearsing and dispelling stereotypes about Jewish businesspeople and Jewish religious leaders against the background he depicts. The second is that issues related to women and business play a very minor role in the book, despite the existence of female entrepreneurs and debates about women’s appropriate roles in the market in all the eras he discusses. The last is the uneasy role of African-Americans in the book. Schmiesing’s approach requires him to use a mainly economic lens to discuss slavery and civil rights. While this is often illuminating (a major civil rights weapon, after all, was the economic boycott, as he notes), I am not sure we are ready to talk quite so dispassionately about these aspects of American history yet.   

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