19th Century Social Gospel Against Wealth Accumulation: “an anti-Christian phenomenon, a social monstrosity, and a grave political peril.”

“In a really Christian country—that is to say, in a community reconstructed upon a Christian basis—a millionaire would be an economic impossibility. Jesus Christ distinctly prohibited the accumulation of wealth. I know that expositors can prove anything, and that theologians can explain away anything. But if ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth’ does not forbid the accumulation of wealth, the New Testament was written on Talleyrand’s principle and was intended to ‘conceal thought.’”
~ Hugh Price Hughes

“More About Trusts” by R. L. Ragland
The Henderson Gold Leaf, May 14, 1891

The Rev. Mr. Kaufman says, “in Europe the desperation of the poor is fast driving men into atheism.” In the United States, says Professor R. T. Ely, “the methods of millinoaires are alienating wage-workers from Christianity.” “They cannot,” says Cardinal Gibbons, “reconcile Godliness with greed; and one sanctimonious miserly millionaire in a community works more deadly harm to Christianity than a dozen isolated cases of burglary or drunkenness.”

“Irresponsible Wealth” by Hugh Price Hughes
The Twentieth Century, Vol. XXVIII, No. 166, July-December 1890

MR. GLADSTONE has rendered an immense public service by calling attention to the ethical issues involved in the accumulation and possession of wealth. He is one of the very small number of persons who have the ear of the entire English-speaking world, and he could not use that awful gift more usefully than by raising the discussion contained in the last issue of this Review. The Social Question, as the Prime Minister of Italy recently stated, is rapidly superseding every other, even the question of nationalities, which in the days of our fathers changed the face of Europe. The astonishing action of the German Emperor in convoking an International Labour Congress at Berlin indicates that we have entered upon a new era, in which the equitable distribution of wealth will determine the fate of dynasties and peoples. The way in which at this moment bishops and actors, Quakers and atheists, princes and journalists are blessing and backing General Booth is an unprecedented sign of the times. Sir William Harcourt is right: ‘We are all Socialists now.’ But what does that mean? It means that we are all, consciously or unconsciously, taking to heart, as never before, the social problems involved in the use and abuse of money. The portentous growth of organised and revolutionary socialism in Germany, the vast popularity of the writings of Mr. Henry George and Mr. Edward Bellamy, the sudden widespread demand for an Eight Hours Bill in this country, the marked success of Socialistic plays on the modern stage, the growing contempt for the old individualistic political economy, and the changed attitude of the Christian pulpit, as illustrated by Bishop Westcott, Bishop How, Cardinal Manning, Dr. Clifford and others, all point in one direction. The terrible struggles between labour and capital, with the appalling prospect of world-embracing organisation on both sides, are the darker aspects of an irresistible tendency. Now at the bottom of all this ferment of the public mind, which in some directions has worked calamitous bitterness, lies the question which Mr. Gladstone invites the wealthy to discuss. It is of transcendent importance. It is, for this generation, the question of questions. I greatly regret that ceaseless activity in all parts of the country, while it doubtless forces this issue on my constant attention, and in some degree enables me to speak about it, at the same time makes it impossible for me to choose the ‘picked and packed words ’ in which I should like to discuss it. I have no time either to look up authorities or to collect impressive illustrations. I must write, if I write at all, currente calamo, but the substance of the ‘comment ’ you invite is the fruit of a quarter of a century of observation and reflection.

I am quite unable to let off Mr. Carnegie in the pleasant and approving way in which Mr. Gladstone dismisses him. I have always believed that Mr. Carnegie is personally a most estimable and generous man, who sets a splendid example to the unhappy class to which he belongs, and is entirely worthy of Mr. Gladstone’s hearty praise. But when I contemplate him as the representative of a particular class of millionaires, I am forced to say, with all personal respect, and without holding him in the least responsible for his unfortunate circumstances, that he is an anti-Christian phenomenon, a social monstrosity, and a grave political peril. Mr. Gladstone tells us that Mr. Carnegie is of opinion that ‘ rank, as it exists among us, is a widely demoralising power.” I am bound to say that an American millionaire ironmaster, the artificial product of such measures as the McKinley Bill, is a far greater ‘demoralising power.’ In a really Christian country—that is to say, in a community reconstructed upon a Christian basis—a millionaire would be an economic impossibility. Jesus Christ distinctly prohibited the accumulation of wealth. I know that expositors can prove anything, and that theologians can explain away anything. But if ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth”1 does not forbid the accumulation of wealth, the New Testament was written on Talleyrand’s principle and was intended to ‘conceal thought.’ No one now argues that millionaires are needed to carry out great public works like the Bridgewater Canal, because modern joint-stock enterprise, and the ever-increasing activity of the State, make us entirely independent of millionaires, and, indeed, capable of enterprises which no millionaire could attempt. They have now no beneficent raison d’étre. They are the unnatural product of artificial social regulations. They flourish portentously in the unhealthy forcing house of Protection, but everything else fades and dies beside them. We prefer the fresh air. Millionaires at one end of the scale involve paupers at the other end, and Hen so excellent a man as Mr. Carnegie is too dear at that price. Whatever may be thought of Mr. Henry George’s doctrines and deductions, no one can deny that his facts are indisputable, and that Mr. Carnegie’s ‘progress’ is accompanied by the growing ‘ poverty’ of his less fortunate fellow countrymen. I say ‘ less fortunate ’ because I am sure Mr. Carnegie is much too sensible a man to suppose for a moment that his vast fortune represents a proportionate superiority over the rest of his fellow citizens, or even over those who combined to create his fortune. Thanks to unrestricted competition and the tariff, he has pocketed much more than his equitable share of the joint product of Labour and Capital. If he thinks that he has made this great pile, so to speak, off his own bat, let him set up business on a solitary island, and see how much he can net annually without the co-operation of ‘ his twenty thousand men ’ and the ceaseless bounties of the vanishing Republican majority in Congress.

In no sense whatever is a Pennsylvanian millionaire ironmaster a natural, and therefore an inevitable, product. There is a total fallacy at the very foundation of Mr. Carnegie’s argument. He assumes that millionaires are necessary results of modern industrial enterprise, and that consequently the only question ethical writers can discuss is the best way of enabling these unfortunate persons to get honestly and beneficently rid of their superfluous wealth. But there is a much more important prior question—how to save them from the calamity of finding themselves the possessors of a huge fortune which is full of most perilous temptation, both to themselves and to their children. I think it was in this Review that I read a characteristic and admirable article by the late Matthew Arnold, in which that great writer declared England needed nothing so much as a more widespread distribution of wealth, and traced the social comfort and refinement of France to the legislation which compelled owners of property to distribute their wealth in almost equal proportions among their children. I am greatly surprised that Mr. Glad stone quotes, without demur or protest, Mr. Carnegie’s extraordinary delusion that he is a ‘ normal process,’ ‘an imperative condition,’ and an ‘ essential condition of modern society.’ Nothing of the sort. Free trade, free land, and a progressive income tax would relieve him of the greater part of his anxious financial responsibilities, and such a death-duty as he himself wisely advocates would complete the emancipation of his children. We must not for a moment forget that all the evils of excessive wealth which Mr. Carnegie laments, and from which he nobly desires to protect his children, are artificial and not necessary evils. Indeed, the number of ‘ necessary evils ’ in this world is very much smaller than is commonly supposed, and all human progress consists in practical illustrations of that fact. Mr. Gladstone reminds us that Moses was an ‘adversary of the accumulation of wealth;’ and even modern economists would lose nothing by a careful study of the drastic legislation by which Moses tried to prevent the manufacture of Jewish millionaires. I admit that the modern representatives of that great law giver have not lived up to the ideal he set before them; but that is doubtless the result of Gentile corruption. No thoughtful persons from Moses and Lycurgus to Matthew Arnold and Edward Bellamy have ever constructed an ideal state without trying to provide against that accumulation of wealth which our Saviour prohibits. Some wealthy persons who read these sentiments may feel very angry, and may imagine that they spring from envy or ill-will. But they are themselves the chief victims of the artificial social arrangements which have generated them. One of the most interesting and instructive books Mr. Herbert Spencer has written is his Study of Sociology, and one of the wisest passages in that book is his exposure of the sad delusion of those who imagine that their great wealth is a great blessing. His words are so striking and so pertinent that I must quote them. […]

Christian casuists have long argued and differed with respect to the standard which we should put at once before the unbelieving. I confess that I am always inclined to believe that, in a country where Christianity has been preached for a thousand years, the highest standard is really the easiest and the best. Let us tell all men frankly, on the authority of Jesus Christ, that they really possess nothing, that they are not owners but trustees, and that for every penny that ever passes through their hands they will have to give a minute and exact account, not to a harsh and unreasonable judge, but to One who wishes them to enjoy richly what He has lent to them; but, at the same time, will not overlook a gross neglect of their duty to their neighbour. The real question is, not how much we ought to give away, but how much we dare retain for our own personal gratification. I argue for no unnatural asceticism. That is inconsistent with the bounty of Nature, and with the sacred instinct of Beauty, which God has planted within us. But it is astonishing how little we need, after all, for the culture and development of all that is best in our complex nature; especially when the municipality and the State provide the ‘ free library ’ and the other institutions for which we have hitherto looked to such amiable and benevolent millionaires as Mr. Carnegie. The Christian pulpit has grossly neglected its duty in relation to Mammonism, or the love of money. I have never heard of a rich man being excommunicated because he was too fond of his money-bags, although that sin is as severely condemned in the New Testament as drunkenness or adultery. By all means let us all co-operate with Mr. Gladstone in starting another society. But I am disposed to think that he must look mainly to the Christian pulpit to make the best of the transition period be tween ‘ the cruelty and waste of irresponsible competition and the licentious use of wealth,’ which have disgraced the nineteenth century, and the Golden Age when no man will have too little, because no man will have too much.

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