R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 1926.



Purpose of the Book

  • to analyse religious thought in relation to economic developments between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries
    • how did the church interact with, or respond to, the economic sphere of life?
    • how did change in religious thought (especially the Reformation) affect economic developments in Europe?
    • how did economic change affect religious thought?
  • Tawney’s primary concern is to demonstrate the church’s strong history of economic thinking, and explain why this is so weak in the modern era.


The Mediaeval Church (c. Twelfth to fifteenth centuries)

  • the whole of society was as a single organism – a body, as in 1 Cor 13 - which worked together to serve a purpose: the building up of each of its members into loving communion with God and with each other
  • the whole of social, economic and political life was therefore seen as coming under the teaching of the church; it would have been considered an absurdity that there were some realms of human activity that should be separate or exempt from Christian teaching
  • Business, commerce and trade (the money-making professions) were tolerated as a necessary part of human organisation, but viewed with great suspicion .
  • it put enormous effort into the development of “economic casuistry” to try to deal with all the practical difficulties of defining legitimate and illegitimate economic behaviour:
    • a theory of just price (pp.52-53)
    • The church maintained strong prohibitions of usury (the charging of interest):
  • However the Mediaeval Church’s application of Christian teaching to social and economic affairs had some huge blindspots … (pp.65-71)


The Protestant Reformation (Sixteenth century)

  • occurred within the context of an explosion of economic expansion in Europe – the birth of capitalism.
  • the intial reformers were just a strong as the Catholic Church in their views on economic life.
  • Luther had a agrarian mediaeval view of society, and took a stronger and more rigid view than the Catholic Church
  • Calvin came from an urban, commercial context. Calvinism no longer held the same suspicion and caution of economic activities and motives; these things were merely accepted as a necessary part of life.
  • Calvin still insisted very strongly on Christian economic disciplines, but from a different basis:
    • Calvin did not consider the acquisition of wealth from business a sin, but rather than ostentatious display and waste of wealth; Calvinism made a virtue of hard work, discipline, thrift, sobriety and piety.
    • Calvin considered the taking of interest as a natural and necessary part of commercial life. Nevertheless, he put strict conditions on it which today would make him seem anti-business (p.106).
  • The original reformers insisted that Christian teaching logically included the spheres of economic life. However the Protestant Reformation opened the gate for the later retreat through its weakening of the authority of the church, its religious individualism, and its disdain for earthly matters.


The Church of England (Sixteenth & seventeenth centuries)

  • England at the time or the Reformation was undergoind a transformation of land use and tenure from a feudal to a commercial basis – the result was a flurry of buying and selling land, rising prices, rising rents, an impoverished and/or landless peasantry, and the conversion of arable land to pasture for wool exports.
  • This movement was stringently opposed by some powerful churchmen within the CofE (Latimer, Crowley, Laud). The social teaching of these leaders was still drawn directly from the work of mediaeval scholars.They were shocked by the growing misery amongst the lower classes, and the rise in unlimited pursuit of personal wealth by the powerful.
  • With the Reformation, the CofE virtually became an arm of the State. Bishops used positions within government to try to prevent some of the alarming social changes underway, through legislation, Royal Commissions and prosecution in “ecclessiastical” courts.
  • However the horse had bolted. Economic change had become much more widespread and complex than these religious men understood – they were able to make strong denunciations of its injustice, but were unable to make any practical formulations against it. The world had changed radically, while they continued to repeat teaching which addressed the circumstances of a couple of centuries earlier: “Their practical ineffectiveness prepared the way for their theoretical abandonment. They were abandoned because, on the whole, they deserved to be abandoned. The social teaching of the Church had ceased to count, because the Church itself had ceased to think.” (p.171)
  • Meanwhile the effects of the protestant reformation, the rise in economic individualism and the development of secular philosophy (the “Enlightenment”) meant that large numbers of people, especially the better off, were increasingly resenting the Church’s attempts to interfere in economic and political matters, especially through the role of ecclessiastical courts.


The Puritans (Seventeenth & eighteenth centuries)

  • The Puritans were the product of a couple of generations of Calvinism in England. They were primarily a phenomenon of the new, independent and proud middle classes. They made an astonishing rise to power in the seventeenth century, dominating parliament and then executing the King and establishing a republic for a decade under Oliver Cromwell.
  • Like Calvin, the early Puritans believed strongly in the application of Christian morals to economic disciplines, and even developed some of their own “economic casuistry”. (pp.198-202)
  • However ultimately the latent currents of individualism within Puritanism, mixed by the growing commercial opportunity of the seventeenth century grew to push aside such concerns
  • Puritanism came to idolise hard work and ascetic moderation, while distrusting charity and “good works”, factors which all combined to make for success within the business world – the focus on personal faith and piety led to a loss of all sense of social obligation
  • with this view came a “new medicine for poverty” – the only solution to poverty was industrious labour, and the vice idleness was its chief enemey. Under this view the poor then largely came to be blamed for the poverty as a result of their ideless and other social vices – thus charity to the poor came to be seen as supporting sinfulness, and therefore something to be condemned.
  • By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Puritan influence had achieved complete dominance English religious and political affairs which lasted for two hundred years – the church willingly gave up its right to speak on any affairs other than the spiritual matters of the heart


Points of Significance

  • the development of economic “casuistry:”
  • the strong stance of the CofE but its ultimate failure due to lack of practical relevance & its association with secular power
  • the spiritual factors behind economic outlook