As John R. Commons rose out of the 1890s to success in the twentieth century as an institutional economist, his thought evolved through several stages. Much is known about the last stages that include his ideas in his Legal Foundations of Capitalism and Institutional Economics. His beginnings, however, lie in darkness, partially illuminated by his autobiography, Myself , and the research of Dorfman [1949; 1965a; 1965b], Harter , and Mayhew . These works reveal inter alia that he then had strong religious convictions. Questions arise. When was the initial stage? Did his religions beliefs affect his economic thought? Did his ideas then make up a coherent whole? Is the initial stage significant: does it make more understandable the later stages of his thought?
This essay argues several theses. First, the initial stage ran from 1882 until 1894, a period when Commons entered the social gospel movement and became Richard T. Ely's disciple and protege. Second, Commons's social gospel principles were fundamental: they imparted coherence to his work, creating his social welfare criteria, leading him into Christian socialism and Christian sociology, affecting his political economy and causing it to attend to the role of institutions and the social relations they enforce, and, via all of the foregoing, determining his policy proposals and his plan to enact them. Third, this initial stage is significant, for it can explain his subsequent work from 1894 to 1899, and it can roughly account for parts of the post-1899 stages.
The essay begins by surveying the social gospel movement in the nation during the 1880s and 1890s. It then traces Commons's entry into this movement. Next it critically examines his social gospel principles and shows how they imparted coherence to the rest of his thought. After establishing 1894 as a closing date, the essay ends by considering the significance of this initial stage.
The Social Gospel Movement
The social gospel movement (hereafter SGM) was one aspect of social Christianity, a phase in the history of American Protestantism mainly during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.(1) Among the causes inspiring social Christianity were post-Civil War economic and political problems. As clerics and laymen saw it, industrialization had brought mammoth corporations wielding power over consumers and labor and government itself, riches amid poverty, strikes and violence manifesting a "labor problem," depressions, slums, vice, and corrupt politics in burgeoning cities. Conditions spurred some in the working class to desert a seemingly unconcerned church, stirred socialist sentiments, and engendered such best-sellers as Henry George's Progress and Poverty , a book with a religious halo [Nicklason 1970]. Social Christianity itself comprised those who sensed a crisis, sought a Christian solution, but who split into three wings.(2) The conservative wing believed that the social order was fundamentally sound and that regenerated individuals' actions could cure the problems [May 1949, 163-169]. The radical wing, led by the Rev. William D. P. Bliss, demanded gradual, democratic reforms leading to socialism [Hopkins 1940, 173-183; May 1949, 235-262]. Between the conservatives and radicals stood a moderate progressive wing known as the SGM [Hopkins 1940, 121-200; May 1949, 170-234].
The SGM flourished as a minority within American Protestantism between 1865 and 1915. Its protagonists during the 1880s and 1890s met and collaborated with Commons. They were the Rev. Washington Gladden, called the father of the social gospel, the Rev. Josiah Strong, author of the best-seller Our Country , the Rev. George D. Herron, who drifted to the radical wing in the later 1890s, and Richard T. Ely, "the most aggressive advocate of the social gospel during the eighties" [Hopkins 1940, 68, 88]. Inspiring their ideas were the post-Civil War political and economic problems but also developments internal to American Protestant theology: reacting against an apparently too individualistic and otherworldly theology, an American Protestant religious liberalism had been growing. It was greatly concerned with ethics and willing to accommodate science and secular social thought, including the ideas of evolution and of society as an organism that profoundly affects individuals.(3)
As argued by Gladden, Strong, and Ely, individuals have an interdependent body and soul, and the social environment so affects the mass of individuals as to virtually determine their moral character. Called the "doctrine of environment" by Ely [1894b, 153], it casts in doubt the ideas of freedom of will and individuals' responsibility for their own character. It elicited charges of heterodoxy. The doctrine teaches that both individuals and their environment must be saved. The protagonists accordingly wanted to reform individuals by preaching the gospel and also, as Gladden put it, to reform the political, the economic, and in fact every major part of society and so bring to pass the kingdom of God on earth [1893, 6, 19]. What social organization would be best? By the late 1880s and early 1890s, they came to guardedly favor a Christianized, non-Marxian, attenuated socialism [Hopkins 1940, 41, 67-78, 171]. To attain their objectives, they wanted policies based on social science. They turned to sociology, seeking an empirical and yet a Christian sociology. Could the political economy taught during the early 1880s be useful? Strong dismissed it as being immoral [1893, 129]. Gladden had serious reservations, but to Ely a "new," useful political economy could be developed to supersede the "old" one.
During the later 1880s and early 1890s, Ely was a luminary in the SGM and a clearinghouse, communicating with seemingly everyone. His Social Aspects of Christianity [1889b] popularized the social gospel message. His many works on the history, strengths, and weaknesses of socialism [1883; 1885; 1886b, chaps. 8, 11, 12; 1894b] informed his belief in a Christianized, non-Marxian socialism falling far short of what the radical wing wanted. Conversant with Lester F. Ward and others in the field of sociology, he joined with Strong, Herron, and others to found in 1893 the American Institute of Christian Sociology and in 1894 its newspaper, The Kingdom. He was an exponent and exemplar of the "new" political economy, being the author of The Labor Movement in America [1886b], textbooks [1889a; 1893], and a flood of articles describing political and economic conditions and calling for reforms.
Enter Commons: 1882-1894
Commons's entry into the SGM began at its earliest in 1882 when he experienced "salvation" [Commons 1934, 16]. His mother, "the strictest of Presbyterian Puritans" [Commons 1934, 8], an 1853 alumna of Oberlin College, and a crusader for abolition and temperance, had persuaded him to enter Oberlin, hoping he would become a minister.
Oberlin College, which is just southwest of Cleveland, Ohio, had a religious character and, in those times, "was an early collegiate center of the social gospel" [Smith 1969, 598].(4) Strong, of Cincinnati, was on Oberlin's Board of Trustees from 1881 to 1887 [Love 1960, Int. 57]. The need for social reform was popularized in the college. Invited speakers discussed it and among them was Gladden, of nearby Columbus, Ohio. In December 1885, Ely, billed as an authority on socialism, spoke on the labor union movement [Burtt 1885].
At Oberlin, Commons acquired a sympathy for labor unions as he worked in a printing shop to help with his expenses, and he developed himself as a future social reformer. As a freshman in 1882, he read George's Progress and Poverty, later helping to form a Henry George Club on the campus. Despite his mother's influence, he had chosen journalism, but an October 1886 article attacking Ely as a socialist caught his eye [Commons 1934, 40; Rader 1966, 68, 69]. He settled upon political economy. He studied it his senior year (1887-1888) under James Monroe, his first mentor. That same year, he was the editor-in-chief of the Oberlin Review, contributing numerous short pieces and two articles calling for reform [1888a; 1888c]. In an oratorical contest, he urged reforms to deal with arrogant oppressors, to end poverty and intemperance, and "to reform abuses, to lift the fallen, to check the haughty, to spread the spirit of love" [1888b].
Apparently eager to accept Ely's ideas, Commons sought him out as a teacher. Ely's "primary appeal as a teacher and an economist lay in his strong ethical commitments," and his teaching inspired a number of his students to enter the ministry [Rader 1966, 22, 23]. In Commons, Ely found a penniless, religious man concerned about reforming society and eager to work as a student and as a hired assistant. He led him into the Austrian, British classical, and German historical schools of economic thought and into his own "new" political economy. Later Commons recalled that his letters to his mother in 1888 "were flaming with enthusiasm over this 'new' political economy. . . . It was my tribute to her longing that I should become a minister of the Gospel" [1934, 44]. Ely hired him as an assistant, giving him diverse jobs on and off the campus. It was all too much. He failed in the doctoral program in 1890, began a teaching career, and that fall wrote to Ely: "I hope I may indeed be worthy of your friendship, for it is the most encouraging element in my work" [Commons 1890]. Thereafter, he corresponded steadily with Ely, exchanging ideas, asking about jobs, and requesting letters of recommendation and help to secure publishers.
His identity soon became evident. In October 1891, he urged social gospel themes upon a clerical audience in Cleveland [Commons 1891], later including the speech as a chapter in his Social Reform and the Church [1894f], a book Ely introduced. In November 1892, Commons, Gladden, and Strong spoke at an Evangelical Alliance meeting in Cincinnati [Commons 1892]. He was then a "Christian Socialist"; he knew Eugene Debs [1934, 150, 149], and he studied "Mazzini, the great Italian leader of Christian Socialism fifty years before" [1934, 51, 52]. In 1893, he collaborated with Ely, Strong, and Herron to found the American Institute of Christian Sociology; it was "to support an American version of what had been known in Europe as Christian Socialism" [1934, 51]. He became the secretary of the institute and the associate editor in charge of the "Department of Christian Sociology" of The Kingdom ["Prospectus" 1894]. In 1894, he directed the institute's meetings at Oberlin that featured Gladden and Strong as speakers ["Oberlin's Institute" 1894].
The Initial Stage of Commons's Thought
Because his social gospel principles were fundamental to his thought during this initial stage, they need to be known in some detail.
The Social Gospel According to Commons
Ely's social gospel interpretation of the Christian religion proclaimed a "Gospel of Humanity" that is "primarily concerned with this world" [Ely 1889b, 4, 5, 53, 57].(5) Commons agreed. He continued, paraphrasing Ely: one half of the Christian religion is theology and the other half is sociology [Commons 1894f, 19, 20]. And sociology itself is based "upon the sciences of biology" [Commons 1894f, 33]. The sociology of Ely and Commons attributes grave religious importance to political, legal, and economic institutions and …