Praise the Lord (and Be Sure to Pass the Collection Plate)

Article excerpt

American Protestant churches are always asking for money. That hasn't changed for at least two centuries. But listen carefully to the fundraising appeals of yesteryear, and to the shifting rationales given over time, and what emerges is a seldom-heard story of how economic pressures have helped shape what it means to be faithful in our time.

This tale comes to light from the careful and thorough pen of James Hudnut-Beumler, a historian of American religion and dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. His new book, In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, connects the longevity of American Protestantism to anxious, often uncomfortable attempts to systematize the practice of voluntary giving. All this effort, he suggests, has spawned a distinctly American spirituality that links discipleship to check-writing.

"Paying for God" has been necessary in America ever since the Founding Fathers uncoupled church and state. In the first two centuries, European settlers in America relied on fees, licenses, and taxes to support their churches. But once these measures were no longer allowed, what took place, Hudnut-Beumler says, was "the largest instance of privatization in all of American history."

This change meant fresh freedom for religious institutions - but it also meant a changed relationship between churches and their congregants. Ever since, notes Hudnut-Beumler, "Religious people pay for God in the sense of paying to be in relation with God through religious institutions they support, and they sometimes pay for God as one might pay for lunch for a friend who is a bit short of money."

To keep congregations and themselves afloat, ministers began early in the 19th century developing how-to guides for inspiring benefactors and keeping them committed. Hudnut-Beumler's method puts a magnifying glass to this rarely studied subgenre of religious literature.

Though the discussion bogs down in primary source material at times, the thoroughness pays dividends in the form of colorful, telling quotations from each period. Shortly after the Civil War, for instance, author C.P. Jennings helped "reinvent the tithe." He and other clergy relied on verses in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Malachi to make a case for the tithe as a spiritual law.

"Every one owes the tythe to Jesus Christ," reads a Jennings quote. "Not less than one-tenth of a man's income will discharge the debt. …