The Christianization of Usury in Early Modern Europe
Valeri, Mark, Interpretation
In the early seventeenth century, the beginning of Europe's commercial revolution forced reconsiderations of the use of credit in long-distance trade. Unlike their Catholic competitors, Protestant regimes depended on the exchange of paper securities and other credit instruments. Protestant moralists developed rationalizations for usury as a concerted effort to protect the Protestant interest in the context of imperial warfare and colonial settlement. By the end of the seventeenth century, these moralists had made modern, market-oriented conceptions of usury commonplace in the Christian West.
In 1611, the chaplain to the Lord High Chancellor of England, also a member of the committee that produced the King James Bible that same year, completed a lengthy study of usury. Roger Fenton's A Treatise of U surie became an authority for Anglican and Puritan readers alike. Fenton began with a complaint - Londoners practiced usury at every point in business. Wildly mixing metaphors from England's woolen industry, nascent manufacturing, and a newly fashionable taste for watches, Fenton asserted that usury was ". . . so woven and twisted into every trade and commerce, one moving another, by this engine, like wheels in a docke, that it seemefh the very frame and course of traffick must needes be altered before this can be reformed."1 Given its importance to all facets of trade, Fenton argued, usury ought not to be analyzed as merdy a technicality of interest rates, loan contracts, and investment fees. It ought to be condemned wholesale and unequivocally as the rot at the core of England's economic corruption.
Fenton compiled one text upon another to the same effect any lending for profit, any use of credit as a commodity, any fees or interest attached to any loans whatsoever, amounted to sin. The standard scriptural passages - from Exod 22, Lev 25, Deut 23, Ps 15, and Ezek 18 - said so. Ancient moralists and the Patristic authorities confirmed the point Moreover, the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation all condemned usury out of hand: Luther and Melanchrhon, Calvin and Bucer, Junius and ZanchL Fenton dwelled on Calvin, who blasted Frendi merchants for creating complicated measures to profit from loans, yet avoided the technical term "usury." By Fenton's reading, Calvin áecned usury as undvil, inhumane, and obnoxious. Case closed.2
Some eighty years after Fenton's pronouncements, an even more popular and more widdy published Anglican divine, Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson, preached several sermons on Christian calling, or economic vocation. Like Fenton, Tillotson warned against avarice and covetousness. Yet, quite unlike his predecessor, the archbishop had nothing unkind to say about usury. Tillotson dismissed OT prohibitions against die practice, explaining that they applied only to primitive agricultural economies. He urged London's merchants to use any profitable tactic as long as they minded dieir manners and kept their hearts pure. Tillotson was not alone. Other Anglican moralists in London, Dutch reformed ministers in Amsterdam, French Calvinist pastors in exile, and Puritan preachers in Boston all had come to the same conclusion by die last decade of the seventeenth century. Usury no longer deserved to be called a sin.3
AN ECONOMIC REVOLUTION
Fentoris and Tillotson's writings suggest two opening observations on the history of Christian teaching about usury. First, few topics aroused such extensive debate from the mid-sixteenth through die seventeendi centuries as did usury. Economic counselors to the French and English crowns, propagandists for overseas trading companies in the Netiieriands and England, humanist essayists throughout Europe, municipal officials in die North American colonies, writers of devotional tracts, preachers, authors of formal théologie - everyone wrote about usury.
Usury sparked such debate because it represented an economic revolution. The exchange of credit for profit held together an ensemble of new economic practices that made the western market system during this period. …