Monday, August 2, 2010

Mark Valeri's "Heavenly Merchandize"

Mark Valeri is the Ernest Trice Thompson Professor of Church History at the Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Virginia. His books include Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy's New England: The Origins of the New Divinity in Revolutionary America and The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 17: Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America, and reported the following:
Heavenly Merchandize concerns the religious changes that shaped a market economy in Puritan New England. The book focuses on the daily pieties of Boston merchants--how their religion shaped the ways in which they kept their business accounts, made deals, and scuffled for profits. Yet these pieties were informed by larger historical ideas.

Page 99 drives to the heart of this matter. It recounts how a second generation Boston minister, Increase Mather, described New England during the 1670s. Earlier Puritans had claimed that God did miraculous things for New England, but they rarely claimed to understand the precise manner through which providence worked. They did not proffer precise predictions about political and social affairs. They thought that contemporary history revealed far less of God’s will than did the Bible.

Mather was the leader of a group of Boston ministers who changed this perspective. In the midst of great public events--Indian wars, political negotiations with the Crown, economic troubles--he began to detect the action of God in contemporary events. As he did so, he began to equate New England with ancient Israel. Through sermons that since have become known as jeremiads, he claimed that providence was working to reform and vindicate the public order of New England, including its government and commerce, as an object of divine favor. As he did so, he asserted a predictable law: divine reward for social virtue and divine punishment for social vice.

With such confidence that God was guiding New England, Boston merchants began to idealize their trade as divine instruments to bring prosperity to New England. Seeing God in their history, they rejected previous criticisms of usury and other market strategies based on the Bible. They embraced new techniques for trade. They made new business techniques a means to serve God as they served New England.

In this sense, page 99 is one of the most theologically oriented pages in the book. It is not the most scintillating but it describes crucial intellectual changes that gave purpose to economic innovation.
Read an excerpt from Heavenly Merchandize, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue