Friday, April 13, 2018

Amanda Porterfield's "Corporate Spirit"

Amanda Porterfield is Robert A. Spivey Professor of Religion at the Florida State University. She is the author of Healing in the History of Christianity and the co-editor of The Business Turn in American Religious History (with Darren Grem and John Corrigan).

Porterfield applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation, and reported the following:
The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 was a feat of “gigantic artificial navigation” and great stimulus to commerce. To quote from page 99 of Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation, “the 360-mile passageway up the Hudson River to the Great Lakes brought meat, whiskey, and flour to New York City” and transported goods to the north and west from “the city’s warehouses and famous auctions – everything from stoneware and iron chains to window blinds and black silk handkerchiefs.” As business opportunities expanded along the Erie Canal and elsewhere across the early United States, commercial corporations multiplied. Responding to demand for access to the legal protections conveyed through incorporation, many states established democratic mechanisms of incorporation to counteract the favoritism associated with earlier procedures.

While commercial corporations spurred industrial organization, churches and other eleemosynary corporations contributed to urban order, to regional and interregional networks of religious organization, and to the development of print media that promoted membership in numerous groups who practiced corporate life in terms of membership in the body of Christ. Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, and Presbyterian institutions grew exponentially during the early decades of the 19th century, while new corporate religions, including the Mormons, attracted many converts. Religious groups contributed as much as business did to the organization of people’s lives into state-chartered corporate institutions.

The first 98 pages of Corporate Spirit outline developments in corporate organization prior to this enormous spurt in religious and commercial growth in the early United States. The book shows how corporations originated in ancient Rome and developed to become mainstays of civic, religious, and commercial order in medieval Christendom. The book highlights the importance of networks of community and commerce based on the model of corporate order established by puritans and other religious groups in British America, and argues that these networks contributed to the organizational infrastructure that enabled American political independence.

The chapters that follow page 99 carry the story of American corporate development from the 19th century into the 21st. As these later chapters show, the abusive practices associated with modern forms of corporate organization rival the worst of corporate malfeasance in the ancient and medieval worlds. At the same time, the book shows how corporations served as organizational building blocks of American economic and religious prosperity, and even in some cases, as agents of good will.
Learn more about Corporate Spirit at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue