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The Economic Culture of Puritan New England

by Stephen Innes

Pub Date: March 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-393-03584-0
Publisher: Norton

 If Jesus and J.P. Morgan sat down to write a social history of early New England, this would be it. Innes (History/Univ. of Virginia; Work and Labor in Early America, not reviewed) deftly combines religious and economic historiography to tell the story of those who, armed with a ``moral capitalism,'' created in New Canaan a worldly society out of God's word. Innes argues that the particular strain of Protestant worship that the Puritans brought with them to Massachusetts Bay contained within itself the formula for a capitalist state and the ingredients for the early colonial theocracy's undoing. A culture of discipline imbued each aspect of Puritan life with holy significance. Every act, personal or professional, had as its aim the celebration of God, and labor was no exception: Raising one field of corn glorified God, but raising two fields glorified him more. To signify their righteousness, Puritans thus set to their daily tasks with holy zeal. But such discipline brought wealth, prosperity, and success, which in turn brought the Puritans face to face with a dilemma. As Innes puts it: ``Piety produces industry, which produces wealth, which produces status conflicts and worldliness.'' To abandon their formulation would be to abandon the very definition of New World Christianity, but to continue to pursue it would be to corrupt their religious community slowly from within. The author dramatically delineates the theocracy's slow unwinding as reflected in the sermons and speeches of the Puritan fathers, showing how Puritan society moved inexorably from righteousness towards worldly prosperity. Though his thesis is a familiar one, Innes gives new strength to an old idea, exploring the myriad ways in which the Puritan ethic became the capitalist's greed.