If Protestantism has married capitalism, then it may have been Queen Elizabeth I who officiated over the wedding. England was one of the earliest Protestant kingdoms on earth, and played host to some of the first joint stock companies.
While still in her mid-twenties, devout Elizabeth had inherited a nearly bankrupt county and a seriously inferior military. She turned for help to a group of swashbuckling men of valor – men referred to as Elizabeth’s Merchant Adventurers. Those who undertook incredible risks to lead commercial ventures abroad. Men like Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Frances Drake helped to gain England’s global supremacy at sea while building the national treasury through a kind of royally sanctioned piracy.
One such Merchant Adventurer was Sir John Hawkins. Like Elizabeth and most other English and Dutch Traders, Hawkins was a devout Protestant and liked to use a pious benediction with his men, “serve God daily, love one another, preserve your victuals, beware of fire, and keep good company.” Commissioned by the Queen and financed by London’s rich and famous, Hawkins and his small fleet of ships arrived off the coast of West Africa on November 29, 1564 to gather their merchandise – slaves for the Americas.
In the quest for profit on this early international, capitalistic voyage, 400 slaves were packed aboard the 700-ton flagship ironically named the Jesus of Lubeck. TheJesus carried this human cargo in its belly across the ocean, where for three weeks the ship stalled in becalmed mid-Atlantic waters and slaves began to die in the stinking, sweltering hold.
Not even a waist cloth can be permitted among slaves aboard ship, since clothing even so light would breed disease. To ward off death I ordered that at daylight the Negroes should be taken in squads of twenty and given a salt-bath by the hose pipe… And when they were carried below, trained slaves received them one by one, and laying each creature on his side, packed the next against him, and so on, till, like so many spoons packed away, they fitted onto one another, a living mass.1
The Protestant Reformation coincided with the birth of the great ocean-going vessels, vessels which could carry hundreds of tons of goods, exponentially increasing both risk and profit of international trade. It was in the cargo holds of Protestant traders that international capitalism took flight in the form of the joint stock Trading Company. Whether dealing in spices, textiles, opium or slaves, the notion that people other than monarchs could take part in the profits of intercontinental trade was largely due to Protestants. The Catholic nations also engaged in international colonization and trade, but these were national or papal sponsored ventures, not private capitalistic ones. The idea of gathering investors to make a profit from overseas trade appears to have been a notion which took root much more easily amongst Protestants than Catholics, so it is not surprising to discover that Protestant mission fused with capitalistic ventures like the slaving missions of Sir John Hawkins from very early on.
It was not just that early Protestant missionaries from England were catching a lift with commercial shipping operations in order to arrive at their destination. The trading company itself became the pattern out of which the western missionary cloth was cut. Missiologist Timothy Tennent says of William Carey, “Carey, as a Protestant, had no ecclesiastical structures to look to for guidance. So, he proposed a mission society based largely upon the model of secular trading societies, which were being organized for commercial purposes.”2
After more than 100 years of English Protestant missionary structures assuming the shape of the capitalist container into which they had placed themselves, missiologist Roland Allen and others like Max Weber began to notice the fusion – along with the shortcomings of this marriage for the Church. English (and later American) mission would adopt the for-profit structure. Like the trade companies after which they were modeled, the English and American missionary societies were run primarily by the investors who funded the mission and their business-oriented worldview influenced how they believed the mission was to operate. They became increasingly focused on funding the mission, and mission outposts became more and more elaborate and resource hungry. Protestant missionaries donned an individualist rather than communal mindset and the gospel they preached was oriented along the lines of a product, measured through the establishment of churches as a kind of commercial outlet and converts as a kind of customer.
Additionally, most early English and American missionaries came from upper and middle-class homes which enjoyed some of the wealth-concentrating effects of capitalism. That is to say, most Protestant missionaries were raised with a capitalist worldview and this provided a lens through which they viewed the scriptures, Christianity, the church and her mission. They could hardly do any more than to execute their understanding of mission by passing it through a capitalist prism. The resulting impact of English and American Protestant mission, steeped as it has been in a capitalist worldview, is to reproduce resource-dependent, product-oriented, individualist expressions of church and mission.
The invitation for western Protestants in the 21st century is to re-imagine mission without the capitalist paradigm we have been handed. We will need to look to our majority world brothers and sisters, to the alternative Protestant mission operations of the Moravians, Quakers, Mennonites and even to our Catholic and Orthodox cousins to begin to stretch our imaginations.
May 2013 bring a fresh wind of ingenuity as we seek to see less resource hungry, more communal and more holistic expressions of the ever-expanding government of Christ and his kingdom.
“Of the increase of his government and his peace there will be no end.” Is. 9:7
1. John W. Cowart, (2005) Crackers & Carpetbaggers: Moments in the History of Jacksonville, Florida LULU Press p. 18-19
2. Timothy Tennent.Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 261.