The Business Turn in American Religious History

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Amanda Porterfield, Darren Grem, John Corrigan
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Having explored the intersection of Mormon church leaders with business enterprises in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I eagerly read this volume on the business turn in American religious history. As increasing numbers of historians have explored topics related to race, gender, and transnationalism, it seems that economic history has fallen a bit out of favor—at least, many historians I talk to express little interest in examining business and corporate history. This volume, however, indicates two things: the study of business and economics among historians is alive and well, and such studies can provide significant insights into religion and religious practices, including better understandings of race, gender, and transnationalism within American religion.

According to the volume’s editors—noted religious scholars Amanda Porterfield, John Corrigan, and Darren E. Grem—the book seeks to examine “the complementarity between religion and business by examining the business side of religious organization” (2). As James Hudnut-Beumler concludes in an excellent afterword, the scholars contributing to the volume use business as a “big idea” in American religious history—“a perspective that allows historians in a given place and time to rethink what is going on in a broad sweep of the American religious experience” (226). The volume also seeks to show the degree to which the capitalistic economic system has influenced religion, how capitalism has been influenced by religion, and how some religions in America have sought to defend the capitalistic system.

Part of the strength of the volume is its inclusiveness. The essays cover evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Hindus, and Native Americans. Noticeable in their absence, however, are Muslims and other Christian groups such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Admittedly, in a volume where space is limited, not all groups can be covered and the editors should be commended for including a broad swath of religious groups. Yet the absence of an essay on Muslims seems particularly glaring.

In exploring the intersections of business and religion, the essays cover topics such as the philanthropic endeavors of Jewish women in the eastern United States in the early 1900s and what that tells us about the integral role women played in fundraising, though they received little recognition for it; how the rise of evangelicalism in the United States was significantly influenced by business and capitalistic ideas, both in the early nineteenth century and in the twentieth century; the movement of money throughout the world because of global Christian missions and humanitarian efforts; the depiction of heritage and culture by the Choctaw, the Cherokee, and the Quapaw in Oklahoma casinos; and the beliefs and influence of the Catholic financial elite in the United States, as seen through two organizations, Legatus and the Napa Institute, which seek to bolster and promote capitalism even while Pope Francis I rails against it. Each of these essays provide keen insight into the interplay between religion and business. A couple of highlights include Michael J. Altman’s interesting exploration of the influence of Sai Baba and Swami Vivekananda in the United States and the ways that they, in turn, were part of a global movement of money, trade, and labor. Altman’s article, paired with David P. King’s essay on Christian missions and humanitarian efforts, indicates very clearly the necessity of “following the flow” of resources both in and out of the United States to get a clearer picture of the influences of religion on global marketplaces.

Matt Bowman also makes significant points about the Mormons’ uneasy relationship with capitalism, using pronouncements and actions of church members such as William Godbe, Cleon Skousen, and Hugh Nibley. However, Bowman misses an opportunity to point out that Nibley’s grandfather, Charles Nibley, was a prominent church leader who was one of the main proponents of capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century and who many viewed as a robber baron in the same vein as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Because Hugh Nibley condemned capitalism—and specifically the capitalistic practices of his grandfather—it would have been interesting to trace why grandfather and grandson had such different ideas about business and money.

As the authors of the essays in this volume show, examining religion and religious institutions through the lens of business provides numerous insights into how religions gain influence, how they spread, both in the United States and throughout the world, and how their members come to terms with serving both God and mammon. The book is highly recommended for scholars of both religious history and business history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew C. Godfrey is managing historian at the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amanda Porterfield is the Robert A. Spivey professor of religion and history at Florida State University. She is the author of several books in American religious history and the history of Christianity, including Corporate Spirit: Religion's Role in the Long History Behind Corporate America, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. 

John Corrigan is the Lucius Moody Bristol distinguished professor of religion and professor of history at Florida State University. He is author or editor of several books, including The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion.

Darren Grem is assistant professor of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of The Blessings of Business: How Corporations Shaped Conservative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2016).


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