Corporate Spirit

Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation

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Amanda Porterfield
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If historians are either lumpers or splitters, hand me a scalpel. I prefer tight definitions, narrow time frames, and deep archival dives. At first glance, Amanda Porterfield’s Corporate Spirit: Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation is a book only a lumper could love. “Corporation” is defined broadly: as any group with standing as a single entity. And while most historians of capitalism date the first corporations to the seventeenth century, Porterfield begins in ancient Rome. A work of synthesis, it wrangles a hopelessly complex historiography into a story spanning two millennia. Yet, I loved it. Porterfield has produced a landmark work on the messy entanglement of Western Christianity and the corporate form. It raises important new questions, reveals new patterns of change and continuity, and should alter the ways we talk about religion and capitalism. 

The story of corporations, as told by Porterfield, begins when the Roman Empire formally recognized certain groups, allowing them to own property and conduct business. Christian theology through the Pauline tradition contributed a powerful metaphor of a corporation as a body. (Note the Latin root corpus, body, in “corporation.”) The image encouraged the development of orderly ecclesiastical hierarchies (the head regulates the various parts), but also became a basis for internal accountability. Material resources, like blood, must circulate to meet needs of each member. 

Medieval Christianity developed new types of institutions and accountability. Monasteries embodied new corporate forms—both as a means of social organization and an investment vehicle for elites. Christian kingship offered a check on ecclesial power. The growing importance of writing led to greater precision in matters of both faith and finance. Secular guilds and self-governing cities appeared in the 13th century and the catastrophic Black Death spurred a new round of robust organization. Later, Protestant calls for accountability helped reorder European politics. By the 17th century, the modern corporation had become the cornerstone of a new capitalist age. 

The second half of the book traces corporate developments, economic and religious, in the American context. Indeed, the British colonies were corporations that took on governmental, commercial, and religious functions. Puritan theories of corporate membership combined with new individualistic ideas to beget ideas of “the people” and the American war for independence. 

The early years of the United States were a heyday for corporate creation, though perhaps this overstates the case. As late as 1860 there were fewer than 4,000 incorporated businesses—an unprecedented number at the time, but still a minor rounding error to the 9.1 million for-profit corporations today. They were limited to infrastructure projects, banking, and insurance, meaning most antebellum Americans still experienced a decidedly non-incorporated economy. However, religion was another matter. The landscape was thick with tens of thousands of religious corporations, ranging from established denominational churches to utopian communities that consciously melded religious and commercial forms of organization. In fact, such admixtures were the antebellum norm: whether it was Lowell’s commercial clothmakers engaging in religious instruction or Bible societies operating like businesses.

Religious corporations remained important after the Civil War, but incorporated business took center stage. A legal redefinition of corporate personhood from “artificial” to “natural” now offered new rights once reserved for human persons. But it also led Social Gospel reformers to demand that corporations abide by the standards of Christian morality. These calls worked, at least initially. As advertising and public relations developed corporate “personalities” in the 1920s, many companies embraced a model of “corporate trusteeship” that included religious responsibilities. 

Business and religion were most thoroughly entwined through post-WWII anticommunism and, later, the rise of the Religious Right. In the 1980s, there was a decline in corporate social responsibility, but this wasn’t secularization. Rather, Porterfield astutely traces a shift in both business and religion to a focus on positive thinking and will-power. Indeed, evangelical support of Donald Trump today suggests a similar decline in religious corporate responsibility. 

Porterfield has given us an important new narrative, broadly wrought; what remains is to fill in the details. And these details matter. Occasionally the text seems to suggest that workers and consumers have “joined” a corporation by their activities, when their relationship is quite different from membership. Consumers hold no purchase in a corporation apart from their literal purchase. Workers even less; from a corporate perspective, they are bundles of skill-sets, measured by productivity levels. Indeed, corporations understand neither group as people at all: they are flows and inputs, aggregated demand, and commodified labor units. Only voting shareholders are members.

The different relationships these roles have to corporations is crucial to understanding recent shifts in American Christianity. Traditional mainline denominations, now in steep decline, engage their adherents as members. They are structured as complex combinations of local, regional, and national institutions. Attend an annual meeting and you will see decisions made by democratic consensus and reciprocal lines of accountability trumping efficiency.

In contrast, the most powerful religious corporations today engage adherents as consumers. Parachurch organizations—from mission boards to colleges to media companies—typically limit official membership to a self-perpetuating corporate board. (Evangelical megachurches and their many smaller imitators have “ruling elders” and “lead ministers” with similar levels of control.) Like a gym membership or season ticket subscription, an adherent’s influence does not extend beyond the choice to go elsewhere. Corporate Spirit alerts us to the importance of structural changes, but sometimes a dive into the details is required to see them. 

The power of Porterfield’s long-view is undeniable, even if I’m not yet ready to discard my historical X-Acto blade. Corporate Spirit demonstrates that marking corporations “secular” and religion “private” distorts more than it reveals. The book’s institutional focus imposes a healthy concreteness on a field of inquiry that too often leans on metaphors. If this book gets the attention it deserves, historians of religion will be spending less time chasing what adherents felt and thought and believed and more time in the corporate archive.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy E. W. Gloege is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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).


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