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Puritan Economic Ethics


In my previous post on the Puritans, I gave them credit for the American system of free enterprise. I even went as far as to call them capitalistic. That does not mean they were greedy opportunists. Capitalists may be greedy and unethical, but greed, corruption, and free enterprise are not inseparably linked, as the Puritans demonstrated. While they believed in a legal economic freedom, they did not believe they were morally free to do business as they pleased.

imgIt has become an axiom of modern business that the goal of business is to make as much profit as possible and that any type of competition or selling practice is acceptable as long as it is legal. The Puritans would not agree. For one thing, they looked upon business as a service to society. “We must therefore think,” wrote John Knewstub, “that when we come to buying and selling, we come to witness our love towards our neighbor by our well dealing with him in his goods.” William Perkins said, “The end of a man’s calling is not to gather riches for himself . . . But to serve God in the serving of man, and in the seeking the good of all men.” —Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Academie Books, 1986), 69.

While believing that their labors were a “service to society” for “the good of all men,” they were not concerned with the pursuit of economic equality.

A final force of modern life of which the Puritans would not approve is socialism, whether in its overt form of government ownership or in its subtle form of the welfare state. William Ames wrote, “Ownership and differences in the amount of possessions are ordinances of God and approved by him, Prov. 22:2; 2 Thess. 3:12.” John Robinson commented:
God could, if he would, either have made men’s states more equal, or have given every one sufficient of his own. But he had rather chosen to make some rich, and some poor, that one might stand in need of another, to help another, that so he might try the mercy and goodness of them that are able, in supplying the wants of the rest.
Ibid., 70.


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Posted  in: Church History · John Knewstub · John Robinson · Leland Ryken · William Ames · William Perkins · Worldly Saints
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