Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Review: HEAVENLY MERCHANDIZE by Mark Valeri [Vol. 3, #34]

Heavenly Merchandize - Mark Valeri A Review of

Heavenly Merchandize:
How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America
.
Mark R. Valeri.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Mark Eckel

How many of us form an opinion on something based on spurious evidence and then allow the idea to set concrete-like into fact?  If there is any historical point of reference to which this dictum may apply it has to do with America’s founding.  We tend to “cherry pick” quotes and ideas that suit our rock hard position.  Our tendency, then, is to use these lovely out-of-context-ideals to chip away at other points of view.  Might I suggest that we break out a jack hammer to all our hallowed—and sometimes hollow—positions.

Mark Valeri’s Heavenly Merchandize is a historical treatise which reinvestigates Puritan economic positions at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries.  Key to the book is the dynamic of change that moves people over a short time within the Puritan movement.  Understood, yet not a focal point, is the way words changed meaning over time.  Moreover, Valeri notes what historical markers were allowed to lapse when the present pressures of commerce—including individual profit—meant more than principle itself.  In short, Puritan commitments to clear Scriptural standards were left behind when a better deal came along.

The writing style is an academic history.  Valeri wonderfully weaves story within story on top of story bringing to life the ideas and ideals of American churchmen prior to the Revolutionary War.  What is most striking about Valeri’s position is that he honors other points of view.  As a historian he understands that texts can be variously interpreted.  In all honesty, however, the painstaking work established in this volume should stand the test of time and review.

What strikes the reader immediately, however, is how much like us these stories sound.  We are told consistently that each businessman listed was impacted by his culture.  At times, the pressures of commerce created unconscious and unintended shifts in peoples’ thinking.  The early narratives recount men who solidly stand against greed.  Progenitors follow who then focus, not on sinful attitudes or actions, but on the positive nature of hard work, prudence, and reform.  What might seem like a slight shift of emphasis becomes the basis for future generations to adopt a moralistic rather than a biblical tone.  Do we ever find ourselves moved by the winds of our culture or sub-culture?  Do we come to economic conclusions based on Scriptural truths or the latest book we have read from people with whom we agree?   One quote will suffice:

Puritans such as John Hull and Samuel Sewall relied on biblical tropes, spiritual reflection, and frank, sometimes indelicate moral appeal to convey economic integrity.  Hall and his contemporaries traded in the currency of civility, stamped with style and politeness (187).

Valeri made no original attempt to connect our present recession with the results of his work.  Ultimately, Heavenly Merchandize is about us.  It seems that fraudulent lending practices, usury, and debt litigation are timeless.  Nor should it be missed that foundational Puritan voices, rooting belief in Scripture, become mere echoes to future generations.  High-minded humanistic moralism depends on virtues established in the past but cuts ties with specific biblical claims.  So for those whose move is toward a communitarian view of life, the question becomes how far will we go to link common practices with others who do not share our dedication to Scripture?  And for those who claim a high view of The Text, can we continue to espouse economic principles which undercut ethical teaching from The Text?  The stories contained in this volume speak to our individual dispositions.  What is most important to us?  Will we compromise a thorough going biblical theology to establish our position if it means we can “get by” on notations and nostrums from God’s Word?  Valeri’s work gets to the point: will cultural pressures of any kind compromise our positions?  Or, will we live with the tension of economic production while practicing social justice?  Perhaps none of us should be too quick to let the cement dry on our Christian practices.

——-

Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College.  He blogs at WarpAndWoof.org

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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