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Frederick Nymeyer: A Pioneer of Christian Libertarianism

By Timothy D. Terrell
June 01, 2004

Is it possible to operate a profitable business and still be a good Christian?

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Christian socialist agenda made rapid progress, building on foundations laid by theologians such as Karl Barth. Church leaders and Christian college faculties argued with greater audacity that free markets were immoral. Christian businessmen were being told from the pulpit that they were lacking in “brotherly love” if they sought a profit or charged a price freely agreed upon by the buyer. Morally enlightened government officials would of course be compelled to correct the heartless with appropriate price, wage, and product quality regulation.

Into this milieu stepped Frederick Nymeyer, who would be a burr under the saddle of Christian socialists for more than 20 years. Nymeyer was a successful Chicago entrepreneur with an intense interest in linking economics with the law of God. He was unusual among businessmen in the extraordinary amount of time he devoted to thinking and writing about how the Bible related to his work and to society. And his intellectual labors were desperately needed.

Before his death in the 1980s, Nymeyer devoted much of his effort to combating socialistic ideas in his own Protestant denomination, the Christian Reformed Church. As a man concerned with the practical application of Biblical principles to economics and business, Nymeyer is a model for Christian businessmen today.

Nymeyer worked for many years for the meat packer Armour, after which he became a successful management consultant. While he advanced professionally, Nymeyer spent many of his off hours reading works by great free market economists, such as Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and Ludwig von Mises. Then he began writing, and for decades he produced thoughtful essays on economics, business ethics, and Christian theology. In 1952, Nymeyer founded Libertarian Press, which exists today and still publishes great books that advocate a free market economy.

Nymeyer’s Minimal Religion
A key part of Nymeyer’s thought on economic issues was the distinction between two ethical systems Nymeyer saw in the church in his time: 1) a system based on Mosaic law and the New Testament exposition of that law, and 2) a system based on a broad interpretation of “loving one’s neighbor.” Nymeyer favored the first, which he called “minimal religion.” It may seem that “minimal religion” is not something a good Christian should favor. But Nymeyer was really getting at the idea of Christian liberty — if an action is not forbidden by a Biblical command, it is permitted.

This Mosaic system required that an individual’s actions toward other people conform to Biblical laws summarized in the Ten Commandments. Nymeyer contended that the Biblical commands regarding our relationships to others amounted to “negatives”: not coercing, not stealing from, and not defrauding others. As understood by Nymeyer, the Mosaic system has much in common with libertarianism.

Nymeyer believed that the market system, complete with bargaining in one’s own interest, would produce great good for society. Of course, Nymeyer would be denounced by many modern Christians for daring to suggest that self-interest had a place in the Christian life. But it was obvious to him that people do care for their own bodies by clothing themselves, eating, drinking, and doing other things in the pursuit of personal provision and comfort — and that they seek similar provision for their families and their friends.

To Nymeyer, there was nothing at all immoral about this pursuit, provided that people did not break the law of God in the process. Christian charity and evangelism were basic duties, he said, but these requirements do not imply a suppression of everything that smacks of self-interest.

The Mosaic system allows a person to pursue self-interest, as long as one does not injure his neighbor “by violence, adultery, theft, falsehood, or covetousness.”1 The sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” thus summarized a broader command, which might be stated, “You shall not coerce.”

To Nymeyer, it made no difference if the coercion was carried out by the state.

[C]oercion may be legalized by the acts of a legislature or a judge, but the mere fact that it is public coercion does not exonerate such acts from the prohibition of employing compulsion against another.2

If the sixth commandment can be extended to forbid all coercion, Nymeyer said, it gives us the basic principle of liberty:

When the ancient law of Moses with stark simplicity legislates against murder, violence, and coercion it not only has the merit of prohibiting those evils, but it has the magnificent positive virtue of legislating freedom.3

Christian love, to Nymeyer, simply requires that we refrain from doing harm, that we show “forbearance and forgiveness,” that we exercise charity, and that we proclaim the gospel.4

Agape Ethics
The second system, which Nymeyer called “sanctimony,” or “agape ethics,” required an extension of an individual’s agape (“brotherly” or “neighborly”) love to the rest of mankind. Nymeyer did not oppose brotherly love, but argued that it could not be a foundation for society because we simply do not have enough knowledge about the specific wants and needs of others (especially those outside one’s circle of family and friends) to fully minister to them

For example, if I have a bicycle, how am I to know whether another individual might desire it and be able to make better use of it than I? Even if I am only motivated by a desire for the good of my neighbors, I have no way of knowing what the best use of the bicycle is. That is, unless I resort to a price system in which those people with better potential uses for the bicycle offer higher dollar amounts for it. Prices are indispensable in answering questions about how to allocate goods and services.

Those who want to get rid of the price system and depend upon using our own personal assessments of the needs of our neighbors face an insurmountable knowledge problem. Of course, it is common for a few people to imagine themselves having the divine wisdom to overcome this problem. Worse, they act upon their delusions by seeking power to re-allocate goods and services as they see fit. Nymeyer saw this clearly, and pointed out that the agape system would inevitably lead to interventionism and socialism.

Nymeyer’s Legacy
Most of Nymeyer’s writings appeared in a journal he published from 1955 through 1960. This journal, which first went by the name Progressive Calvinism and in 1959 became First Principles in Morality and Economics, is almost entirely composed of essays by Nymeyer himself. Several years after First Principles ceased publication, Nymeyer’s own Libertarian Press published his book Minimal Religion. This book continued the themes from the journal but added a lengthy section on theology. In the early 1970s, Libertarian Press also published a newsletter called Social Action, Hundred Nineteen (from Psalm 119), in which Nymeyer continued his battle against church-sanctioned socialism.

Rousas J. Rushdoony, the founder of Chalcedon , took notice of Nymeyer’s writing in the 1980s and personally requested multiple copies of his books for the Chalcedon library and for distribution. Even though Rushdoony did not always agree with Nymeyer, he appreciated Nymeyer’s basic respect for the Mosaic law as a law with modern relevance — a law of liberty. And for this businessman’s attention to the practical applications of the law of God, Nymeyer merits our admiration today.

Notes

1. Frederick Nymeyer, “Two Different and Irreconcilable Religions,” Progressive Calvinism, Vo. 3, No. 5 (May 1957), 150.

2. Frederick Nymeyer, “The Relationship Between Freedom, Utilitarianism, and the Mosaic Law, “First Principles in Religion and Economics, Vol. 5, No. 7 (July 1959), 193, 194.

3. Ibid.

4. Frederick Nymeyer, “Is the Economic Order Properly Based on Neighborly Love?”, Progressive Calvinism, Vol. 3 No. 1 (January 1957), 6. See also “‘Love’ in Christian Economics Should Not Be Used to Designate a Sentiment,” First Principles in Religion and Economics, Vol. 5, No. 11 (November 1959), 345.


Topics: Biography, Business, Church, The, Economics, Government

Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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