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A Review of In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism

Certain theological explanations espoused by preachers or scholars raise the question of whether the explanation can be universally applied.

  • Feler Bose,
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Certain theological explanations espoused by preachers or scholars raise the question of whether the explanation can be universally applied. For example, reading how a Christian should vote in the elections makes me ask whether these explanations are universally valid: most of the time, the explanation is only valid in countries with a sizable Christian population. The nice thing about Rushdoony’s work is that he clearly explains the applicability of Scripture in all cases.

Regarding the topic of tithing, many preachers emphasize that the local church is the custodian of the tithe. However, where the local church is not a godly church, and finding a godly church might mean traveling many hours, it would make sense not to tithe to the local church. Hence, Rushdoony’s analysis that the priests receive only 10 percent of the tithe and the Levites the rest is universally applicable.1

In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar gives a fascinating look at how Protestant churches were financed from the 1800s and how churches tried to get people to give all their financial contributions (including the tithe) to the church.

Tax-Financed to Voluntary-Financed Churches

Prior to the 1800s, local townships publicly financed the clergy from various established denominations. With increasing competition from nonestablished churches and from people’s desire to support clergy of their own choosing, the stage was set for the disestablishment of churches and for a move from public financing to private financing of churches. “For those portions of the ecclesiastical world accustomed to state finance—the Anglican, Reformed, and Congregational churches in the South, the mid-Atlantic states, New York, and New England—disestablishment was not a godsend delivered by political philosophy but a frontal challenge to their understanding of who ought to pay for religion and why” (pp. 8–9).

After the American Revolution, many of the Anglican churches were disestablished;2 however, in some states the established churches were still financed by taxes (CT, MA). After privatization of religion in Connecticut, some churches still relied on “taxes” on their members. However, the tax monies were usually insufficient to fund the churches due to tax avoidance and a shrinking tax base, so the established churches had to find other means of support. For that reason the churches relied more heavily on other methods of financing, which included voluntary financing and a private club arrangement.

Clubs are financed through dues (membership fees); and in many clubs, different levels of membership with assorted levels of benefits can be purchased. Pew rentals became the dues paid to churches.3 Depending on how much you paid, you would be either seated in the premium pews4 (near the front) or further back from the pulpit. Free pews were also available for the poor, the slaves, etc., and these were located in the back. Some denominations like the Methodists did not like this preferential seating method and had only free pews in their churches; but relying completely on voluntary financing did not always cover all expenses.

The author briefly discusses other forms of financing like pew ownership and subscriptions (pledges), but does not go into depth. Instead, he rushes on to discuss voluntary financing (free-will giving) in the second half of the first chapter. The lack of depth regarding tax financing and club-type financing is the main weakness of the book. However, for those interested in learning more about other forms of financing (including lotteries, stock holding, etc.), I recommend the book Temples of Grace by Gretchen Townsend Buggeln and a journal article by Kelly Olds called “Privatizing the Church.”5

Voluntary Financing of Churches until 1920

Voluntary financing shapes the church as a charity rather than a club. The transition from a mixed form of financing to voluntary financing took time, as methods of fund-raising were refined to encourage the individual to support the church.

From the early to mid-1800s privatized churches had to compete for funds from voluntary societies. These societies, “modeled on British reform societies, as pandenominational entities, also helped set the tone of church fund-raising, even as they became congregations’ chief competitors for funds” (p. 15).6

Due to this competition, churches systematized their appeal for funds. Initially, books and tracts on “systematic benevolence” were published to encourage giving to churches (p. 19). The idea was to set aside money as God prospered one, and then use that money to systematically distribute to needy causes. It would eliminate the need for itinerant agents of various causes from having to make regular emotional appeals. Moreover, the idea was to establish “a local agency in every man’s mind.” This local agency would be the church, and the clergyman would be the local agent who would receive the money and distribute as needed (p. 22).

From 1870 to 1920, the issue of stewardship was “discovered” and the tithe “reinvented.” Many churches struggled to pay decent salaries to ministers. Ideas of how to finance churches crossed the Atlantic. One writer saw older methods of financing, like pew rentals, festivals, fairs, etc., as “unworthy” and “exceedingly ‘questionable.’” The tithe as a way to finance churches received more focus in Christian publications (p. 51). Writers used various Scriptures from Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Genesis, and Malachi to support the tithe. In some parts of the country, churches did not even practice weekly giving (p. 55); therefore, weekly offerings were encouraged. Some of the literature focused on the tithe and the offerings going to the church; the funds were then to be disbursed by the church to other causes. Toward the late 1800s, churches started using the envelope to collect the tithes and offerings.

As the years passed, churches emphasized stewardship (p. 60). The notion of stewardship was popular with the advocates of the Social Gospel. One author argued, “Most Christian men need to discover that they are not proprietors, apportioning their own, but simply trustees or managers of God’s property” (p. 62). Some of the advocates of stewardship also included tithing in their discussions. “As the years went by, the stewardship movement turned less and less on a God the owner / man the possessor philosophy and more on a conviction that the tithe was stewardship’s bottom line” (p. 71). One author, Julius Earl Crawford, focused on how Christians can become tithers. His innovation from those in the Social Gospel era was that he considered tithing as necessary for receiving the blessings from God. He did not see any shame in wanting to be financially prosperous and wrote about many people whose fortunes reversed when they put God first (p. 72).

However, after fifty years of preaching on tithing and stewardship, American Protestants were giving on average only 3 percent of their gross income to their churches; but that half century of effort had not “dimmed the clergy’s hopes that their people might yet be more generous” (p. 75).

Voluntary Financing of Churches from 1920 until the 1940s

The concept of stewardship did not create lasting changes in the people’s giving. Churches used three techniques to provide for church finances. The first technique was the “Every Member Canvass” where teams of lay people would go around and canvass church members to pledge for the church.7 The second technique was to use pledge cards to get people to support the church. One major innovation in using this technique was the inclusion of two separate pledges, one for the church and the other for benevolences. “In some respects, this development represented the attainment of a 100-year-old dream for pastors; the separate appeals from agencies outside the local church were under congregational control at last” (p. 103). The third technique was the duplex weekly envelope. This allowed people to give weekly to the church and benevolences.

The Depression also resulted in a decline in giving to churches. In the rural South, farmers planted an acre for the Lord. Whatever proceeds came from the “Lord’s Acre” went to the church (p. 171). During the Depression, the foundations were laid for debate between two groups, which lasted long after the Depression. The debate centered on “motives for giving and those who were more interested in discussing the means for attracting gifts to the church” (p. 123, italics in original).

Voluntary Financing of Churches from 1945–1980

After World War II, the divergence within Protestantism (liberal, moderate, and conservative) resulted in different views about the purpose of the church and about the role of money. Stewardship meant responsibility. “Stewardship became less about ritual submission to God, the giver of all good things, than it was about human beings discharging the responsibilities laid before them” (p. 151). The majority of the literature on church financing focused on “technique rather than theology” (p. 155). Techniques included getting young children to pledge and getting adults to focus on the concept of loyalty. One technique to get high-income givers to give was to have their financial peers solicit them. Another technique focused on having food served before asking for pledges. In 1952, Ralph Seaman wrote a book titled 101 Ways to Raise Money for Your Church, which seemed to embody that era.

One writer named W. E. Grindstaff reemphasized the idea of “storehouse tithing” against “promiscuous tithing.” This meant that the entire tithe must go to the local church. The church “is the rightful custodian of God’s money. The church and the church alone has the right to say how such money shall be used” (p. 163). By the 1960s, the idea of stewardship took on a wider meaning and was no longer solely connected with giving. One author suggested that people use their “wealth, influence, good looks, pleasant dispositions, and personalities to win others for Christ” (p. 171).

The more conservative denominations saw giving differently. Some saw tithing as limiting one’s Christian duty. They also saw supporting a church out of loyalty as idolatrous. These denominations saw the need for generous giving. Another branch of conservative Protestantism preached the “prosperity gospel” (p. 178). They saw money problems as a matter of faith.

In the 1970s, the literature on fund-raising reflected the communities that people came from. For example, a Missouri Synod Lutheran wrote with a theological focus, whereas an Episcopalian wrote from the technique perspective. The recession of the 1970s also substantially reduced the finances of many churches. Many churches survived on voluntary financing. However, foundations were supporting some of the older mainline denominations. To reduce inheritance taxes, wealthy older members were giving large gifts to these foundations. Many local churches also developed endowments (p. 185).

Voluntary Financing of Churches from 1980 to the Present

This era saw a vast migration to the Sun Belt and people moving to the suburbs. Low interest rates during this time (1990s and early 2000s) led to a church building boom as the churches’ borrowing capacity increased. Ministers in the liberal and conservative churches continued to preach on tithing. Financing of Protestant Christianity today has mainly focused on pledges, special appeals, tithing, capital funds, funding for things outside of local church life, and fees for services when it comes to religious schools. In short, as the author of the book notes, “[Y]ou can have as much religion as you can pay for” (p. 199).


The book clearly shows that since the privatization of church financing, churches competed with other godly agencies for finances. Over time, churches tried to convince their members to support primarily the work of the church. Rushdoony writes in Chalcedon Report Number 43, “To limit Christ’s realm to the church is not Biblical; it is pietism, a surrender of Christ’s kingship over the world.”

While I have focused this review mainly on the financing aspect of the Protestant church, the book also has interesting chapters on church architecture and internal furnishings. One revealing chapter looks at the life of the minister’s wife and the struggles, expectations, anxieties, etc., the minister and his wife must deal with. The chapter on “Paying the Clergy” compares clergy salaries with those of other professions. The chapter also cites various studies that have been done on clergy salaries: for example, that getting a higher education in ministry results in negative income returns (p. 94) and that as “servant-leaders,” the clergy have found “themselves paid in many places accordingly—as servants” (p. 94).

1. R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law: Vol. 3, The Intent of the Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973), 510.

2. Data on the disestablishment of the Anglican churches is not readily available.

3. Pew rentals existed prior to the nineteenth century in Europe and the American colonies.

4. In those days sitting in premium pews meant that you could hear the sermon and during the winter were likely to be warmer than those who sat near drafty windows and doors.

5. Gretchen Townsend Buggeln, Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut’s Churches, 1790–1840 (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2003) and Kelly Olds “Privatizing the Church: Disestablishment in Connecticut and Massachusetts,” Journal of Political Economy, 1994, Vol. 102, No. 2, 277–297.

6. This point seems similar to the tithe agencies Rushdoony writes about on page 26 of Tithing and Dominion (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979).

7. This method is still used in some countries.

  • Feler Bose

Feler Bose has recently completed his PhD in Economics from George Mason University. He and his wife Caroline and son Theophilus reside in Fairfax, VA.

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