Wealth, Church History, and Morality

June 8, 2002
Recently, I was asked to comment upon wealth held by churches and the role which gold has played throughout the two millennia of Christian church history. While a full treatment of such a subject would be the work of a (rather interesting) doctoral dissertation, some general thoughts on the subject do come quickly to mind. Please understand at the outset that the intent of this essay is neither to justify nor condemn specific religious organizations for use or misuse of material wealth. Examples given are examples, nothing more, nothing less. As a clergyman and as a trained historian, I have a fairly clear picture of a lot of good - and evil - (both financial and otherwise) which has been done in the name of religion. On the other hand, I do not intend this essay to be relativistic or amoral. While I am convinced that there are moral questions involved here, I am confining my comments on these issues to general principles widely and traditionally held by persons of faith. When speaking of Christianity, I am, for reasons of brevity, restricting my remarks to the Church in the West. While the Eastern Church has a fascinating history vis-à-vis Church-State relations, it remains largely beyond my area of expertise and beyond the scope of my current remarks.
The Wealth of Churches

Leaving aside for a moment the question of spiritual or moral benefits inherent in the practice of a religious faith, let us consider the actual point as to how wealth could be determined with regard to a religious institution, whether on a local scale, a denominational scale or a world-wide scale.

  • Some local congregations of religious faith are wealthy, based on the wealth of individual members and their charitable giving practices. Wealth in this sense, is largely beyond the scope of this essay. One would hope that such bodies would use their wealth in an appropriately moral fashion; many do and some do not.
  • Many congregations of religious faith are wealthy in tangible goods, but the use of that wealth is seriously regulated by practicality. Some examples of this type of wealth might include:
  • Bequests to specific religious institutions for specific purposes: Such wealth is strictly governed by the intent of the donor. Regardless of actual or subsequent need, such wealth may only legally be utilized in certain ways. If a philanthropist donates $500,000 for a pipe organ and a stained-glass window - that is what the $500,000 must be used for - even if the church has a leaky roof and the steeple is falling down. Wealth of this sort is not limited to religious institutions; one can see similar bequests at work in academia, in family foundations, in the Fine Arts, etc.
  • Works of artistic, musical or historical value: Such wealth is indeed tangible - a pipe organ, a painting, or a statue is a tangible item - but not an item upon which an agreed price can be fixed for the purpose of trading the item for goods or services. A Lutheran church in Germany might own a pipe organ designed by and played upon by J. S. Bach. A synagogue might own a several-hundred-year-old Torah scroll. While in Ireland, I saw a hand-lettered and illuminated Book of Gospels. While in Italy, I saw a church vestment owned and used by Charlemagne. In the city in which I live, there is a church dome which is covered in gold. The list goes on - and is not necessarily tied to a particular denomination or religion. Examples can be found world-wide in most religious traditions. Such items are priceless by any reasonable understanding of value. But such wealth does not - and cannot be used to fix the leaking roof, remunerate the clergy, or provide charity to the poor. Except in the most dire of circumstances, no one would wish to see a treasure of this sort destroyed. Why? Such treasures are held in trust for the faithful. In this example, certain types of wealth held by governments might fall into this category. In one sense of the word, Queen Elizabeth II is an extremely wealthy woman - but she does not have the authority to divest herself of the Crown Jewels. The National Archives of the United States will not auction off an original edition of the Constitution of the United States on e-Bay. Such treasures are held in trust for the people of the nation.
  • Legitimate tangibles: Such wealth is governed by the nature of the tangible item. For example, during the Middle Ages, it was not unusual for an individual to will a plot of land to a religious institution, like a church or a monastery. This is a very definite form of wealth which can be quantified. For example, it was not uncommon to lease such land and derive an income for the church from the proceeds. The same is true today. Indeed, churches which are small in size and attendance, yet rich in age and in historical value are frequently able to survive due to the income derived from such leases.

Thus, when considering the wealth of religious institutions, it is important to bear in mind these principles, which, right or wrong, do tend to govern reality.

Wealth, the Church and the State throughout History

The Early Church was, for the first several centuries of its existence, not particularly wealthy in material possessions. Palestine was a bit of a backwater province on the far side of the Roman Empire -- more valuable for its geographical location than for financial benefits to the Empire. The early Christians were, for the most part, represented largely by the lower classes. Even the background of many of the Apostles (fishermen) represented a "working-class" background -- honest and hardworking, but not wealthy. There were always exceptions to this rule, and as the years passed, and the number of Christians increased, so did the number of Christians in the higher socio-economic classes. However, there were other factors to consider. Beginning in about AD 64 during the reign of Nero and continuing through the beginning of the 4th century, the Church suffered through ten distinct waves of persecution. During these years of persecution, the greatest tangible expression of wealth in the Church was the bones of the various martyrs.

It was not until the reign of Constantine that open practice of the Christian religion was officially tolerated. (It is important to note that Constantine established "toleration" for Christians; he did not, as is commonly believed, make Christianity the "official" religion of the Empire. That took place during the reign of Theodosius, nearly a century later.) Constantine extended certain legal guarantees and protections to the Church, and sponsored the building of churches. Within a century, the Church did command a certain amount of wealth, and numbered among its members many persons of wealth and title. It is interesting to note that with wealth and ease came decadence -- as early as the end of the 4th century, Damasus I, the Bishop of Rome at the time (and the man who formally codified the Christian Bible) railed against the decay of morals from within the Church. By the middle of the 5th century, the Roman Empire in the West had collapsed, and by default, the Church absorbed many political and secular responsibilities. During the Middle Ages the Church did become extremely wealthy; in gold and silver and in artistic treasures. It is fair to note that some of this wealth was extorted through the buying and selling of church office (a practice frequently condemned -- but frequently practiced) and other activities which eventually helped give rise to the Protestant Reformation. The Church also participated in "trickle-down" economics by providing jobs for craftsmen and artisans in the building of churches, universities and cathedrals. It must also be noted that, especially during the last 500 years of the first millenium, the Church represented not only religious but secular authority in much of Europe. As a secular power, the Church found itself levying taxes, collecting fees, coining money, and in general, participating in all the duties and functions of secular government.

During this time, numerous religious orders arose, many of which equated personal wealth with decadence. Perhaps the best known of these were the Benedictines, which arose in the 6th century, the Dominicans, which arose in the 12th centuries and the Franciscans which also arose in the 12th century. These orders, and many more like them, insisted on vows of personal poverty among the members (vows which were sometimes observed in the breach). Nevertheless, while individual monks were prohibited from owning personal property, the monasteries and religious orders themselves frequently became wealthy. (I would refer the reader back to my comments on "Legitimate Tangibles"). The Benedictine Order especially served a specific role in many medieval communities. Through the years, these monasteries would be granted gifts of buildings and land; the monks would work these lands, and much of the proceeds would be given to the poor. In addition, the monastery would maintain itself by producing foodstuffs, wine, material goods of all sorts, and in some cases, would provide rudimentary medical care for the local community. In short, aside from encouraging the practice of religion, these houses occupied an important economic niche in their various communities.

By the middle of the Second Millenium, the Church was competing politically with numerous nation states which had arisen and gained much secular power. This coincided with the beginning of the Age of Exploration in which Spain and Portugal (and later England and the Netherlands) voyaged to the New World in search of wealth. Many of these expeditions included missionaries, whose duty was to convert the natives while the conquistadors searched for gold and silver. Both tasks proved successful and the amount of gold and silver in general circulation in Europe temporarily surged. Although the primary beneficiary of this largess was the State, the Church benefited as well through increases in donations, increases in sponsorships, etc. As had been common at that time for 1000 years, it was not possible to completely separate the Church and the State, financially or otherwise.

The Age of Exploration coincided with the Reformation in Europe. Regardless of the later theological disagreements which arose in the 16th century, the original motivation behind the Reformation in Germany involved:

  • Protest against disciplinary and financial abuses in the Church (Martin Luther and his famous 95 Theses)
  • Political unrest among some of the German princes who felt that aligning themselves with Luther would keep at home wealth and power which was then flowing to Rome.

Within a generation, Reform movements had begun in England and in Switzerland as well. In England, King Henry VIII quickly discovered the economic role that the monasteries had actually played when he ordered all religious houses dissolved and their assets transferred to the Royal treasury. While this action did provide a temporary boost in the personal wealth of the king, it had the disastrous effect of causing immediate and widespread hunger among the indigent. The king had failed to take into account the social vacuum which would be caused by suddenly eliminating an economic niche. In Switzerland and the Netherlands, where the Reformers tended to follow the theology of John Calvin, other financial possibilities began to emerge. Calvin's theological understanding of the proper use of money; the charging of interest; trade, etc. was significantly different from traditional Catholic understanding. It is no coincidence that the Netherlands, which had embraced Calvin's theology, became international leaders in trade at this time, thereby occupying a much more important place in Europe than the size of their nation would have suggested.

Gold, Silver, and American History

The focus of the essay now moves from the nations in Europe to the New World. While the expeditions sponsored by the Spanish and Portuguese governments were typically exploratory in nature, and mainly involved South America and the south and southwest portions of North America, the expeditions sponsored by England (both by the government and by private organizations) were intended as permanent colonies. While the Spanish and Portuguese were Catholic nations, the colonies established in Virginia and New England were Protestant. While the Spanish and Portuguese discovered/looted large amounts of raw materials, the North American colonies turned to trade and to manufacture. Thus, significant amounts of gold and silver quickly found their way into colonial (and thus, English) coffers. Indeed, as has often been pointed out on this site, the Spanish dollar was the original basis for the American silver dollar and was widely used as currency in the United States for many years. The first experiment with paper "money" were the Continentals which were used to finance the American Revolution -- and which could best be described as a dismal failure. The Founding Fathers dealt with the disaster of the Continental by stipulating the use of gold and silver for monetary use in the Constitution, and by the explicit provisions in the Coinage Act of 1792. This system was in place, with occasional minor adjustments, until the War Between the States during which both sides again utilized paper "money" to finance the War. President Grant restored the precious metal basis for the American currency, and (again with occasional small changes) gold and silver remained the basis of American currency well into the 20th century. It was the creation of the Federal Reserve, the Roosevelt seizure of gold and subsequent devaluation of the currency and the Nixon Presidency which were the three blows which effectively destroyed the precious metal system in favor of the "note." I've deliberately moved through this portion of history quickly, because most readers of Gold-Eagle are familiar with these facts. However, a review of the events of the past 250 years is important when considering the heart of this entire essay, which is one of morality.

The (Lack of ) Morality of Our Present Monetary System
"You shall not steal." -- Exodus 20:15 (Revised Standard Version)

Of the various laws and teachings handed down through the many centuries of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Ten Commandments hold a special place as the "irreducible minimums" of living a moral life. It is my contention that the current "fiat money" system as it exists in the United States and most of the rest of the "civilized" world fundamentally violates one of these irreducible minimums. How? Through the deliberate and structured devaluation of the system of currency.

Several hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Amos commented rather strongly on the practice of devaluating currency:

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, "When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat?" -- Amos 8:4-6 (Revised Standard Version, emphasis added).

What was happening in the time of Amos was that the system of weights and measures (ephah and shekel) was being manipulated in favor of those who held power in society. It seems to this clergyman that current economic practice in the United States (and in most of the world, for that matter) is involved in the same sort of economic practice that Amos was condemning many centuries ago -- and the various and sundry schemes and practices for the redistribution of wealth in the long run will solve nothing. (For example, if tomorrow, the government instituted a mandatory $20.00 per hour minimum wage, two things would quickly happen. 1) a lot of working poor would suddenly find themselves out of work, and 2) prices of goods and services would immediately skyrocket so as to come to some equilibrium with the new artificially high wages.) Why do these schemes eventually fail? Because they do not address the central issue, namely, that fiat money means nothing, represents nothing, and is fundamentally worthless. Every time fiat money is "created" by the Federal Reserve, the "value" of what you and I carry in our pockets is reduced -- and a forced, artificial reduction of value is STEALING -- just the same as if the value was robbed at gunpoint. The motives are the same, the end result is the same -- and the terminology should be the same.

In an excellent article on why organized labor should support a return to an honest monetary system, Dr. Lawrence M. Parks of FAME, it is pointed out that following the War Between the States it was the churches who insisted on rejecting the "Greenback" and pressured President Grant to restore the precious metal standard for the United States currency. (It is also interesting -- and encouraging -- to note that at least two members of the clergy are represented on FAME's Board of Advisors). It was the Protestant William Jennings Bryan who argued so forcefully for a moral monetary system. It was immigrant Catholics who, following the social teachings found in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) helped jump-start many labor unions. What has happened since? Where are the voices of the churches and other houses of worship? Why are persons of faith quiet now?

I believe that a large part of the answer lies in ignorance. The leadership of the several religious bodies throughout our nation have accepted the "official line" as much as have the rest of Americans. Typically, religious bodies in America have not been shy about speaking out against injustice. Many church bodies in America (especially in New England) were instrumental in the American Revolution. Many church bodies were in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement. Many church bodies were in the forefront of the woman's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. Even today, many church bodies (both to the left of center and the right of center) speak out strongly for or against important moral questions of the day. The problem lies in the failure of the church to recognize the inherent corruption and moral decay in our monetary system. It has become a "non-issue".

End of Part One

Part Two: Solutions

The Reverend David Zampino holds degrees in history and theology and is currently working on his doctorate. His areas of expertise include Early Church history, liturgy, and American Political history.

He may be contacted at:

Pure gold is so soft that a strong man can squeeze it and shape it.