REFLECTIONS – “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce” with Dr. Adam Davis

by Savannah H. Finver

On December 1, 2022, Dr. Adam Davis, Professor of History at Denison University, delivered the annual Don and Barbara Davis Lecture in Christianity, co-sponsored by the Department of Comparative Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and the Department of History. The lecture, entitled “Lending to God: Charitable Giving in an Age of Commerce,” focused on the emergent connection between charitable giving, especially in the form of almsgiving, and the increase in rhetoric around the profit economy popularized in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Davis’ argument stems in part from his recent book, The Medieval Economy of Salvation: Charity, Commerce, and the Rise of the Medieval Hospital (2019) which was awarded the Ohio Academy of History’s 2021 Publication Award for best work published in the previous year by an author from the state of Ohio. While the book focuses more heavily on the founding of hospitals during the 12th-13th centuries, Davis’ lecture focused primarily on the ideas circulating through both churches and the emerging market economy which led to charitable giving being reframed as a kind of spiritual capital; that is, as a loan that a layperson could make to God which God would then be obligated to repay “tenfold” or even “a hundred fold.” Crucially, this reframing of charitable giving in economic terms directly challenged prior notions of the very definition of “charity” put forth in the gospel as Christian clergymen had interpreted the text before.

The problem with framing charitable giving as a “loan,” as Davis explains it, is that by definition, a loan requires reciprocity, meaning that which is given must be compensated or repaid in full. Furthermore, usury, or the taking of interest on a loan (being paid back tenfold, for example), was explicitly denounced as a sin in early Christian and Catholic teachings, and in certain cases in Jewish and Muslim teachings as well. Charity, then, at least prior to the 12th century, implied a certain type of attitude towards the act of giving, that the giving must be performed without any expectation of compensation or reward in return, even emotional or spiritual reward. In the 12th and 13th centuries, though, it was the very promise of spiritual reward or spiritual capital in Heaven—indeed, sometimes even material rewards on Earth—that clergymen used to encourage their congregations to engage in almsgiving. Though the idea of performing good works, especially in the form of charitable giving, in order to secure favor with God may sound like a familiar idea to readers today, in the 13th century it amounted to a fundamental paradigm shift, one which would usher in a new era of conceiving God as a debtor to his human creations, who were in turn conceived as merchant creditors with the power to force or manipulate God into providing them material or spiritual wealth in exchange for their good deeds. In other words, the language used in churches to discuss charitable giving began to take on the same terms and ideas that were emerging from the profit market. Put differently, churches began borrowing the language of economy to make sense of the gospel to their congregations. You can see some examples of how this language was equated and interchanged in the table below:

Economy Church
loan charity
debtor God
creditor layperson
repayment spiritual reward
profit favor
market congregation

At the end of the lecture, many audience members remarked that, though they very much enjoyed the lecture, they were unsurprised by Davis’ findings and felt that the language of market/profit economy was still very present currently in churches and in matters of charitable giving. For my part, I was reminded multiple times throughout Davis’ talk of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (originally published in English in 1930) and my own undergraduate advisor Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion. Because the rise in free market capitalism coincides pretty closely to the height of Protestant Reformation (in the 16th century), it hardly seems surprising that the commercialized language that would become the center of the modern world would inevitably have an impact on those discourses we call “religious” as well. Relying in part on Weber’s argument that the Calvinist expectation for engaging in good works drove the development of modern capitalism, Martin argues that many kinds of so-called “religious” discourses have been adapted to produce a particular kind of docile worker–one which won’t protest worsening conditions in the workplace and accepts individual responsibility for systemic issues. No corner is truly safe, it would seem–even the supposedly “separate” sphere of religion–from the jaws of the gods of the marketplace.

We look forward to continuing these conversations at next year’s Davis Symposium, a day packed with discussions about Christianity and Capitalism, on Oct. 27, 2023. We hope to see you there!