In his new book "In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism," James Hudnut-Beumler surveys how American Protestants have gone about collecting and spending money from the 1790s to the present. The book will be released in March by The University of North Carolina Press.
Congregants have been persuaded to pay for a choice pew during services. They've used dated envelopes so their contributions never missed a week, even if they did. They've been asked to sell Christmas wrapping, cookies and most other products to raise money for the church - even laxatives and lingerie. Sometimes the preacher simply asks for money from the pulpit, occasionally with a significant dollop of guilt doled out to those who resist.
One method in the 1930s involved a mock trial titled "The Church vs. John Doe," where a fictional church member is prosecuted for insufficient giving.
"As someone involved in the Christian religion, some of this made me squeamish," said Hudnut-Beumler, the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History and dean of
"But stepping back from that as an historian of American religion, I see the undercurrents of mutual anxiety. Religious leaders see that great things can be done in the religious world with money, and also fear what happens if the people don't pay enough to keep it going. On the other side, people who have money don't necessarily want to part with it, even when they know it's for a good cause."
"It's a complicated process."
In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar also looks at how that money is spent, with pastoral talent and facilities at the top of the list.
Hudnut-Beumler says that congregations generally build new facilities upon their founding or after a tragedy such as a fire. Then, they usually build or renovate once per generation thereafter, needed or not.
"Why do people keep building and rebuilding when they have a perfectly usable building?" Hudnut-Beumler asks. "I think there is something about building and dedicating a space to God that represents the work of people's own hands, their best efforts of the moment, which drives this compulsion."
Pay for preachers is a particular concern to the author, since
Still, he considers the ministry a worthwhile profession, comparing it to being a soldier during wartime or a teacher whose students are difficult.
"The ministry is one of several difficult jobs in society that are nevertheless worth doing," he said. "The story of the ministry over 250 years has been a path of downward mobility alongside the great dignity that comes from the work nobody else can do, such as burying someone and helping their loved ones get over the loss. But in a society where everybody else seems to be buying SUVs and taking dream vacations, it can be daunting."
Hudnut-Beumler hopes In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar will offer perspective on the issue of money and the church.
"People operate with a rosy view of the past, and often assume that earlier generations were more faithful. If anything, this book shows that it's always been hard. It's always been a struggle, and people try different things to lessen the struggle. Still I don't want people to repeat the mistakes of the past or believe that theirs is the first generation to have difficulty securing a dollar for the Lord's work."