Religion & Liberty Online

Clergy, Innovation, and Economics

This is a bit second-hand (a source drawing from another source), but I still think the following tidbit on the modern history of clergy and scientific and technological development and discovery in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile is notable:

Knowledge formation, even when theoretical, takes time, some boredom, and the freedom that comes from having another occupation, therefore allowing one to escape the journalistic-style pressure of modern publish-and-perish [sic, probably intentionally] academia to produce cosmetic knowledge, much like the counterfeit watches one buys in Chinatown in New York City, the type that you know is counterfeit although it looks like the real thing. There were two main sources of technical knowledge and innovation  in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the hobbyist and the English rector….

An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time. And, of course, optionality [i.e. freedom from intellectual strictures and the ability to change one’s mind based on new discoveries]. The enlightened amateur, that is. The Reverends Thomas Bayes (as in Bayesian probability) and Thomas [Robert] Malthus (Malthusian overpopulation) are the most famous. But there are many more surprises cataloged in Bill Bryson’s Home, in which the author found ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving recorded traces for posterity than scientists, physicists, economists, and even inventors. In addition to the previous two giants, I randomly list contributions by country clergymen: Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, contributing to the Industrial Revolution; Rev. Jack Russel bred the terrier; Rev. William Buckland was the first authority on dinosaurs; Rev. William Greenwell the foremost authority on spiders; Rev. George Garrett invented the submarine; Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day; Rev. M. J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi; Rev. John Michell helped discover Uranus; and many more. Note that … the list of visible contribution by hobbyists and doers is most certainly shorter than the real one, as some academic might have appropriated the innovation by his predecessor.

Rev. Richard Whately

On the somewhat more academic side, economics in particular, in addition to Rev. Malthus, Ross Emmett notes in the recent Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics the importance of Rev. Richard Whately, Rev. Thomas Chalmers, and Rev. Philip Wicksteed, among others.

Whately used his knowledge of economics to bolster his moral opposition to the slave trade. Chalmers, “one of the most widely read churchman [sic] of his time,” following Malthus made an economic case for the benefits of Christian education for the poor. Wicksteed improved upon the earlier, utilitarian and objective (i.e. Benthamite) view of economic value. And, according to Emmett,

Combining his theological belief that inequality and poverty were denials of God’s plan for humanity with a theory of economic value that showed how, if market processes were allowed to work, value would be distributed in a manner consistent with subjective evaluations of the contributions of resources to people’s plans, Wicksteed could come to announce that Jesus “the supreme prophet is the supreme economist as well.”

Whatever one’s opinion of them, I’d like to see more research done in the present to bring to light the work of such interesting figures who combined serious study of economics with theological, pastoral, and moral commitments and concerns.

And more on those guys who studied and invented stuff out of boredom would be good too.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.