Culture and Development

[Preamble | Manifesto | Agenda]

BOOK REVIEW by Prof. Guptara

Religion, Business and Wealth in Modern Britain, edited by David J Jeremy; Routledge, London, 1998, 195pp, h/b, 50, 0-415-16898-8

Debates about the interaction between religion, business and wealth go back a long way. The debate can be traced in scholarly literature at least to the 1770s. In most people's minds, however, the debate focuses around the work of Max Weber who, in his articles published in 1904 and 1906, focused the debate on the role of Protestantism in the rise of Capitalism. This collection of essays can be seen as a contribution to the continuing debate about Weber's thesis.

In his Introduction, Jeremy helpfully provides a table of the main controversies and disputants since 1770, summarises Weber's thesis and the main supporting and opposing arguments, considers the nonconformist contribution to the Industrial Revolution in Britain, places them in the larger context of religious minorities and the creation of wealth, discusses the role of rich individuals in the life of the Church, and examines the questions of: how far Methodism (and, by implication, religion generally) was an instrument of social control by capitalists; whether religion played a central role in British industrial decline; and how far religious duty influenced power relations in firms (including paternalism and profit-sharing).

The essays themselves are divided into four sections (The relationship between religion and political economy, Nonconformists and wealth, Quakers and wealth, and Ethnicity, religion and wealth). Some of the contributions, especially those in sections one and four, are of interest primarily to academics. Of wider interest are the essays examining a host of aspects of the increasing wealth and benefactions of Methodists between 1740 and the early twentieth century, as well as those which examine Quaker business attitudes and culture from 1690 to 1950. Though the essays on Quakers throw some biographical light, there is only one study of an individual, that of the nonconformist merchant-manufacturer John Rylands of Manchester, and it is a fascinating portrait of divinely-endowed ability, deep commitment to values and to God, and incredible hard work (sixteen hours a day, six days a week, for seventy years).

Reflecting on this collection of essays, I have the following observations:

  1. Some scholars quibble semantically about the Weber thesis but there is as yet no alternative explanation for the fact that it was those parts of the world which experienced the Reformation which also experienced scientific, technological, industrial, economic, political and eventually social progress (even today, the parts of the world most active in environmental matters are those which most experienced the Reformation), and that progress of all sorts has spread from Reformed to non-Reformed parts of the world.

  2. The problems with the Weber thesis arise mostly because scholars focus the debate too narrowly on the attitudes, habits, beliefs and actions of entrepreneurs as individuals. The Reformation was not primarily about these; it was at least in equal measure about making individual attitudes, habits, beliefs and actions possible by reforming society in such a way that a particular set of individuals, institutions and beliefs did not prevent other institutions and beliefs from arising. Weber's own focus on individual entrepreneurs is a reflection of how far the individualisation of society had progressed by his time: he was not even aware himself that such individualism was possible only because of the Reformation. But the Reformation was also about establishing the rule of law over kings, rather than making kings rule over law; it is the Reformation therefore which eventually democratised society (the most Reformed parts of the world are also the most democratic; in non-democratic parts of the world, the key question is still whether the ruler is subject to the law). It is such institutional re-arrangements which enabled the modern Capitalist-Industrialist-Democratic world to emerge. In other words, the Weber thesis needs to be expanded from concern with the behaviour of individuals to a concern with the whole of the social-economic-scientific-political context if its intuition is to be expressed fully.

  3. One writer in this collection attempts to draw a distinction between the "explicit teachings" of the Reforming groups and "unrelated characteristics" (i.e. the networks or groups themselves) This is not entirely a true or even a useful distinction: speaking from personal experience of family-, Hindu-, Christian-, Muslim-, Buddhist-, Rotary- and other networks, I can testify that the character of a belief-system ineluctably moulds the character of the network created by it.

Professor Prabhu Guptara
Director, Executive and Organisational Development
Wolfsberg Executive Development Centre
(A subsidiary of UBS AG)
CH-8272 Ermatingen
Tel: +41.71.663.5605
Fax: +41.71.663.5594

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