In stewardship circles, among the historical writings referenced from time to time is Andrew Carnegie’s essay, “The Gospel of Wealth.” In today’s post, I highlight the paradoxes in the text, a piece that is at the same time vexing, brilliant, beautiful, and dangerous. What might “The Gospel of Wealth,” written over 125 years ago, teach us about faith and giving today?
Adam J. Copeland, Director
Center for Stewardship Leaders
On “The Gospel of Wealth”
by Adam J. Copeland
The aid organization Oxfam International recently published a report showing that the richest 1% of the population has as much wealth as the rest of the world combined. Further, the report stated that the richest 62 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the world. I’ll pause to let that sink in.
While some have accused Oxfam of campaigning against wealth rather than against poverty, the headlines accompanying the report suggest that the debate around wealth inequality is quite alive today. Indeed, with election season creeping ever closer, the volume of the debate will only grow in the months to come.
Questions concerning great wealth, though, are not just something we wrestle with today. In 1889, the industrialist turned philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, published “The Gospel of Wealth.” The essay caused quite the uproar in its time, and is commonly referenced today. In his era, Carnegie was quite possibly the richest man in the world. The essay marks the beginning of his public commitment to give away his entire fortune before his death. But Carnegie went beyond the personal, arguing that it is the obligation of all millionaires to give away their fortunes in their lifetimes.
The essay begins with a sentence that, minus the masculine language, might start an Op-Ed today: “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.”
But before you start advocating all should rush to follow Carnegie’s teachings, the essay is also full of contradictions brought to light by our more modern perspective. Carnegie was a follower of the English philosopher Herbert Spencer, proponent of social Darwinism that taught those on the top of society deserved to be there because of their superior moral purpose, intellect, and abilities. It is Spencer who first penned the phrase, “survival of the fittest.”
Carnegie, then, advocated that millionaires should give away their money because they are the wisest, most adept leaders of society and would make better decisions about the use of that money than others. In fact, Carnegie saw the millionaire — and remember “millionaire” is in 1889 dollars — as “a trustee for the poor” who is tasked with “doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” Such a view undermines all we know now about the importance of respecting the agency and autonomy of our neighbors.
So, Carnegie warned about giving alms or charity — which, in his view, too often rewarded vice — and instead pushed for the establishment of public institutions that would improve the general condition of people by providing “the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise.”
Somewhat paradoxically, after Carnegie pledged to give away all his money, he became an even more ruthless boss committed to earning himself more so that he might give it away. He advocated for estate taxes near 100%, therefore incentivizing the rich to wisely distribute their incomes in their lifetime. Finally, Carnegie wrote that the man of wealth must “set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance.”
After reading “The Gospel of Wealth,” the margins of my copy now has many marks ranging from “Yes!” to “Yikes!” to “So wrong!” Because Carnegie’s views, to our modern ear, sound both unorthodox and timely, I hope they will spur connections for your own consideration of stewardship, generosity, and sharing God’s abundance.
I’ll close with a quote from theologian William Jewett Tucker’s 1891 review of “The Gospel of Wealth.” Tucker went on to become president of Dartmouth College. Tucker, a Congregational pastor, wrote:
“I can conceive of no greater mistake, more disastrous in the end to religion if not to society, than that of trying to make charity do the work of justice.”
Rev. Adam J. Copeland is the director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders.
“Sometimes our concern for the poor may carry with it a prejudice against the rich.” –Henri J. Nouwen
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