Economic Decline Of The Church & Protestantism

We know what happened to organized religion in the wake of the Gunpowder Revolution: it created strong incentives to downsize religious institutions and lower their costs. When the traditional Church declined to do this, Protestant sects seized the opportunity to compete. In so doing they employed almost every device imaginable to reduce the cost of living a pious life:

  • They built spare new churches and sometimes stripped the altars of older ones to free capital for other uses.
  • They revised Christian doctrine in ways that lowered costs, emphasizing faith over good deeds as a key to salvation.
  • They developed a new, terse liturgy, pared or eliminated fear days, and abolished numerous sacraments.
  • They closed monasteries and nunneries, and stopped giving alms to mendicant orders. Poverty went from being an apostolic virtue to an unwelcome and often blameworthy social problem

To understand how downsizing the Church liberated productivity, you have to review the many ways that the church stood in the way of growth before its monopoly was broken. Much as the nation-state does today, the Church at the end of the fifteenth century imposed an incredible burden of excess costs.

1. Direct costs such as tithes, taxes, and fees fed the overgrown ecclesiastical bureaucracy. Tithes were common to Protestant Churches that replaced the medieval “Holy Mother Church” also, but they tended not to be collectible in urban areas. In effect, the end of the Church’s monopoly led to declining marginal tax rates in regions with the most highly developed commerce.

2. Religious doctrines made saving difficult. The arch-villian of the medieval church was the “miser”, the person who saved his gold at the risk of his soul. The requirement for the faithful to fund “good deeds” entailed costly contributions to the Church. The doctrine of “satisfactions” obliged those concerned about salvation to endow masses or “chantries” in order to avoid purgatory. Luther attacked this directly in the eighth and thirteenth of his ninety-five theses. He wrote that “the dying will pay all their debts by their death.” In other words, the capital of Protestant believer was available to pass on to his heirs. Under Protestant doctrine, there was no need to endow chantries to repeat masses, usually for thirty years, and sometimes, for the very wealthy, in perpetuity.

3. The ideology of the medieval Church also encouraged diversion of capital into the aquisition of relics. Numerous relic cults were endowed with large sums to acquire physical objects associated with Christ or various saints. The very wealthy even assembled personal collections of relics. For example, the Elector Frederick of Saxony amassed a collection of nineteen thousand relics, some acquired on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1493. His collection included what he believed to be “the body of a holy innocent, Mary’s milk, and straw from the stable of the nativity.” Presumably, the return on capital invested in these relics was low. The shift to an emphasis on faith and the notion of the elect downgraded the importance of acquisition of the trappings of Christian life for use as charms and encouraged money to find more productive channels that paid a return that the monarch could tap.

4. The advent of Protestant denominations broke the medieval Church’s economic monopolies, and led to a significant weakening of regulation. AS we have seen, canon law was frequently bent to support Church monopolies and commercial interests. Because the new denominations had fewer economic interests to protect and promote, their version of religious doctrine tended to result in a freer system, with fewer inhibitions of commerce.

5. The Protestant revolution abolished many of the rites and rituals of the medieval Church that burdened the time of the faithful. Rites, sacraments, and holy days had been elaborated to absorb almost the entire calendar by the late fifteenth century. This ceremonial overload was a logical outgrowth of the Church’s insistence “that one could multiply the acts of prayer or worship as often as one liked and gain benefits from them”. Multiply they did. Productivity was taxed by longer and more elaborate services, obligations to recite repititious prayers in penance, and the proliferation of feast days of saints during which no work could be done.

The larger problem of lost productivity did not fall so much in farming as in other areas. The Church’s demands on time were far less compatible with craft work, manufacturing, transport, commerce, or any other undertaking where productivity and profitability were likely to be crucially determined by the amount of time devoted to the task.

6….The Church was the largest feudal landholder by far. It’s grip on the land matched that of the state in highly politicized areas today – exceeding 50% of the total in some European countries such as Bohemia. According to canon law, once a property came under control of the Church, it could not be alienated. Thus the holdings of the Church land tended to steadily rise, as the Church received more and more testamentary gifts from the faithful for financing various social welfare services, chantries, and other activities.

8….The cultural programming of the late Middle Ages encouraged people to see the world in terms of symbolic similitude rather than cause and effect. This short-circuited reasoning.

A fifteenth-century news story, if it had been written, would not have answered any of the classic questions of reporting facts, except indirectly through allegoric personification.

The Sovereign Individual, James Dale Davidson & Lord William Rees-Mogg 1997 pgs 108-112

By Eric Patton

Well look down Yonder Gabriel, put your feet on the
land and see

But Gabriel don't you blow your trumpet till you hear
from me

There ain't no grave can hold my body down

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