The Miracle of the Reformers: Why Teaching Your Kids Hymns is Good for the Economy
Perhaps the songs we teach our children is one the most important legacies we can leave for posterity.
This morning I sat down to breakfast with my wife and four daughters. After eggs and sausage, we listened to the classic hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” My wife educates our kids (and really our whole family), and this year we’re memorizing classic hymns, with the hunch that our ancestors have new light to shed on our 21st century lives.
Amongst the sound of chattering kids and clanking forks and knives, my wife turned on the iPad at the breakfast table and flipped on the speaker.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.
Written in 1680 by Joachim Neader, a German Reformed Calvinist, I couldn’t help but notice that this song begins not only with worship, but by affirming that God is the King of all creation. He is provider for both our bodies (our health and material needs) and our souls (salvation).
It’s kinda funny to listen to my four-year-old Alice pronounce the Victorian English of the translation, so I kept listening while sipping my coffee.
Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e’er have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?
Our desires have all been granted by “what He ordaineth?” Could anything be more different from the version of capitalism we see today, so well summed up by Andrew Carnegie: “The art of capitalism is turning luxuries into necessities.” Wouldn’t this Puritan view of God’s provision – even for our desires – lead to radical contentment? And even thrift, since we have all we really need and even desire in what God has given us?
Now Cora is rocking back and forth to the tune, Sierra has paused from eating her hard-boiled egg (she won’t touch those blasted scrambled eggs), and we sing the third verse:
Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.
“Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee.” And here’s the miracle of the Puritans: the doctrine of vocation. All of life is to be lived for God, even our “secular work.” And when our work leads to prosperity, and even wealth, it’s a gift from God. It’s evidence of his daily “goodness and mercy.”
This is truly an incredible view of creation, money, work and contentment.
Some have argued that Reformed theology led to a magical combination: hard work, wealth creation, thrift, honesty created the explosion of wealth from 1500 to today. It was Christian theology that led to excess wealth (who needs to spend more if you’re content with what you have?), which led to capital investments, and, eventually, capital markets that built the modern economy. Not all agree with that view. But some do.
Listen to this perspective from a Chinese scholar. Dr. Peter Zhao Xiao is a high ranking economist in the Chinese Communist party. In 2002, he was sent by his superiors to the United States to research why the American economy had been so prosperous. After visiting the USA for months, he concluded that the secret to the American economy was their churches.
He penned an essay entitled “Churches in the Market Economy”, which would subsequently be read by over 100 million people.
“Americans are not idiots,” he wrote to his Chinese countrymen.
“Their need for churches is overwhelming, and churches provide something in answer to their call — there is definitely some principle at work. During my time in America, the relationship of churches with America’s economy, society, and politics became the issue that most often occupied my mind…At its heart the problem could be stated as a comparison between market economies with churches and market economies without churches.”
So what was his conclusion? Christians who attend church drive the market economy because their faith encourages them to spurn idleness, be honest, and discourage “injury” (cheating, lying, stealing). Here’s the logic of his argument:
- A market economy alone may encourage industriousness, but it also might encourage industrious lying, cheating, and stealing.
- This is (as of 2002) the problem with the Chinese economy: Getting wealthy by any means necessary creates collusion between government and business rather than accountability. Personal profit rather than doing what’s right damages everything from upholding contracts to funding businesses that extract wealth rather than create it.
The problem? It’s one of faith, says Dr. Zhao Xiao.
“These days Chinese people do not believe in anything. They don’t believe in god, they don’t believe in the devil, they don’t believe in providence, they don’t believe in the last judgment, to say nothing about heaven. A person who believes in nothing ultimately can only believe in himself. And self-belief implies that anything is possible — what do lies, cheating, harm, and swindling matter?”
- Market economies with churches, however, tend to uphold the rule of law and ethics like integrity and honesty.
“It is people who turn their eyes to church spires who generally respect financial norms and integrity… Puritans, though they may be called the most fervent people in the world in their drive to accumulate wealth, nevertheless do not pursue wealth for personal benefit but rather ‘to the glory of God.’”
Divine reward and punishment caused Reformed Christians not only to create wealth, but to also be honest, thrifty, and committed to the public good rather than merely private benefit.
- Zhao Xiao’s conclusion: “From the perspective of human society, the most successful model is church + market economy. That is to say, the happy combination of a market economy that discourages idleness together with a strong faith (ethics) that discourages dishonesty and injury.” As you can imagine, coming from a high ranking Communist party economist, this perspective was wildly controversial.
Going back to “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation,” you can see how this kind of theology might create a society of both honesty and prosperity.
(1) God is King over all of creation, including the natural world, the social world, and our economic affairs.
(2) God provides for the needs of his people, which means they can be content with what they have. It also means we’re accountable to God for how we use what he’s given us, including our wealth.
(3) Work is a gift of God, and so are the fruits of our work, such as profit. As such, wealth is to be used for the public good, and not only personal benefit. And our work should be dedicated to living for “God’s glory” rather than personal success.
It’s unfashionable today to say that the market economy is fundamentally dependent on the ethical system derived from Christianity. But there’s strong evidence that this is the truth – and that economies are fundamentally dependent on ethics like trust for growth. There’s also strong evidence that a secular economy, like we see emerging in Europe and America, is weaker and more stagnant. (See for Harvard President Larry Summer’s “The Age of Secular Stagnation.”)
On a personal level, there’s also strong evidence that teaching my kids reformation-era hymns is not only good for their souls but also for the world. A brief point of application: Let’s start sharing songs that affirm God’s activity in creation, his provision for our needs, and the gift of work. Here’s a good place to begin.
Discussion: Would you leave your favorite creation-affirming or work-affirming hymn or contemporary song in the comments section below?