Financial History Issue 125 (Spring 2018) | Page 31

Responding to this demand , states established bureaucratic procedures for incorporation to eliminate the favoritism that incorporation through special legislative charter seemed to entail . In the 1840s and 1850s , 13 states introduced laws of general incorporation into their constitutions , and most states enacted statutes establishing uniform mechanisms for attaining corporate standing . According to historian Robert E . Wright , by 1860 , nearly 4,000 US businesses had received charters through general incorporation procedures .
Religious corporations matched business growth . Between 1750 and 1850 , the number of Congregational churches almost quadrupled , growing from 465 to 1,706 . Religious societies funded by Congregationalists established new churches , charities , schools and missionary societies in Ohio , Illinois and Kansas . Presbyterian Church growth was more impressive still , expanding from 233 to 4,824 churches between 1750 and 1850 . Baptists surpassed these wealthy rivals during the same period , growing tenfold from 932 churches to 9,375 . Even as denominations split up over slavery in the 1840s and 1850s , northern and southern branches strengthened and pushed westward , expanding the geographical reach of religious institutions . These corporate organizations offered moral discipline and purpose , as well as competing religious visions of national identity .
Between 1750 and 1850 , American Catholics built 1,200 new churches along with schools , orphanages and convents to serve a fast-growing population of Catholic immigrants and tens of thousands of new converts . By 1860 , 4.4 million Americans — one out of every seven — were Catholic . In the new western states , the proportion of Catholics was greater , closer to one in five . On numerous occasions , Protestant preachers broadcast alarm about a flood of Catholic immigrants rushing into the West to take over the country . Coupled with fierce competition for low-wage work in eastern cities , Protestant anxiety about national identity fed the discrimination against Catholics that periodically erupted in violence . Catholics responded with their own ambitious programs of corporate expansion designed to strengthen Catholic identity and insulate members from abuse and discrimination .
Several states supported the growth of Catholic organizations by issuing charters for Catholic religious societies . In 1784 , New York State passed a law ending the “ illiberal and partial Distribution of Charters of Incorporation to religious societies ” that had created “ great Difficulties ” for Catholics . Without proper charters , unincorporated “ religious Societies ” lacked “ proper Persons authorized by Law , to take charge of their pious Donations ,” the new bill explained , with the result that religious property stayed “ in private Hands , to the great Insecurity of the Society .” Laws expediting incorporation for religious societies followed in other states , and these laws encouraged congregational governance in Catholic churches . Under state charters of incorporation , Catholic congregations became legal persons able to own property and enter into other legal contracts , with lay trustees responsible for managing contracts and various matters of internal governance .
Methodists were the fastest-growing Protestant denomination in the early republic ; with Catholics , they set the pace of American corporate expansion . The new denomination was founded in 1784 , and by 1850 Methodists had built more than 13,000 churches . With small circles of largely selfgoverning religious societies operating under the supervision of a centralized hierarchy , Methodist leaders firmly grasped the principle of vertical integration as an effective means to horizontal expansion . In frontier regions , Methodist societies operated under the monthly supervision of circuit riders , and in cities , Methodist societies served local communities under the supervision of church ministers , elders and deacons . The Methodist blend of hierarchical supervision and small group intimacy proved highly effective , and Methodist societies offered many people — including women and blacks — opportunities for leadership and decision-making they would not otherwise have enjoyed . Well in advance of commercial institutions , the expansion of Methodist churches demonstrated a highly-successful model of national organization .
Methodists also contributed to the market revolution that enabled small artisans , shopkeepers and farmers to forge respectable lives as middle class consumers . Methodist belief in free will supported this economic activity , as free will was translated into confidence in people ’ s ability to surmount difficulties . As Richard Carwardine explained , this religious self-confidence spurred Methodists “ to seek out potential converts under the most daunting conditions and in all corners of the union , however remote , and to get there before their competitors .” Providing emotional outreach to people trapped on the shoals of uncertainty , loss and destitution , the Methodist Church and its publishing house played a major role in the dissemination of inexpensive print media , and in the promotion of reading as a means of communication and social integration .
As they expanded across the nation side by side , religious and commercial corporations developed similarities . Corporate innovations among Catholics , Methodists and other religious groups affected economic activity by supporting labor communities , providing cathartic outlets for emotion and constructing ideals of human personhood to counter the mechanization of industry . At the same time , corporate innovations in manufacturing affected the texture of religious life , imbuing religious institutions and religious practices with elements of machine-like efficiency , and pushing the operations of Christian charity and conceptions of Christian community in the direction of greater calculation and rational organization .
Amanda Porterfield is the Robert A . Spivey Professor of Religion at the Florida State University . She is the author of 10 books , including Conceived in Doubt : Religion and Politics in the Early American Nation and Healing in the History of Christianity . She is also the co-editor of The Business Turn in American Religious History ( with Darren Grem and John Corrigan ).
This article was adapted from Corporate Spirit : Religion and the Rise of the Modern Corporation , by Amanda Porterfield . Copyright © 2018 by Oxford University Press and published by Oxford University Press . All rights reserved .
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