Losing the soul to greed by Caitlin McGeever

Matthew 16:26—“For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

A text at the intersection of American capitalism and American Christianity.

The rate of quotations to Matthew 16:26 in Chronicling America, 1836–1922. See the full visualization for the complete trend line and to see quotations to this verse on newspaper pages.

When considering the cost of a soul, a contributor to the Rocky Ford Enterprise in 1896 wrote that “The man who is not willing to be good is the enemy to God, no matter how near the pulpit he sits in church,” for “is it not true that the man who finds money in following the devil, finds it to his soul’s cost?”1 This Colorado newspaper was one of many that used Matthew 16:26 as a warning against the love of money, particularly in relation to the growing wealth gap of the nineteenth century. The verse, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” places the value of a soul above all worldly possessions and in jeopardy of losing the soul to greed.

The work of capitalists was viewed by many as being in direct opposition to Christianity and a threat to national morality. In an entry addressed to the editor of The Camden Journal, the operation of railroads on the Christian Sabbath was presented as evidence of corporate greed and capitalistic abandonment of religion. The author claimed that violating the Sabbath encouraged vice and asked, “If all men neglected the observance of the Sabbath, how soon would the whole social fabric fall” and abandon souls to “the theory of Atheism”?2 This extreme of loving money was considered the “sin of the day”3 that possessed men to abandon their roles as fathers and fall short of achieving manhood, for “this madness for money is the strongest and lowest of the passions.”4

As the United States underwent processes of industrialization and urbanization, concerns arose about the treatment of laborers and the wealth accumulation of businessmen. In 1840 author A.H.H. assured readers of the Vermont Telegraph that “evil lies in the love of money, not in the possession of it” for “the more wealth we have the greater is our ability to be useful.”5 Yet there are assuredly, according to A.H.H., improper and unlawful ways of obtaining money that oppress the poor and denote the businessman a “fool.” In 1849 Uriah H. Judan responded in the Daily National Whig to what he considered the failing of Christians to uplift their “fellow-creatures” and prioritize their souls. Admonishing capitalists in his article, Judan accuses these men of being extortioners and asks, “Did you never, from purely selfish motives—from the fear of honorable competition—endeavor to crush the industrious poor man, in order that you might obtain his portion of the public patronage?”6

In other respects, Matthew 16:26 was applied to the evaluation of the nation’s soul and its potential demise. By the 1850s the verse was quoted in discussions of disunion and the national debate over slavery, primarily by Southerners. In response to a recent disunion convention and “odious” Southern Confederacy convention, an Iowan contributor to the Burlington Hawk-eye expressed delight that Tennessee and Louisiana legislators did not subscribe to the ideas of the “Southern Traitors to the Constitution,” equating their loyalty to the Union with charity to the church.7 He even modified Matthew 16:26 to read, “What shall it profit the South if it should gain all it anticipates and lose its part in the Union?”8

Maryland, on the other hand, published a letter addressed to John C. Calhoun and authored by “A NORTHERN MAN WITH SOUTHERN CITIZENSHIP” that questioned northern accusations of southern greed using Matthew 16:26. Regarding religion as “the antecedent to our government,” this author accuses northern governments of hypocrisy for believing that God was against slavery but continuing to profit from enslaved labor.9 How could the North continue to profit from slavery and promote their religious interpretation against the institution? He asserted that his enslavement practices keep the commandments and therefore attempts to end slavery doubled as attacks on his free exercise of religion. He claimed that the Wilmot Proviso in particular violated the First Amendment, and democracy in general, as an attempt to implement the northern “particular church as the national religion, after the manner of the nations of Europe.”10 He closes with encouragement to the South “to get religiously devout about the Wilmot proviso” in a fight for the nation’s soul.

When it came to war itself, the many deaths caused people to question their faith and rethink government’s obligation to its citizens.11 One Missouri paper scolded both the Union and the Confederacy in 1861 for acting against Christian teachings, particularly in their seeming “endeavour to magnify the number of killed by each of the other in every contest.”12 The Glasgow Weekly Times invoked Matthew 16:26 in their concern over the souls lost to battlefields; the disregard of the sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill”; and the resultant abundance of new orphans and widows [because] “Christ placed a higher estimate on the value of a soul than many of his professed followers in this enlightened age of the world.”13

By 1863, advice was printed to encourage soldiers to be prepared for death, encouraging young men to think of Matthew 16:26 and work to clear their consciences before battle. John H. Lee, a soldier in company F of the 34^th^ North Carolina Infantry Regiment, was disturbed by the inability to die the Good Death on a battlefield and was greatly concerned that a lack of proper preparation would end in the loss of souls. He encouraged soldiers to truly believe in their cause, but that faith must be secondary to faith in Jesus: “Unless you enlist and become a soldier of the Cross and fight the battles of Jesus, you are lost!”14 The following year, the funerary sermon for Lieutenant Williamson, a young man of twenty-two who fought in the “the Slave Holder’s Rebellion,” quoted the verse in relation to the young man’s motives—“I can conceive, my friends, of no nobler sacrifice than this; of no more honorable death than this; to die nobly in defense of country.”15

The post-war years caused Southerners to evaluate the value of their souls and citizenship in light of what the federal government required of states to rejoin the Union. In the lead-up to the first presidential election of Reconstruction, the Memphis Daily Appeal published an article voicing Southern concerns over radical Republican policies, a primary fear of which was a reversal of the racial hierarchy supposedly to be accomplished by providing freedmen the ability to deny white male Southerners the right to vote. The author appealed to the readership by citing Matthew 16:26 and encouraging white men to “Organize, work, be men, restore the old heroic days, or go to the devil.”16

By the century’s close the verse was once again enacted against greed, but the public became more concerned with the combination of money and power. Considered by one man to be “the greatest question every propounded by human lips,”17 Matthew 16:26 served as the topic of several sermons throughout the century. The Rev. Mr. Butler of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Washington, DC, preached in 1867 about the shams of the world that led men astray, the primary example of which was gold. Gold having little intrinsic value, Butler asserted that “the religion of the Bible secures what gold cannot purchase”—a warning to those who place a high value on obtaining wealth.18

As big business came to dominate the economy, warnings were placed against corporations because they “count only the souls of the men in the power which gives direction to their affairs.”19 Yet sermons and articles also began to be more concerned with how the money was used rather than how it was obtained. They still referenced Matthew 16:26 to ensure focus on one’s soul was of top priority, but as “C.” insisted in the Sunday School column of the Andrew County Republican, “it does not matter how much we make, if we only make good use of it.”20 Therein lay the true way to evaluate a souls’ worth, the article argued, by the individual’s actions rather than their wealth.

Men were to always remain on guard to ensure money acted as a servant rather than a master.21 When it came to enacting proper manhood, Rev. C. W. Biddle of Lynn, Massachusetts, seemed to contradict the verse when he told his Universalist church in 1870 that “it was not wrong to gain the world.”22 He insisted that one did not need to renounce wealth to be a Christian for that was a “monkish piety;” rather, proper “manhood consists in a mastery of the outward and material,” and men should “gain the world for use, beauty and comfort.”23 It was the improper acquisition and use of money that caused an individual to lose both his manliness and his soul.

The extreme wealth gap of the 1890s caused much of the nation to publicly criticize and attempt to subvert wealthy culture and action.24 Industrialist robber barons were excoriated in newspapers with Matthew 16:26 used to illuminate their faults. In 1893 the Progressive Farmer stated, “It doesn’t profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul, neither does it profit the country to let a few millionaires gain the property while the balance of mankind are fighting each other over imaginary issues.”25 Power, like money, could be both improperly gained and used, which would ultimately sacrifice a soul—both the individual’s and the nation’s—if the government allowed for such wealth and power to be wielded by so few. When questioning the tie between extreme wealth and the value of a soul, the Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr. of Cape Charles, Virginia, simply asked about the well-known railroad magnate, “Was Jay Gould’s life worth living?”26

This cartoon was paired with an article that wrote that the governor’s supporters are “hardy men of toil who have been robbed by the railroad interests long enough.” This clarification was intended to boost the governor’s reputation. Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown, IA), 6 April 1906.

This cartoon was paired with an article that wrote that the governor’s supporters are “hardy men of toil who have been robbed by the railroad interests long enough.” This clarification was intended to boost the governor’s reputation. Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown, IA), 6 April 1906.

At the turn of the twentieth century the Los Angeles Herald condemned commercialism and business, which they believed separated men from God; the love of money dominated the nation and corrupted citizens with commercial greed.27 As Rev. Frank S. Rowland preached to his Methodist church in 1913, “The latest way of spelling America is with the dollar sign.”28 And the best way to counteract this “money-mad” culture, according to Rowland, was to revisit Matthew 16:26 and contemplate the value of one’s soul.

  1. Rocky Ford Enterprise (Rocky Ford, CO), 6 February 1896↩︎

  2. Camden Journal (Camden, SC), 9 May 1849↩︎

  3. Green-Mountain Freeman (Montpelier, VT), 26 June 1851↩︎

  4. Semi-Weekly Standard (Raleigh, NC), 28 January 1854↩︎

  5. Vermont Telegraph (Brandon, VT), 14 October 1840↩︎

  6. Daily National Whig (Washington, DC), 18 May 1849↩︎

  7. Burlington Hawk-eye (Burlington, IA), 21 March 1850↩︎

  8. Burlington Hawk-eye (Burlington, IA), 21 March 1850↩︎

  9. Port Tobacco Times, and Charles County Advertiser (Port Tobacco, MD), 31 July 1850↩︎

  10. Port Tobacco Times, and Charles County Advertiser (Port Tobacco, MD), 31 July 1850↩︎

  11. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008). ↩︎

  12. Glasgow Weekly Times (Glasgow, MO), 1 August 1861↩︎

  13. Glasgow Weekly Times (Glasgow, MO), 1 August 1861↩︎

  14. Spirit of the Age (Raleigh, NC), 7 December 1863↩︎

  15. American Citizen (Butler, PA), 22 June 1864↩︎

  16. Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, TN) 28 July 1868↩︎

  17. Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, DC), 25 April 1859↩︎

  18. National Republican (Washington, DC), 26 August 1867↩︎

  19. Patron of Husbandry (Columbus, MS), 4 June 1881↩︎

  20. Andrew County Republican (Savannah, MO), 8 January 1875↩︎

  21. Weekly Union Times (Union C.H., SC), 28 May 1880↩︎

  22. New York Herald (New York, NY), 20 June 1870↩︎

  23. New York Herald (New York, NY) 20 June 1870↩︎

  24. Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870–1920 (Free Press, 2003). ↩︎

  25. Progressive Farmer (Winston, NC), 30 May 1893↩︎

  26. Yorkville Enquirer (Yorkville, SC) 2 August 1893↩︎

  27. Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, CA), 1 July 1907↩︎

  28. Detroit Times (Detroit, MI), 6 January 1913↩︎