James Hudnut-Beumler on the History of Church Financing in the US
Date: October 1st, 2017

While congregations may pray for manna from heaven, financing a religious institution often relies upon hard work, creativity, and direct appeals to parishioners to contribute to the provision of the clergy and the buildings.  Prof. James Hudnut-Beumler, the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious History at Vanderbilt University, discusses his historical studies of how American Protestant churches changed their funding models over the past two and a half centuries.  We begin with a personal story of how Dr. Hudnut-Beumler came to be interested in the economics behind church funding, and he regales us with a story of his chance meeting with Ben Bernake (yet to become chairman of the Federal Reserve).  Upon finding out that Jim studied religion, Bernake told him how economics predicts that women would be more religiously active then men.  We talk a bit more about the appropriateness of using economics to understand the world of religion, and Jim notes that one of the most important concepts that economics contributes to a humanities-based approach is the notion of value.  Indeed, the becomes important later in our interview when we ask Prof. Hudnut-Beumler about his own personal reflections on his research and how it helped him in his religious vocation as a Presbyterian minister.  We then work our way through a history of American Protestantism and how funding models have changed over time.

Jim notes that there are three common tensions or ironies that run throughout this history including: clergy who raise money “for God” understand that they are really paying for their own salary; the spiritualization of appeals for financing; and the increasing voluntary nature of church tithing.  Jim points out that roughly two-thirds of the cost of running a congregation goes to personnel in the form of salaries and other compensation.  During America’s colonial history, much of the needed funding was collected via taxes collected by local governments.  This began to change during the First Great Awakening as itinerant ministers and upstart churches would compete with the state-funded churches for members and funds.  By the end of the 18th century and into the early 19th century, congregations lost support of state funding and needed to make new appeals to members to voluntarily contribute to churches.  We talk a bit about the “pew rent” model and learn, as a fun fact, that the raised boxes of seating in many churches were to house heated bricks to keep the wealthier congregants warmer in the winter.  Not only was it valuable to sit up front near the preacher, but that was also where the heating was!  Another development in the first half of the 1800s was the rise of the “Benevolence Empire,” wherein colporteurs and other charity entrepreneurs would raise funds for specific causes.  Realizing that this was competing with a fixed set of dollars that congregants were giving to religious causes, church congregations also got into this business leading to a dramatic increase in the amount of charitable funding during this era.  Another fascinating development, and one which surprised Prof. Hudnut-Beumler, was the emphasis placed on constructing and remodeling church buildings.  Whereas we are often treated with iconic photos of churches that exist “as they were in colonial days,” the truth of the matter is that church buildings were constantly undergoing change as individual congregants saw building or remodeling a church as a way to demonstrate devotion to God and to take pride in one’s own congregation.

The next phase of church financing occurred after the Civil War and up to World War I.  Here Jim emphasizes a rediscovery of tithing and stewardship, noting how religious rhetoric tended to spiritualize the notion of giving, making it appear as one’s duty to God as compared to the mere need to support the pastor and keep the building looking tidy.  Also during this era, clergy began to see themselves as professionals, much the way one would envision a business manager or banker.  A number of congregations responded to this by altering how they compensated their clergy, and Jim provides examples of the Presbyterians who insisted upon supporting their ministers and missionaries on a salary that was equivalent to that of a local school superintendent.  United Lutherans developed another model of investing in pensions for their clergy so they knew they would be taken care of after their retirement.  We then talk about the developments that occur in the latter half of the 20th century and how growing suburbanization led to increased demands for a “seven day church” that was used for athletic and other social activities.  Church sizes began to increase as did the spread of non-denominational churches.  We then talk about how automated teller machines (ATMs) and the rise of “plastic money” has changed the giving model, with many churches turning to weekly debits from bank accounts as a way to smooth out the annual giving cycle.  Jim tells us about how his father, a minister, would be somewhat concerned about family expenses going into the summer as that was the time when contributions were at their lowest.  (Tony notes that another guest on the podcast brought up this same issue, Pastor Larry Osborne, who Tony mistakenly refers to as Robert Osborne.  Oops.)  We conclude our discussion some of Rev. Hudnut-Beumler’s own personal reflections about what he has learned in his studies and how it has affected his ministry.  He emphasized the importance of speaking plainly and transparently to congregants about the need for funding.  Recorded: September 29, 2017.




Prof. James Hudnut-Beumler’s bio at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School.

In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, by James Hudnut-Beumler.

Why Cash Remains Sacred in American Churches,” by James Hudnut-Beumler (on RealClearReligion).

Looking for God in the Suburbs: The Religion of the American Dream and Its Critics, 1945-1965, by James Hudnut-Beumler.

Generous Saints: Congregations Rethinking Money and Ethics, by James Hudnut-Beumler.

The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, by Peter Paris, et al. (including James Hudnut-Beumler).

The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, by Steven Garber (mentioned in the podcast).


Larry Osborne on Church Finances and Growth.

John Fea on the American Bible Society.

Michael McConnell on Church Property Disputes.

Phillip Sinitierre on the Osteens and Lakewood Church.

Richard Hammar on Churches, Taxes, Donations, and Liability.

Mike McBride on the Economics of Church Leadership.

Thom Rainer on Baptist Conventions and Church Health.

Jordan Lorence on Religious Property Cases.

5 Responses to “James Hudnut-Beumler on the History of Church Financing in the US”

  1. Tim Hopper says:

    As a church treasurer and an American church history nerd, I’m inordinately excited to listen to this.

    • tonygill says:

      We approve of your excited-ness. The book is fantastic. I worked off of a library version of it when I drafted up my questions, but then did go out and buy Prof. Hudnut-Beumler’s book as it has both great stories and a strong theoretical narrative to it, just the way I like my history!

  2. This was a terrific interview. It helped me to slog through my morning run.:) Very much enjoyed the history and Dr. Hudnut-Beumler’s wisdom as we are in the midst of our annual stewardship season. I’d love to get a copy of his “intinerant” stewardship sermon. I also appreciate the links to other articles cited in the podcast. Thanks

    • tonygill says:

      Thanks for the kind words. Glad to know that we are helping out with your physical fitness regimen as well! Keep on runnin’!

  3. […] James Hudnut-Beumler on the History of Church Financing in the US. […]

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