It is the 11th of January 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1759.
"Optimism," said Cacambo, "What is that?" "Alas!" replied Candide, "It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst."
These words from François-Marie Arouet, or, Voltaire were published in this year, 1759. The novella is called "Candide" after the main protagonist. But the book's subtitle is "Optimism," and the book is anything but optimistic. In what is, in this author's opinion, one of the funniest books ever written, the iconoclastic Voltaire takes on metaphysics, abusive religion, and a host of other marks.
When the so-called "Age of Reason" is caricatured, it usually involves angry atheists praising science and condemning religious belief. This might be a caricature of one enlightenment element, but we do well to take a broad look at the movement and its characters.
One such Enlightenment figure, a Scotsman, wrote the "Theory of Moral Sentiments," also in 1759. Adam Smith would become more well known for his "Wealth of Nations," published in 1776. Smith, a theologian, shared Voltaire's distaste for theory, and his work sought to break down our moral actions by way of two impulses we have, that of self-interest and empathy. Smith thought that a political theory, an economic theory, and a moral theory could be extrapolated from human nature's fundamental truths.
In the New World, the colonists worried less about a moral theory of anything as they did an economic theory. With the Seven Years War playing out in the North American theatre, financial support from the crown was non-existent, and the taxes levied on the colonists on account of the Seven Years War brought many to financial ruin.
In times of economic insecurity, the landed were able to borrow. But as the colonies were growing and the landed were rarer (especially in big cities), new lending methods often developed through mutual aid societies and insurance companies.
Many Christians had been reluctant to involve themselves in anything that smelled of usury. Part of the new colonial experience meant not relying on bankers and the elite for economic security. But they would certainly need to take care of their own, and new insurance companies, often run parallel to church bodies, became the best way to corporate financial security.
And it was, in fact, the church doing this. Today you might see a commercial for Nationwide Insurance, but when you do, I want you to remember the company that was eventually rolled into that juggernaut. It was on this the 11th of January in 1759 that the "Corporation for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers and the Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers" was founded. The first of its type, we will call it the Presbyterian Ministers Fund for short. This fund allowed congregations or ministers to pay into an account that would provide an annuity to their families after their death.
It started out as a voluntary institution that took donations and allotted them to the widows and children of ministers. But as they began to also take in regular fees, they were able to lend as well, but at a rate no more than 6% per Pennsylvania law. The ministers would benefit, but so would the colonies. The Presbyterian Ministers fund became the largest non-English depository for funds and thus was called upon by the Colonial Army to finance the War of Independence. The Ministers Fund would help bankroll the Union during the Civil War, paid the ransom for a high-profile kidnapping, and helped in the WW1 war effort, all the while paying out annuities to the widows and children of Presbyterian ministers.
The fund is no longer used for its original purposes, a special widows’ fund was created from the collected capital. By 1980 the fund had over two billion dollars in policies. They would later change their name to the vaguely religious "Covenant" to the even more vaguely Christian "Providence.” Then they were bought out by Nationwide.
But we know them as “The Corporation for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers and of the Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers" which was chartered on this, the 11th of January in 1759.
A short reading for today, a poem entitled “Mercy” by John F. Deane.
Unholy we sang this morning, and prayed
as if we were not broken, crooked
the Christ-figure hung, splayed
on bloodied beams above us;
devious God, dweller in shadows,
mercy on us;
immortal, cross-shattered Christ—
your gentling grace down upon us.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 11th of January 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by my own personal Pangloss, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.