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Surprise! Evangelicals Were Once Radical Economic Populists Who Planted the Seeds of Our Own Struggles Against the 1%

In a new book on America's founding era popular-finance movement, William Hogeland brings us forgotten folk heroes who fought against early elites. Many were Bible-toting, end-time Christians.

Editor's Note: You wouldn't know if from the way the Rev. Billy Graham cozies up to today's elites, but Evangelicals were once the staunch enemies of America's privileged class. In his new book Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation, William Hogeland wipes away the cobwebs, slogs through the fog of historical consensus, and challenges the cherished myths of both the left and the right to take a clear-eyed look at what was really going on in late 18th Century America when the Revolution was born.

In Hogeland's refreshingly unsentimental account, which favors primary sources, the Great Myth of founding era struggles as a unified front of liberty-loving Americans v.  British despots instantly dissolves. In its place, we see that across the newly forming nation, especially in the western regions, economic radicals were agitating to fight regressive taxation, absentee landlords, and privilege among their own countrymen. Popular accounts of the Revolutionary Period obscure the fact that ordinary working Americans mounted aggressive challenges to rich oppressors at home and risked their lives to see an America develop that truly represented "We the People" -- and not just a small group eastern merchants, planters, and financiers. And they met with determined resistance.

Hogeland tells the story of how these populist-minded Americans pitted themselves against the early architects of high finance -- battles that resulted in protests, clashes, and sometimes violent rebellion.  All of us, he reminds us, tend to view the founding era through modern ideological lenses that blur the vitality and complexity of the period. Tea Partiers view early protests against taxation as challenges to big government instead of the calls for fairness and economic equality that they were. Liberals and progressives are often uncomfortable with millenialist visionaries whose reading of the Bible and end-time religious ferver drove them to champion programs of economic equality as part of their vision for Christian revelation.

Woven into the story of Founding Finance is the fascinating figure of Herman Husband, a charismatic Evangelical philospher who loved America, but despised the growing concentration of wealth. His full-throated calls for economic fairness troubled the likes of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton as much as those of radical rationalists like Thomas Paine – challenging their views on liberty and equality. Today, Evangelicals have been largely co-opted by the right, but their predecessors who existed outside the elite structures of established churches often shared common purpose with secular populists, promoting ideas on communal property, progressive taxation, and profit-sharing. Evangelicals like Herman Husband thought their desire for radical economic and social equality was in line with the high-Whig love for liberty embraced by the famous leaders of the Revolution. They came to see that they were wrong. But these economic justice-loving Americans are the ancestors not only of the Progressive Party, the New Deal, and the Great Society, but their legacy lives on in the battles we must wage today in an era of rising economic inequality. - Lynn Parramore

From Chapter 2: “Riot, Regulate, Occupy (1765 – 1771)”

Herman Husband lived in hope of imminent Christian millennium and therefore owned no slaves. He was a rich tobacco planter and entrepreneur from Maryland’s eastern shore, and in 1754 he left his home and traveled south, deep into the North Carolina backcountry. He wanted to make money and to build the biblical Canaan.

But Husband stayed in North Carolina to do something more: disconnect American government from economic privilege. Seventeen years later, he would flee on horseback minutes ahead of arrest and hanging, a fugitive from justice for his defiance on behalf of small farmers, artisans, and laborers. By then, Herman Husband was on his way to becoming one of America’s first full-time activists for economic and political equality.