Henry George, Biblical Morality
and Economic Ethics
[Reprinted from the American Journal of Economics
Vol. 39, No.3, July, 1980]
ABSTRACT. The writer [Dr. Preston
Bradley] discovered Henry George through reading one of his great
literary followers, Leo Tolstoy; later the author came to know
intimately many prominent Single Taxers. The experiences convinced him
that the basic economic ideas of George cannot be successfully
challenged. As a religious leader, the writer believes that religion
should never and cannot ever be separated from life. So he believes
that the application of ethics to economic life is as religious as the
statement of Christianity's oldest and most sacred creed. George
formulated a reformed system for capitalism based on biblical
morality, the highest ethical standards of the modern age and its most
exalted insights. We live in an age of continuing economic crisis. We
must infuse our moral and religious principles into our economic
system or we are lost. This is a responsibility bequeathed us by the
wisest and best thinkers of the past, among the greatest of whom was
*An address given on the occasion of
the presentation of the Centennial Edition of Progress and Poverty
to the Public Library of Chicago on October 10, 1979, at a gathering
in Preston Bradley Hall of the Library's Cultural Center. The book was
presented by William Ranky of the Henry George School of Chicago on
behalf of the school, and accepted by Commissioner Donald Sager, in
charge of public library operations in the City of Chicago. It was
read by Dr. Bradley's wife, Mrs. June Haslet Bradley, who prepared the
paper as an abstract of Dr. Bradley's lifelong studies on the subject.
[Rev. Dr. Preston Bradley, D.D., LL.D., founder and senior pastor of
the non-denominational People's Church, Chicago, now in his ninth
decade, is a leading philosopher and theologian and is well known to
the people of the U.S. midwest and elsewhere through his radio and
television lectures. Mrs. Bradley said,, regarding the provenance of
the material: "In preparing this paper, I made use of studies
extending over a long lifetime. I reviewed material in the Manuscript
and Tape Collections and the Preston Bradley Papers of the Library of
the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus, and in scrapbooks
of a private collection."]
THERE WERE but few books in my childhood home in Linden, Michigan. We
were poor and books cost money. Yet among those few books on our
shelves was a paper bound copy of Progress and Poverty and a
pamphlet, The Irish Land Question, both by Henry George. I
never saw anyone reading them, however. In those days millions of
copies of Henry George's great book were gathering dust on the shelves
of millions of other homes throughout the English-speaking world, for
like other great classics, even the Bible, Progress and Poverty
at the turn of the century was a book to be purchased, .to be widely
talked about, and to be largely unread.
My own discovery of Henry George came through my reading of the
novels of Leo Tolstoy. You cannot read Tolstoy and not know Henry
George. Several times in his novels, Tolstoy interrupts his narratives
to speak of his admiration for Henry George and to explain his remedy
for the abolition of poverty. In Resurrection, one of
Tolstoy's best novels, his central character, a vast landowner, sees
the full horror of the wretched, starving conditions of the peasant
farmers on his estates. "It must end. It ought not to be,"
he says to himself. Then Tolstoy has his leading character recall the
words of Henry George: "The land cannot form an object of
ownership, purchase or sale any more than the water, than the air,
than the rays of the sun. Everybody has an equal right to land and all
the privileges it gives to people." After that, his hero, like
Tolstoy himself did, renounces the right of land ownership.
It was not long after that, that I read the Henry George books on our
shelves -- first the Irish Land Question and then Progress
and Poverty itself, and I think they should be read in that order
today. The Irish Land Question is not only of interest to the
people of Ireland and to the families of Irish descent in America,
like ours was, it is a human document, deserving to stand alongside
the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Paine's Crisis,
Common Sense and The Rights of Man. It is the finest
introduction to Henry George's whole philosophy and economic
principles that I know (1).
Later in Chicago I came to know intimately many prominent Single
Taxers, among them Clarence Darrow, Judge Holly, Hiram Loomis
(Principal of Hyde Park High School), Otto Cullman (author, business
man and inventor) and Henry Harding (of engineering fame). These
friends taught me a great deal about Henry George's philosophy and, as
all of you who have ever known any Single Taxers will readily confirm,
they often taught me more than I wanted to learn.
The old timers never missed an opportunity. There was a time when I
would give them a bit of argument, since it is against my liberal
temperament to accept any gospel -- religious, social, or other -- as
final. But soon I learned that the economic premises of Henry George
cannot be successfully challenged; they are based on common
observation and knowledge. Tolstoy was right when he wrote, "people
do not argue with the teaching of Henry George; they simply do not
know it well enough; and it is impossible to disagree with his
teaching, for whoever becomes fully acquainted with it cannot but
RELIGION SHOULD NEVER be separated from life. Written in the
Declaration of Principles of our church are the words:
"IT (meaning the church) regards religion as
spiritual energy directing itself toward the enrichment of the
individual life and the perfection of the social order."
Often throughout the years in our church we have had the Henry George
classes as part of the regular educational program (2). Of course,
some people maintain that it is the business of the preacher as well
as the church to deal only with so-called spiritual matters; they say
the pastor should never be concerned about Civic wrongs, the problems
of social justice, economics, health, poverty or any of the practical
areas in which man has to function as a member of society.
But who ought to be against wrong wherever it is found, more than the
preacher? One of the reasons for the mess we are in is that many
persons with the power to speak out have not done so. The reason that
the world is in the tragic situation it is in today is largely to be
found in the refusal to apply the religious ideas and ideals of
morality to the practical areas of humanity.
I do not divorce from the pulpit anything which concerns a human
being as to his economic, industrial, governmental, educational or
religious life. We are all composite characters; we must all have food
and shelter; must be clothed; we must be free of everything which
jeopardizes these things. I cannot make the distinction between Man's
religious life and his active daily experience.
It is just as religious for me to stand in this pulpit on a Sunday
morning and pay homage to the Constitution of the United States,
the Declaration of Independence, one of Emerson's Essays
or a chapter of Henry George's Progress and Poverty as it is
to recite the Apostles' Creed, and who knows, perhaps it is more
religious! For people have been reciting the Apostles' Creed for
centuries and we still have poverty, war, and all the other evils that
Jesus spoke out against during his ministry.
We have got to put the creeds into operation in human life and we
have got to do that in America under regularly constituted processes
of good government. And Henry George showed us how this must be done.
He believed in capitalism, but he also believed in humanity. To this
end he formulated a system for Capitalism that was based on Biblical
morality and the highest ethical standards and insights of the modern
I, too, believe in Capitalism and I also believe that it must achieve
a moral system, or it will perish, just as the feudal system of the
Middle Ages perished in the modern world. The Great Depression was not
really an economic crisis as much as it was a moral crisis. Any
society in which only 5 per cent of the people own 65 per cent of the
wealth -- such a society is in danger.
True, I have never been a business man. I am not an economist. But I
have not hesitated to have my say about economic matters. I have been
told to shun such subjects, to leave economics to the economists in
Washington and in the universities -- to the experts -- yes, the
experts! But when I saw what was happening to our economy, I concluded
that, if that was the best the experts could accomplish, it was time
for nonexperts to have their say. It was time for a minister, who
might not know too much about business indexes and the workings of the
monetary system, to speak out on morality, economic justice, honesty,
and the Golden Rule. We must fuse our economic system with our moral
and religious principles or we are lost.
The true interest of the employer and wage earner is identical, as
Henry George pointed out so eloquently. There can be no dispute about
that -- what is good for Capital is finally good for Labor, and what
is good for Labor is finally good for his employer. It would help
considerably if both could realize this truth.
Some scholars have said that Protestantism made possible the
development of modern capitalism. Such may have been the case. If so,
it is a special responsibility of the Protestant clergy to bring
religious concepts to bear on the world of great American fortunes,
high finance, and big business based on the monopoly of land and its
To believe in private enterprise is to believe in Democracy. The
right of individual opportunity is identified with Democracy. When
such opportunity ceases, Democracy becomes Dictatorship. Our greatest
problem is how to develop and preserve social security without
mutilating individual enterprise, and this is what Henry George saw so
clearly as the great problem of our time. Today, any form of
Socialism, Communism, Fascism -- any form of dictation and control by
government-means the destruction of creative capitalism, and the
destruction of creative capitalism ultimately means the end of human
NOWADAYS, THE FOLLOWERS of Henry George are few in number, just when
the world needs most the Great Crusader's valuable inspiration and
insights. Some of you are not going to like what I have to say now,
but I think that the overemphasis on the Single Tax to the exclusion
of the rest of Henry George's philosophy has been largely responsible
for the demise of the Single Tax movement.
Henry George was a great economist -- the first to look for causes of
poverty and the first to find the major cause -- but Henry George was
much more than an economist. He was a philosopher, a complete
humanitarian, an incorruptible personality, an idealist who believed
in man's personal and social capacity for infinite improvement and he
was a prophet of the same class as the prophets of old in the Holy
Scriptures. Not for nothing was he called "The Prophet of San
Read again that chapter in
Progress and Poverty -- "How Modern Civilizations May
Decline." He predicted in 1879 all that the historians of today
are warning us about and much more that is coming to pass.
The Single Tax, much as it is needed, was never regarded by Henry
George as an end in itself. He did not regard it as a panacea for the
solution of all the earth's problems. And as Mrs. Edith Siebenmann
always explains to her classes in the church (3), "The Single Tax
is but the reform that will make all other reforms easier." And
as I see it, as a minister, the Single Tax is merely the means,
according to Henry George, of helping to bring in the Kingdom of God
-- even as he himself explained so vividly in his lecture, "Thy
Kingdom Come!" He believed wholeheartedly in that Kingdom spoken
of by Jesus again and again -- that kingdom on earth in which all
mankind would be lifted up to the highest heights that dreams can
To all of you who have studied Progress and Poverty let me
say, never let Henry George be lost in his economic solution, however
needful that solution may be. He was one of the world's great dreamers
-- one of America's great dreamers. And I believe that we must hold
fast to his dreams and never give up! I do not believe that those of
us who have been stimulated by the ideals of justice, brotherhood,
peace and freedom are to be eternally damned from ever realizing them.
Rather, I believe that as long as man can dream there is the
possibility of realizing his dream.
Our dreams are not sent here to mock us. God is not an infinite
jester; he did not put into the mind and heart of man dreams of
justice, beauty, brotherhood, truth and the grandeur of life just to
mock us. Our highest dreams are evidences of God's calling us to
action for, as Henry George often hopefully said, "Right Thought
leads to Right Action."
Have you, as followers of Henry George, lost faith in your hopes and
dreams? Are you filled with a sense of defeat? Remember, God is
helpless without man, and man can wreck himself without God but God
and man together can make this world the Kingdom of Good. We had
better get on with the job.
America is not the America of the trust and the monopoly and the few
who own, by centralized wealth and interlocking directorates, the
wealth of the nation, and who, in hours of political emergencies,
exploit on the basis of prejudice and passion. That is not America!
America is Ralph Waldo Emerson; America is William Ellery Channing;
America is Walt Whitman; America is Henry George; America is Lincoln,
and we are not the puppets and pawns upon the chessboard of fate,
imprisoned by something called "human nature" with some
powerful jester dangling the strings tied to our backs, putting words
into our mouths and deeds into our hands and saying: "You are
only puppets in a play; I will put words into your mouths and you will
speak them, and you will play your little part."
No! We are not puppets; we are Americans, and the most dangerous man
or woman among us is the person who says that our dreams are all
mockery. The most valuable person in America is the person who, like
the prophet of old, prefaced what he had to say with: "Thus
sayeth the Lord, I will build a new heaven and a new earth." That
is our job for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow (4).
It is a job bequeathed to us by the wisest and best thinkers of the
past, among the greatest of whom was Henry George.
1. I do not know what happened to our
family's paperbound copy of Progress and Poverty, nor have I
ever seen another like it anywhere.
2. The School of Religious Education of the People's Church.
3. Mrs. Edith C. Siebenmann (now retired) was for many years a member
of the faculty of the People's Church School of Religious Education.
Mrs. Siebenmann, a past president of the Chicago Henry George's
Woman's Club, was a graduate of the first class of the Henry George
School of Social Science in Chicago (founded by John Lawrence Monroe)
and was a teacher at that school also.
4. These two paragraphs are from an article I published more than 35
years ago. See The Liberalist, October 8, 1944.