A long tradition of Christian thought encourages believers to forgo worldly pursuits – like making money – and instead focus on the spiritual prize of salvation. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” the evangelist Matthew warns Christians, “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
But the Protestant Reformation changed this way of thinking. According to German sociologist Max Weber, the Protestant virtues of thrift, delayed gratification and professional diligence in the pursuit of wealth gave birth to modern capitalism.
Business success became a sign of God’s favor, and nowhere more than in America did this ethos achieve such florid expression. During the 19th century, an American prosperity gospel – the conviction that God wanted Americans to live in material abundance – began to take shape. Meanwhile, the country witnessed an explosion of Christian sects and offshoots, from Methodists to Mormons.