Adam Smith's Quiet Christianity

The Scottish thinker's famous friendship with David Hume demonstrates his liberalism, not his atheism.


Among Adam Smith's scant surviving papers, one can't find a flat statement such as "I attend every Sunday Old St. Paul's Scottish Episcopal Church on Jeffrey Street." The phrase "the invisible hand" had some theological resonance at the time. Yet it is grossly overquoted by people who have not actually read Smith and instead want a bumper sticker. Smith used it only three times in all his surviving writings, once in each of his two published books and once in an unpublished treatise on astronomy. In each, it is used in diverging senses.

But the Australian economist and Christian theologian Paul Oslington, who has read Smith, argues persuasively that numerous words and phrases in Smith's writings, such as "natural," and such rotundities as "the Author of nature" or "the invisible hand," stand for "the Christian doctrine of divine providential care for humanity." Adam Smith, in short, was a Christian.

Smith was continuing in secular matters the project of "natural theology," a theology dear to, say, Isaac Newton. In a phrase that goes back to Thomas Aquinas, God's "other book" was physical nature. But, said Smith, it was social nature too. The word nature and its compounds are extraordinarily frequent in Smith. The term appears 670 times in Wealth of Nations and 520 in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Seldom does it refer, as after Darwin we would suppose, merely to the natural physical world. Overwhelmingly it is used in Wealth of Nations in an economic-psychological sense and in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in a social-theological sense.

Smith writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, for instance: "The happiness of mankind, as well as of all other rational creatures, seems to have been the original purpose intended by the Author of nature, when he brought them into existence. No other end seems worthy of that supreme wisdom and divine benignity which we necessarily ascribe to him." He continues, "By acting according to the dictates of our moral faculties, we necessarily pursue the most effectual means for promoting the happiness of mankind, and may therefore be said…to co-operate with the Deity, and to advance…the plan of Providence." This is Christian talk.

Smith's Christianity was not evangelical, and did not in the jargon of the time display an "enthusiastic" personal relationship with Our Lord and Savior. In neither book does he mention "Christ" or "Jesus." His faith was institutional, the polite version of Anglicanism usual in the Neoclassical Era, and nowadays called "mainstream Protestant," such as Lutheran or Episcopalian. You see a similar polite restraint a little later in Jane Austen. The economic historian Robert Higgs once observed to me that you can't spit in an Austen novel without hitting an Anglican priest. Austen herself was the daughter of one, the sister of another, and an object of romantic attention by several more. Yet God happens only in the village church, and both God and the church are deep in the background.

Smith wrote famously, in a letter describing the death in 1776 of his dear and notoriously atheistic friend David Hume, that Hume was "dying fast, but with more real cheerfulness and good humor and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God." Hume postponed publishing until after his death the amiable but skeptical Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. It was issued anonymously in 1779 and promptly put on the papal Index Librorum Prohibitorum. There it sat, as A.N. Wilson said in 1999 in God's Funeral, until in the 19th century earnest young Christian men found it and lost their faith.

Even in Enlightenment Scotland, Hume could not get the academic appointment that a fountainhead of modern philosophy deserved because he openly disavowed belief in even a Smithian "Author of nature." There were enough dogmatists even after John Knox brought the Reformation to Scotland to discourage the country's four excellent universities from appointing a suspected atheist, though no law required that he be barred. South of the border, the sleepy duo of Oxford and Cambridge, much inferior to Scotland's universities at the time, required by the English Test Act of 1673 all students and faculty to subscribe to each one of the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. It is why nonconformists such as Quakers and Baptists and Congregationalists, not to speak of Jews, were forbidden to attend until 1871. Smith spent six years studying at Oxford—of which, by the way, he had a justified low opinion intellectually, as did Edward Gibbon and any other serious student in those days.

Smith afterward without controversy held academic appointments at the University of Glasgow and the University of Edinburgh, and from 1764 to 1766 he was personal tutor to the young and rich Duke of Buccleuch on his grand tour of the continent. In France on that tour, Smith met and was influenced by such barely Christian intellectuals as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and especially the pioneering physiocratic economists, such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot. Yet the boards of appointment to scholarships and professorships at the universities, and the Duke and his family, would not have thought of engaging anyone for such offices unless he was an orthodox Anglican or Presbyterian. Nonbelievers need not apply.

The philosopher Dennis* Rasmussen and the economist Gavin Kennedy have argued against all this that Smith was merely being cautious and conventional in his "Christianity" to avoid making enemies bad for his career and for his ideas. Hume said on his own deathbed with characteristic good humor, "I have written on all sorts of subjects…yet I have no enemies, except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians." But the picture of a careerist Smith does not persuade, appealing though it may be to nonbelievers who admire Smith's science. Everyone wants her heroes to duplicate her own fancied consistencies.

Smith was no intellectual coward. He denounced mercantilism, and mercantilism was the easy and popular position. Still is. If you want to be a U.S. senator from Ohio, or even a president of the United States, you must be against imports and for exports. Trade deals, for example, are always expressed in mercantilist form: Give us access to your markets and we'll give you access to ours, because what we want is a positive balance of payments. Smith could have gone along to get along. But he didn't. Still less plausible is it to suppose that he would have lied when agreeing to the Thirty-Nine Articles, and would have achieved his academic chairs without scrutiny, and would have schemed to lead the young Duke into atheistic temptation.

Yes, Hume the atheist was Smith's "most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend." You have, I suppose, many dear friends with whom you disagree on perhaps the divinity of Jesus or the incidence of the corporate income tax. That Hume and Smith were bosom buds from first acquaintance in 1749 to Hume's death indicates deep love between two famously loveable men, not entire agreement.

So what? Here's what. Smith was of course a liberal, a courageous advocate for the then-shocking and unpopular notion that we should adopt "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty," "the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice." Note the first term in the liberal triad. Smith was a radical egalitarian. But his equality was not that of his frenemy Rousseau, at the headwaters of European socialism, a coerced equality of outcome. Nor was it that of the ancient Spartans so admired by 18th century conservatives and modern New Liberals, a coerced equality of opportunity. Equality among the Spartiate was achieved by ripping boys from their mothers at age 7 and training them together as warriors. Equality of opportunity is impossible without such utter enslavements to the state.

Equality of permission, by contrast, could be achieved in full this afternoon, with no coercion. Women can be permitted to become airline pilots, the state's occupational licensure can be disavowed, tariffs against imports abandoned. It's the full Smithian program. It's also the program of liberal Christianity. Liberty of the will, propounded for example by Erasmus in 1524 against Martin Luther, gives equal dignity to souls, chosen or not. In the 18th century, such liberalism began to be extended to all aspects of persons. The first achievement of liberalism was abolition of slavery. That is still its core. No human masters. We are slaves only in Christ Jesus.

Smith was a serious thinker. He did not think there was a serious contradiction between Christianity and liberalism. In the past century many progressive Christians, such as the otherwise persuasive theologian David Bentley Hart, have thought there was. They are gravely mistaken. As usual, the Blessed Adam Smith shows the way.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this article used an incorrect first name for Dennis Rasmussen.