Eden Consenstein: Hi Kristen! It’s good to see you again. We met last year at UVA’s “Religious Studies and the New Histories of Capitalism” conference. You were analyzing an eighteenth-century corporation, the Pennsylvania Land Company (PLC), and I was working on a twentieth-century corporation, Time Inc. How did you become interested in the corporation?
Kristen Beales: I initially became interested in the ways that commercial organization affected religious “voice.” While researching my dissertation, which looked at religion and commerce in early America, I noticed that merchants wrote differently about religion in a firm letterbook and in their personal correspondence. The question of whether an eighteenth-century commercial organization could have a religion made me interested in corporations.
Although it was economic questions that initially drew me to the corporation, I soon learned that historians researching early modern and early American history have demonstrated that corporations were so much more than just forms of economic organization. These scholars have examined how corporations have influenced constitutional law, race, slavery, and abolition, and church–state relationships. In 2019, Phil Stern, whose analysis of the East India Company as a “company-state” pushed scholars to analyze corporations as political beings, led a seminar on “The Corporation in Early Modern Political Thought” hosted by the Folger Shakespeare Library. During this seminar, we examined the writings of early modern thinkers and bureaucrats who lived in a corporate world where our modern distinctions between public and private, political and economic, and morality and finance, did not exist. As these examples indicate, assuming that the corporation belongs solely in the realm of economic history places artificial limits on our analysis.
Scholars interested in the relationship between religion and the corporation have much to contribute and much to gain by placing our work in dialogue with this early modern scholarship. As the JAAR article authors note, the corporation provides an analytic tool that muddies the categories that have structured much of our scholarship and creates a global dialogue about an organizational form used across cultures. The long history of the corporate form can also connect scholars working across time as well as space.
The very reasons that make it analytically useful to center the corporation in our research also make it pedagogically useful. In the spring of 2020, I taught a course at Case Western Reserve University titled “Christianity, Inc.” My goal was to decenter the modern business corporation to instead examine the myriad ways that Christianity and the corporate form have shaped one another for the past two thousand years. Focusing on the corporation denaturalized the assumed divisions between religion, economics, and politics and shifted our conversation from the seeming incompatibility between religion and profit to the connections between profit and power.
Centering the corporation enables us to put our work—on two very different corporations in two very different time periods—in dialogue with one another. How did you become interested in the corporation?
EC: Like you, my initial interest was not in “the corporation,” per se. I started my graduate work with an interest in how media professionals like journalists and television producers navigate religious issues while crafting products intended for massive, diverse audiences. Who, or what, is actually speaking to us through “the media,” and how do their backstage decisions determine what we see? When I came across photographs from Life magazine’s 1955 series on “The World’s Great Religions,” I knew I had found an exciting opportunity to ask questions about religion and media production.
Life magazine’s parent company, Time Incorporated (which also produced Time, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines, as well as a rotating array of other content across media) is a particularly compelling case for scholars of religion because of the company’s cofounder and longtime chairman, Henry R. Luce. Luce was the son of Presbyterian missionaries and fashioned himself as a public lay theologian throughout his career as a media mogul. Luce’s voluminous public speaking and writing express an unabashed commitment to using journalism to cultivate Protestant commitments and promote right-of-center politics. After reading through his writing, I assumed that clear-cut connections between Luce’s theological motivations and the content of Time Inc.’s magazines would be easy to trace.
Fortunately, Time Inc.’s corporate archives were recently made available to researchers. When I dove in, I was immediately confronted with a vast and varied array of documents—reams of opaque internal paperwork, budgets, memos, personnel files—that drew my attention to the corporation itself. It quickly became clear that Time Inc. was, as the authors of the JAAR article so aptly put it, a web of “nonempirical claims, economic activity, and collective life,” and the magazines were only one element. Rather than asking about how Luce’s Christianity shaped the content of the magazines, I began to ask how Time Inc. enacted Luce’s political and theological ambitions. What kinds of religious actions did the corporate form enable, and what did it foreclose?
I’ve found that religious languages and anxieties often surfaced alongside concerns about the corporate form. In the late 1930s and early 40s, Time Inc. used religious arguments and images to ease tensions around the corporation’s apparent far-right sympathies. Less than a decade later, Protestant activists organized against Time Inc. on the basis that the corporation’s advertising policies undermined Luce’s stated religious commitments. Bringing these cases together shows that Luce’s Protestant affiliations did not have a simple causal relationship to corporate activities. In fact, his religious gestures both stoked and resolved anxieties around Time Inc.’s corporate power.
The Time Inc. archive is fascinating because of the ways it preserves the tensions between Luce’s personal voice and Time Inc.’s corporate voice. Do you see a similar tension in the PLC?
KB: I’m glad that you brought up the corporate archive, because the Pennsylvania Land Company (PLC) records raise similar questions in a very different organizational format. My own research examines the porous relationship between the Society of Friends and the PLC in the early eighteenth century. The PLC was a London-based, Quaker-dominated joint-stock company that sold mid-Atlantic land and employed several Quaker ministers. Rather than being stored in a corporate archive like Time Inc., the majority of the company’s surviving records are interleaved with the pages of Thomas Story’s journal at the Library of the Society of Friends. Story was the PLC treasurer and a Quaker minister who left a nearly eight hundred-page journal documenting his temporal and ministerial career. Although he normally wrote detailed entries, his sparse writing for the period between 1719 and 1722 leave the impression that he was imprisoned during these years for his Quaker beliefs. The manuscripts tucked into the pages of his published journal, however, show that he was ferrying sacks of cash between England’s most powerful financial institutions in these years. Story tried to scrub his work with the PLC from his legacy, so it is an interesting twist of archival fate that his journal stores the largest surviving cache of PLC records.
While it is tempting to treat the PLC as an extension of the Society of Friends, it was important to Quakers that the company was conceptually and legally distinct from the Society. Quaker “Public Friends” did not receive payment for their preaching and needed to find ways to financially support themselves and their ministries. The PLC, therefore, decided that employing Quaker ministers would help both the ministers and the company. For the ministers, it offered a steady salary from supportive employers who understood that a minister might need to leave for months (or years) if prompted by the Inward Light. For the PLC, placing ministers in prominent positions would distinguish it from the other companies competing for Quaker investments and ensure its investors that the company was run by Quaker principles.
The PLC was able to employ these ministers because it was not the Society of Friends. Despite this distinction, the PLC was nonetheless intertwined with the Society. When PLC agents sinned in their corporate capacity, they were subject to the disciplinary proceedings of the Society of Friends. Quaker meetings, meanwhile, issued guidance that reflected the PLC’s history to help Quaker investors navigate periods of financial tumult. And the Quaker financiers who attended PLC meetings ensured that these corporate settings would become a place for Quakers to debate what ethical behavior looked like in the rapidly shifting environment of financial capitalism.
In my case, the key to understanding the form and function of PLC is its porous relationship with the Society of Friends. What was the nature of the relationship between Time Inc. and denominational bodies like the Presbyterian Church?
EC: Unlike the PLC, relationships between Time Inc. and religious institutions were informal. Luce forged public associations between Time Inc. and the Protestant “mainline” by writing for the Christian Century, addressing religious organizations in his capacity as “the editor-in-chief of Time, Life, and Fortune,” and inviting mainline standard bearers to provide commentary in his magazines. In the postwar years, Luce’s Protestant affiliations were made controversial by an activist group that targeted Time Inc.’s corporate advertising policy.
From 1947 to 1956, a denominationally diverse coalition of Protestant temperance organizers pressured the US Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce to consider a series of bills that would prevent print liquor advertising from moving across state lines. Alongside their legal activism, Protestant temperance campaigners organized a national boycott of Time Inc.’s magazines on the basis that Luce was a fundamentally disingenuous actor because he profited from the sale of liquor advertisements while simultaneously claiming to speak for American Protestantism. In boycotting the magazines, temperance campaigners took aim at Luce via Time Inc.’s bottom line. They bombarded Time Inc. with mail, sometimes amounting to approximately two thousand letters a month. Time Inc.’s public relations team noted that objections to liquor advertising resulted in a small but meaningful proportion of cancelled subscriptions.
During these years, Luce’s presence in denominational spaces sparked ire from temperance activists. When he appeared in a group photo on the cover of the Presbyterian magazine in 1946, readers involved in the temperance movement were outraged. In a gesture of support, the Presbyterian’s editor, who was a friend of Luce’s family, forwarded him their angry letters. After Luce delivered a rousing commencement address at the 1946 Duke University Divinity School graduation, he received a barrage of letters from temperance activists questioning his sincerity. In the late 1940s and early 50s, when numerous mass media entities were producing Christian content, Time Inc.’s advertising policy discredited Luce’s religious gestures in the eyes of one particularly vocal interest group, and Luce’s religious gestures became a liability for Time Inc.
Even though Time Inc.’s religious affiliations were never formal, as they were with the PLC and the Society of Friends, the question of denominational oversight did come up. In 1948 Luce wrote to George Buttrick, his pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, soliciting “a full fair and Christian trial” on the issue of liquor advertising. If Buttrick found a doctrinal problem with liquor advertising, Luce promised to change company policy. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that such a trial ever took place. However, Luce’s solicitation of denominational censure suggests he was willing to prioritize doctrine over advertising profits—or, that he was daring his church to regulate Time Inc. knowing that they never would.
Religious doctrine and institutions can be a source of discipline or oversight at moments of crisis or upheaval. Did the Society of Friends ever attempt to discipline the PLC?
KB: The PLC was completely separate from the Society of Friends, so Quaker meetings did not have any authority over the company (and, as William Blackstone echoed medieval theorists in arguing, corporations could not be excommunicated). The individual Quakers who constituted the PLC, however, could be disowned for their actions. The PLC effectively outsourced its corporate discipline to the Society of Friends. While the language of “outsourcing” is anachronistic in this example, it captures how corporations and religious bodies worked in dialogue with one another in this period and highlights another way that studying the corporate form allows us to connect projects across time and space.
This became particularly visible during the South Sea Bubble, which was one of the first international financial panics. In 1720, the South Sea Company launched an ambitious scheme to convert government debt into company shares. The company’s attempts to inflate its shares prices created a speculative frenzy that burst in the fall of 1720. Unfortunately for the PLC, it entered this tumultuous period with a treasurer, Thomas Story, who had been selected for his spiritual, not his temporal, qualifications, and quickly became overwhelmed. As cash from PLC investors began to pile up in Story’s apartment, James Hoskins, a PLC proprietor and fellow minister, stepped in to help. In August, at the height of the market, the two ministers took the PLC’s capital to the South Sea House and invested it in South Sea Company shares. When the Bubble burst later that month, the PLC lost £9,000.
Hoskins claimed that Story directed him to use the PLC’s money for the South Sea Company shares. Story, however, claimed that Hoskins had invested the money without his knowledge. Which of the Quaker ministers was lying? As the PLC scrambled to cover its losses, the disciplinary structure of the Quaker meeting began to investigate the ministers’ conduct. The Society worked first through its normal disciplinary proceedings to disown James Hoskins. When Hoskins appealed his disownment, a group of mutually selected Quaker arbiters met in an apartment owned by the Society of Friends to comb through the PLC’s papers and to hear Quaker witnesses testify. The arbiters (narrowly) sided with Story, leaving a disgruntled Hoskins to try his case in the court of public opinion through a pamphlet war. Once Hoskins was disowned by the Society, he was free to smear the Society and Story in public, showing the limits of religious discipline for corporate scandal.
The South Sea Bubble was a formative moment for the PLC and I think for the Society of Friends as well. How did Time Inc. navigate the political and economic upheavals of the Great Depression?
EC: Time Inc. excelled financially during the Great Depression, but that success contributed to a crisis in the corporation’s reputation. Throughout the 1930s, Time Inc. enjoyed consecutive expansions. In February of 1930, just three months after Wall Street’s catastrophic collapse, Luce debuted Fortune. Time Inc.’s second magazine was lavishly priced at one dollar per issue (in 1930 Time cost $0.15) and printed on the heaviest available paper stock, encapsulating Luce’s solemn admiration of US aristocratic and corporate wealth. Within the next six years, Time Inc. introduced the “March of Time” radio newsreels, acquired Architectural Forum, and began producing the March of Time cinema newsreels. Life magazine, the corporation’s most successful product, arrived in 1936.
During those same years, millions were devastated by global economic collapse, authoritarian regimes took hold in Europe, and far-right groups cropped-up throughout the United States. Time Inc.’s products lead many to assume that the corporation endorsed the global far-right. Time’sreporting had exhibited antisemitic tendencies since its premiere in the 1920s. The magazine’s antisemitism often coalesced with its condescending accounts of left-wing political actors. For example, articles throughout the 1930s lampooned French socialist prime minister Léon Blum and referred to him as “Jew Blum.” Time’s antisemitism and right-wing slant was compounded by “Inside Nazi Germany,” a March of Time newsreel that many contemporary viewers received as a tacit glorification of Hitler’s regime. Taken alongside Fortune’s open elitism and Luce’s palpable lust for power, accusations that Time Inc. was fascist swirled through the media. In 1936, the New Yorker’s Walcott Gibbs poked fun at Luce’s intense journalistic ambition by suggesting he was a fascist. A year later, former Time writer Dwight MacDonald wrote a three-part expose of Time Inc. for the Nation. The final lines of the series concluded: “Luce’s opinions are those of the ruling business class to which he belongs and whose great mouthpiece he is . . . But it would be premature to call Time Inc. fascist. Proto-fascist is more accurate.”
Once again, we see that corporations are much more than economic entities. Time Inc.’s particular aggregate of products and personalities amounted to a concerning public profile. Taken together, the corporation’s rapid expansion, its problematic products, and its chairman’s public persona all gave contemporaries good reason to see it as a dangerous political and ideological entity.
Luce’s religious affiliations and proclivity toward theologically resonant speaking and writing proved useful for easing tensions. Within months of MacDonald’s articles, Time Inc. created its first public relations department to manage corporate self-promotion and Luce’s public appearances. Shortly after that, Luce spoke at a meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) as a Protestant member of the press. His address connected journalism to democracy and democracy to freedom of religion, thereby aligning Time Inc. with interfaith harmony at home and against fascism abroad. The address was broadcast over local radio and reproduced as a pamphlet that Time Inc. actively distributed.
One of the public relation team’s next major projects was Time Inc.’s first large-scale self-promotion campaign, which made arguments similar to those Luce made before the NCCJ. In a series of print advertisements that appeared in major national newspapers during the Spring of 1940, Time Inc. used religious language and imagery to portray the press as a cherished national institution. One advertisement featured a dramatic image of a clergy person delivering a prayer at a civic gathering. All the advertisements used words like “mission,” “destiny,” “apocalypse,” and “prayer,” situating Christianity, democracy, and journalism as allied and interdependent goods.
Less than a year later, in February of 1941, Life published Luce’s “American Century” essay. In his epoch-defining argument for US intervention in the Second World War, Luce wrote that the United States could act as a global “Good Samaritan” by exporting both American values (“big words like Democracy and Freedom and Justice”) and the products of American corporations (“Hollywood movies . . . American machines and patented products”). The essay predicted that the United States would not only win the war for the Allies, but also emerge as a world power thanks to both its moral constitution and its irresistible culture industries. Several short years after Time Inc. itself was accused of fascism, Luce baldly stated that corporate cultural products would help conquer fascism abroad.
In the face of popular anxieties around Time Inc.’s swelling power and growing ubiquity, the corporation launched a multimedia campaign to redefine itself as a crucial pillar of democratic virtue. This narrative conveniently pivoted attention away from Time Inc.’s particular products and corporate constitution, instead describing popular culture and the press as abstract goods.
The “American Century” essay became a major cultural touchstone for both critics and advocates of US interventionism. Some observers found the essay’s theological undertones inspiring, while others thought Luce’s essay echoed the imperial sensibilities of nineteenth-century missionary projects. How did the PLC contribute to broader conceptions of religion and the public good?
KB: I think one of the important lessons the PLC shows us, especially when placed in the corporate context of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is that religion and corporations have evolved in constant dialogue. The porous relationship between the PLC and the Society made PLC spaces key arenas to work out Quaker doctrine, further deepening the connections between the Society and company. As Quaker financiers battled one another over who was to blame for the scandal, the London Yearly Meeting updated its advices on the Quaker doctrines—covetousness and arbitration—that had shaped the scandal. I think both my work with the PLC and your work with Time Inc. show how corporations construct, shape, and disseminate religious knowledge.
Analyzing how corporations shape our conceptions of the public good requires that we move beyond the assumption that corporations are primarily about “profit” and “business.” Once again, I think the early modern context is so useful because they blur our modern distinctions and, perhaps more importantly, because men and women in this period were also debating the role corporations should play in society. In my Christianity Inc. class, for example, we read William Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752, which analyzes the English debates over the regulation of the trade in enslaved people. While the Royal African Company claimed that its organization as a joint-stock company opened up participation in the trade to a broader portion of the English populace and thus justified its monopoly privileges, independent traders argued that such a monopoly violated their natural right to the “free trade” in enslaved people. Pettigrew argues that these claims became key components of liberal discourse and were eventually used by abolitionists to dismantle the trade in enslaved people.
As the RAC debates illustrate, it mattered that the RAC was a corporation. It was this organizational form that was critical to its political, economic, and societal power that prompted backlash, not its role in the slave trade. My students were used to thinking about the ways that corporately funded research can influence the political process, but Pettigrew’s book challenged them to think about how far these discourses could travel from their corporate origins. Making the corporate form a central part of our analysis can help us keep ideas tethered to the corporations and interests that helped produce them.
Corporations like the RAC were intertwined with the English state, which gave them a clear path to influence conceptions of state interest. Did Time Inc. produce discourse that advanced their political interest by claiming that it was in the public interest, similar to the way the RAC did?
EC: It’s interesting that your students were weary of corporately funded research. In 1942, Luce committed $200,000 of Time Inc.’s capital to researching the politics of maintaining a “free press.” He worked with Robert Maynard Hutchins, the then-president of the University of Chicago, to convene a group of eminent academics charged with determining if or how press freedoms were imperiled and identifying solutions. Over the course of five years The Commission on a Free and Responsible Press held 17 two- or three-day conferences, reviewed over 176 legal and historical documents, and conducted 225 relevant interviews.
In 1947, the group published a comprehensive report, titled “A Free and Responsible Press: A General Report on Mass Communications.” Much to Luce’s chagrin, the report identified “The Problem” as the consolidation of corporate media power. The Commission determined that as communications technologies improved and expanded, they were increasingly controlled by big businesses. These businesses, which were not subject to adequate regulation, had thus far exhibited a dangerous proclivity to advance their own interests and the interests of their sponsors. The Commission determined that media corporations like Time Inc. threatened press freedoms by crowding out less powerful voices, and in so doing, courted government oversight. If media corporations continued to misuse their unique powers, the Commission warned, government might intervene.
The Commission betrayed Luce’s expectations by keeping the corporation in view. In his criticisms of the General Report Luce blustered that “the individual responsibility not only of those laughably big publishers but of every mother’s son who is near a type-setting machine, continues to be inescapable and great!,” disavowing the idea that a media corporation’s responsibilities were fundamentally different than any individual’s. Taken together, Time Inc.’s early 1940s public relations campaign and its large investment in The Commission on a Free and Responsible Press show that the corporation worked hard to abstract “the press” as an institution apart from corporate media firms.
Contemporary concerns around the politics enabled by social media platforms show that public discourse cannot be disentangled from the entities that mediate it. It can be tempting to treat products of older corporate media regimes, like Time magazine covers or Life magazine photographs, as unambiguous windows into the past. In the case of Time Inc., the corporation made concerted efforts to seem invisible and innocuous. Keeping ideas and objects tethered to their sites of corporate production can help us to better see the interests they advance.