The Theology of Adam Smith - Part I

#businessforgood series

In part I of The Theology of Adam Smith, Professor Paul Oslington unravels the widely unknown theological underpinnings of the father of modern economics. Professor Oslington is author of Adam Smith as Theologian (2011) and is soon to release The Oxford Handbook of Christianity and Economics (2014).

It is well-known that Adam Smith constructed a system which comprised, not just economics, but history, jurisprudence and moral philosophy. In fact, he seemed more proud of his Theory of Moral Sentiments than his much more famous Wealth of Nations. But that Adam Smith was also a theologian has taken much longer to be appreciated.

Smith was born in Kirkaldy in 1723. He was brought up by his devout Presbyterian mother after the death of his father and, like most of his contemporaries, he attended church regularly throughout his life. His Scotland was dominated by the Presbyterian Kirk in a way that those of us living in contemporary secular societies find difficult to appreciate.

The young Smith left Glasgow in 1740 to be a Snell exhibitioner at University of Oxford, which entailed a commitment to take Anglican orders on his return to Scotland, though like many other exhibitioners he never did. In 1751, when taking up his Chair at the University of Glasgow, Smith signed the Calvinist Westminster Confession of Faith before the Glasgow Presbytery, satisfied the University of his orthodoxy, and took the Oath of Faith. Smith's scrupulousness in other similar matters suggests sincerity of this profession of orthodox Christian faith.

I would argue that there must be a presumption of a significant theological background to any work of moral philosophy or political economy produced in such a context. Such a presumption is confirmed by the abundance of theological language in Smith's published works. He regularly refers to "the Deity," "the author of nature," "the great Director of nature," "lawful superior," and so on. There are, moreover, repeated references to divine design and providence. For instance:

"Every part of nature, when attentively surveyed, equally demonstrates the providential care of its Author, and we admire the wisdom and goodness of God even in the weakness and folly of man."


"the happiness of mankind, as well as all other rational creatures, seems to have been the original purpose intended by the author of nature, when he brought them into existence … 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, in some sense, to co-operate with the Deity, and to advance as far as in our power the plan of Providence."

And again:

"The idea of that divine Being, whose benevolence and wisdom have, from all eternity, contrived and conducted the immense machine of the universe, so as at all times to produce the greatest possible quantity of happiness, is certainly of all the objects of human contemplation by far the most sublime."

And, in relation to morality:

"the governing principles of human nature, the rules which they prescribe are to be regarded as the commands and laws of the Deity."

The presumption of a theological dimension to Smith's work is confirmed by the fact that Smith was read theologically by his contemporaries, including important figures in the formation of political economy as a discipline in nineteenth-century Britain.

For instance, Richard Whately, holder of the first chair in economics at a British university, interprets providentially Smith's assertion of unintended positive consequences of self interested behaviour: "Man is, in the same act, doing one thing by choice, for his own benefit, and another, undesignedly, under the care of Providence, for the service of the community." Whately also places Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations above William Paley's works as natural theology.

Among nineteenth-century British popularisers of political economy none was more influential than Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers also took Smith to be suggesting that the transformation of self-interested behaviour into the greatest economic good is providential:

"Such a result which at the same time not a single agent in this vast and complicated system of trade contemplates or cares for, each caring only for himself - strongly bespeaks a higher Agent, by whose transcendental wisdom it is, that all is made to conspire so harmoniously, and to terminate so beneficially."


"The whole science of political economy is full of these exquisite adaptions to the wants and comforts of human life, which bespeak the skill of a master-hand, in the adjustment of its laws, and the working of its profoundly constructed mechanism."

Theological readings of Smith abound among the nineteenth-century pioneers of political economy as a discipline, and even more so in popular discussions of political economy.

Stoicism or Calvinism?

Much of the discussion of the theological language in Adam Smith's works has connected it to Smith's interest in Stoicism. For instance Raphael and Macfie's introduction to the bicentennial edition of Theory of Moral Sentiments states:

"Stoic philosophy is the primary influence on Smith's ethical thought. It also fundamentally affects his economic theory … Adam Smith's ethics and natural theology are predominantly Stoic."

As evidence, they point to the importance of self-preservation in Smith, the importance of self-command as a virtue, Smith's commitment to a harmonious natural order and his universalism.

We know that Smith read and admired the Stoics in his youth, and that Stoic ideas were popular among Scottish Enlightenment thinkers searching for a framework to replace a degenerate Aristotelianism. In his discussion of systems of philosophy in Part VII of Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith devotes more space to the Stoics than any other system, but he also criticises many key Stoic ideas. He ultimately concludes: "The plan and system which Nature has sketched out for our conduct, seems to be altogether different from that of the Stoical philosophy."

But in my view, more important than Stoicism to Smith's theology is the British tradition of scientific natural theology, filtered through the moderate Calvinism of the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith held the Chair in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow in the 1750s, and followed the tradition of his predecessors Gershom Carmichael and Frances Hutcheson in lecturing on natural theology. One student, John Millar, reported:

"His course of lectures … was delivered in four parts. The first contained Natural Theology; in which he considered the proofs of the being and attributes of God, and those principles of the mind on which religion is founded."

These Glasgow lectures were the foundation of Smith's system, with the second part on moral philosophy becoming Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the final part being developed into the Wealth of Nations. Unfortunately we do not have manuscript evidence or even student notes which might indicate the content of the natural theology lectures. It is therefore difficult to assess the accuracy of the anecdote of John Ramsay (who did not attend the lectures), that Smith's

"speculations upon natural religion, though not extended to any great length, were no less flattering to human pride and than of Hutcheson. From both the one and the other presumptuous striplings took upon themselves to draw an unwarranted conclusion - namely, that the great truths of theology, together with the duties which man owes of God and his neighbours, may be discovered by the light of nature without any special revelation."

The quotations above from Smith's published work may be our best guide, and are only a few of many examples of the language and thought forms of the British tradition of scientific natural theology. My best guess about the content of his natural theology lectures is that they would be a Newtonian version of his predecessor's lectures, consistent with Smith's known admiration for Newton's scientific methodology and his concern to avoid unnecessary theological controversy.

Calvinism has been inexplicably neglected as a background to Adam Smith's work, despite the fact that Smith fits almost perfectly the picture of moderate Scottish Enlightenment Calvinism. Take the sketch provided by David Fergusson:

"The role of God as creator and sustainer of the world is emphasised. The signs of the divine presence are evident in the natural world; in this respect, the design argument is widely assumed to be valid. The beneficial role of religion in civil society is stressed. Religion contributes to social order and harmony. When purged of irrational fanaticism and intolerance, faith exercises a cohesive function through the moral direction and focus it offers human life. As benevolent and wise, God has ordered the world so that its moral and scientific laws contribute to human welfare. The prospect of an eschatological state in which virtue and felicity coincide, moreover, provides further moral motivation."

The normative statement for Scottish Presbyterians in Smith's day was the Westminster Confession of Faith, which Smith signed to take up his Glasgow Chair. The opening sentence states that "the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable." There is the important caveat "that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation" cannot come from nature, reflecting the Calvinist emphasis on how our sensory and moral capacities are limited and twisted by the Fall. Smith takes up this Calvinist theme, writing of "irregularity in the human breast" just before the previously cited passage about how

"every part of nature, when attentively surveyed, equally demonstrates the providential care of its Author, and we may admire the wisdom and goodness of God even in the weakness and folly of man."

Elsewhere vices and follies of mankind are seen as a necessary part of the plan of the universe. Ignorance of "all the connexions and dependencies of things" conditions our action, though we are comforted by the thought that God, the "benevolent and all-wise Being can admit into the system of his government, no partial evil which is not necessary for the universal good."



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Paul Oslington is Professor of Economics and Dean of Business at Alphacrucis College in Sydney. Email:

This article originally featured on ABC Religion and Ethics, "Economics from the perspective of eternity: The theology of Adam Smith", 21 Feb 2013.


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