Christianity and the Large Scale Corporation
David A. Skeel Jr.
University of Pennsylvania Law School; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)
CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO LAW AND CHRISTIANITY, John Witte, ed., Forthcoming
U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 07-45
Ask most people what they associate with "Christianity and the corporation" and, at least in the US, they may mention activist nuns calling for shareholder votes on sweatshop labor, nuclear weapons or divestment from South Africa, or perhaps a newspaper story about mutual funds that invest only in "faith friendly" corporations. Each is a contemporary manifestation of relations that run far deeper, and date back well over a thousand years. The early church spawned many of the largest corporate enterprises of the middle ages, and tenaciously promoted the concept of a collective entity distinct from the state. When the modern large scale corporation emerged in the nineteenth century, Christian responses were more complicated. Many worried about the effects of limited liability, and evangelical populists insisted that railroads and other large corporations needed to be tamed by governmental regulation. But others held very different views. More recently, Christians perspectives have tended divide between those who view large scale corporations as an essential counterbalance to state power that should be free from governmental interference, and those who favor a much firmer regulatory grip.
This chapter traces these Christian attitudes toward and influence on the large scale corporation. We begin with the pre-history, the emergence of key attributes of the corporate form in Western Europe in the late Roman Empire and thereafter. From there, we turn to England and the United States, where the corporation achieved its modern form in the mid nineteenth century. The remainder of the chapter focuses most extensively on the United States, which saw a remarkable proliferation of large, widely held corporations as a result of the so-called Great Merger Wave at the end of the nineteenth century. We are now in the midst of another upheaval. While the corporate form itself has not changed, the advent of new financing techniques has simultaneously provided new tools for, and put more pressure on, corporate managers. It is too early to define the Christian contributions to these developments with any precision, but just the right time to consider some of the possibilities.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 21
Keywords: Christian attitudes, legal history, religion, business corporations, decentralized governance
JEL Classification: K22, M14, N00Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: November 1, 2007
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