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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 33 (2001) 57-85

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Make a Righteous Number:
Social Surveys, the Men and Religion Forward Movement, and Quantification in American Economics

Bradley W. Bateman


As Theodore Porter suggests in the introductory essay to this volume, one of the impulses that first drove people to measure economic phenomena was an ethical impulse to understand rapidly evolving modern societies. But whereas Porter's concern is largely with European economists, such as the table statisticians that Sybilla Nikolow (this volume) describes in her essay, a similar story might also be told in American economics: it was not primarily a desire to imitate natural scientists that led early American economists to attempt the measurement of social phenomena, but rather a moral curiosity to more fully understand the world unfolding around them.

A prime example of this can be seen if we look at the work encouraged by Richard T. Ely, widely known as the father of American economics for his role in founding the American Economic Association. Together with a generation of men that included Henry Carter Adams, Simon Nelson Patten, and E. A. Ross, Ely helped to found not only [End Page 57] the American Economic Association (AEA), but the historical school of American economics as well. All of these men, and most of the others who helped found the AEA, were ardent advocates of a brand of liberal Protestantism known as the Social Gospel. So intense was their ethical impulse that they were known to their contemporaries more often as the “ethical economists” than they were as “historical economists.”

The purpose of this essay is to tell a multilayered story about one of the most important types of measurement with which the ethical economists were involved—the social survey. In order to explain the forces that drove the social survey to prominence and made it such an important part of the ethical economists' work, the essay is built as a series of overlapping explanations of four intertwined worlds: the social survey movement, American Protestantism, Progressive politics, and American social science. These intertwined worlds were not static, however, and over the first two decades of the twentieth century each underwent significant changes. Thus as we move through them, we will see how the social survey came to be seen very differently during and after the Progressive Era.

The essay concludes with a reflection on the particular way that the forces that swept the social survey off the stage of American social science shaped the transition from historical economics to Institutionalism.

At the Center: The Men and Religion Forward Movement

Our story begins in an unlikely place: the Men and Religion Forward Movement of 1911–12, which was at that time the largest Protestant evangelization effort ever undertaken in the history of the United States. Between its kickoff on Sunday, 24 September 1911, and its conclusion on Sunday, 28 April 1912, the Movement presented over nine thousand addresses to 1.5 million men in the seventy-six largest cities of the United States. A “Committee of 100” men in each community followed a template designed by the Movement's founders and organized an eight-day event for the community. Many high profile men and women were associated with the Movement and appeared on platforms around the country to speak: Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, Jane Addams, and William Jennings Bryan. The revival was designed to last only a few months, at which time the Movement would dissolve and men who had been evangelized were to work within their local churches to further [End Page 58] the Movement's goal of the increased participation of men and boys in church life.1

The Movement's leaders, a group called the Committee of 97, worked for sixteen months to prepare for the revival, and it was organized to operate with impressive bureaucratic efficiency. In part this was because the man who worked most to organize the Movement, Fred B. Smith, was already a highly successful...


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pp. 57-85
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Archived 2005
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