Read Chapter I - Definition of Usury A Scriptural‚ Ethical and Economic View , free online book, by Calvin Elliott, on

In the evolution of the English language, since the making of our King James version of the Bible, many new words have been introduced, and many old ones have changed their meanings.

In the nearly three hundred years the Saxon word “let,” to hinder, has become obsolete. It was in common use and well understood when the version was made, but is now misleading. Thus we have in Isaiah 43:13: “I will work and who will let (hinder) it?” Paul declared that he purposed to go to Rome, “but was let (hindered) hitherto.” Ro:13. Again we have in II Thes:7: “Only he who now letteth (hindereth) will let (hinder), until he be taken out of the way.”

“Wot,” to know, has become obsolete. Ge:26: “I wot (know) not who hath done this thing.” E:1: “As for this Moses, we wot (know) not what hath become of him.” Acts 3:17: “I wot (know) that through ignorance ye did it.”

“Prevent,” from its derivation and use, meant, “to go before;” now it means to hinder. P:10: “The God of my mercies shall prevent (go before) me.” P:2: “Let us prevent (go before) his face with thanksgiving.” I Thes:15: “We who are alive shall not prevent (go before) them who are asleep.”

Charity, which now means liberality to the poor, and a disposition to judge others kindly and favorably, was at that time a synonym of love, and used interchangeably with love in the translations of the Greek. This is especially noted in the panegyric of love, in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and faithfully corrected in the Revised Version, though some have felt that the beauty and especially the euphony of the familiar passage has been marred. But the word charity is no longer equivalent to love, in our language, and could not be retained without perverting the sense.

Usury, when the version was made, meant any premium for a loan of money, or increase taken for a loan of any kind of property.

Theological Dictionary: “Usury, the gain taken for a loan of money or wares.” “The gain of anything above the principal, or that which was lent, exacted only in consideration of the loan, whether it be in money, corn, wares or the like.”

Bible Encyclopedia: “Usury, a premium received for a sum of money over and above the principal.”

Schaff-Herzog: “Usury, originally, any increase on any loan.”

This was the usage of the word usury by the great masters of the English language, like Shakespeare and Bacon, in their day, and is still given as the first definition by the lexicographers of the present.

Webster, 1890 edition: “Usury, 1. A premium or increase paid or stipulated to be paid for a loan, as for money; interes. The practice of taking interes. Law. Interest in excess of a legal rate charged to a borrower for the use of money.”

Interest is comparatively a new word in the language meaning also a premium for a loan of money. It first appeared in the fourteenth century, as a substitute for usury, in the first law ever enacted by a Christian nation that permitted the taking of a premium for any loan. The word usury was very odious to the Christian mind and conscience.

Interest was at the first a legal term, used in law only, and it has always been applied to that premium or measure of increase that is permitted or made legal by civil law.

In modern usage usury is limited in its meaning to that measure of increase prohibited by the civil law. Thus the two words interest and usury now express what was formerly expressed by the one word usury alone. Interest covers that measure of increase that is authorized in different countries, while usury, with all the odium that has been attached to it for ages, is limited to that measure of increase that for public welfare is forbidden by the laws of a state.

The distinction is wholly civic and legal. That may be usury in one state which is only interest in another. The legal rates greatly vary and are changed from time to time in the states themselves. If a state should forbid the taking of any increase on loans, then all increase would be usury, and there could be no interest; or if a state should repeal all laws limiting the exactions of increase, then there would be no usury in that state. Usury is increase forbidden by civil law. Separated from the enacted statutes of a state the distinction disappears. There is no moral nor is there an economic difference.

Blackstone says: “When money is lent on a contract to receive not only the principal sum again, but also an increase by way of compensation for the use, the increase is called interest by those who think it lawful, and usury by those who do not.”

The moral nature of an act does not depend on the enacted statutes of human legislators, and the laws of economics are eternal. We must not permit our views of divine and economic truth to be perverted by this modern division of increase into legal and illegal. In order that the whole truth may be now expressed in our language we must combine with the old word usury the new word interest; then only will we have the full force of the revealed truth. “Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury or interest?” It is rendered interest in the Revised Version.

Throughout this discussion usury is used in its full old classical meaning for any increase of a loan, great or small, whether authorized or forbidden by the civil state.