Read Chapter XXXIII - Per contra; Christian apologists of Usury A Scriptural‚ Ethical and Economic View , free online book, by Calvin Elliott, on

Every argument favoring the continuance of the practice of usury can be met from the propositions established in the preceding chapters. Indeed, there are no true arguments to be presented in its favor. Truth is consistent with truth. We are not placed in a dilemma and compelled to decide which are the strongest of the arguments arrayed against each other. We are not deciding which is the greater of two blessings nor which the less of two evils, but this is a question of evil or good, of sin or righteousness. If usury is wrong then every argument brought forward to support it is a falsehood, though it may be covered with a very beautiful and attractive and plausible form in its presentation.

1. The old Wilson Catechism published in Dundee in 1737 is perhaps the most familiar defense.

Que. Is the gaining of money by usury unlawful?

Ans. Yes, Pro:8. Psalm 15:5.

Que. What is usury?

Ans. The taking unlawful profit for money that is lent out.

Que. Is it lawful to take any interest or gain for money lent?

Ans. Yes, when it is taken according to the laws of the land, and from these who make gain by it, by trading or purchasing of lands; seeing it is equally just for the owner of money to ask a share of the profit which others make by it, as for the owner of the land to demand farm from the tenant of it, money being improvable by art and labor as well as land.

Que. What is the unlawful profit for money, which may be called

Ans. The taking profit for money from the poor who borrow for mere necessity, or taking needful things from them in pawn for it; or the taking more profit for any than law allows, as these who take ten, fifteen, or twenty in the hundred. Exo:25, 26. Deu:12, 17. Eze:7, 8.

Que. But were not the people of Israel discharged to take any
usury or profit for lent money from their brethren? Deu:19.

Ans. This law seems to have been peculiar to the Jewish state, and that in regard of their estates being so divided, settled, and secured to their families by the year jubilee, and their not being employed in trading or making purchases like other nations, so that they had no occasion to borrow money but for the present subsistence of their families. But for strangers, who had another way of living, the Israelites were allowed to lend upon usury, and to share with them in their profits, Deu:20, which shows that the taking of interest is not oppressive in itself; for they are frequently prohibited to oppress a stranger, and yet allowed to take usury from him. Exo:21, and 23:9.”

The reader will notice that the definition of usury is defective. The reader will also notice that there are no Scripture references given to prove that any interest can be taken. This is singular, since throughout the Catechism Scripture references are profuse in confirmation of the answers. If a single passage had been found that could be twisted into an approval the reference would have been given. He rests the permission to take usury wholly on human reason, though in direct opposition to the Scripture references he had first given to prove that the gaining of wealth by usury was unlawful. He does not claim to get this answer from the Bible. He rests this answer on the law of the land and the purposes of the borrower, and says it is not worse than taking a rental for land anyway.

The questions with regard to the customs of the people of Israel are completely met in the Second and Third Chapters of this book.

Fisher, also, we find from his catechism published in 1753, thought it necessary to make some excuse for the custom in his time. High interest he finds condemned, but moderate interest he tries to defend.

Qu. What is it to take usury, according to the proper
signification of the word?

Ans. It is to take gain, profit, or interest, for the loan of

Qu. What kind of usury or interest is lawful?

Ans. That which is moderate, easy, and no way oppressive. Deut.
23:20, compared with E:21.

Qu. How do you prove that moderate usury is lawful?

Ans. From the very light of nature, which teaches, that since the borrower proposes to gain by the loan, the lender should have a reasonable share of his profit, as a recompense for the use of his money, which he might otherwise have disposed of to his own advantag Co:13.

Qu. What is the usury condemned in scripture and by what

Ans. It is the exacting of more interest or gain for the loan of money, than is settled by universal consent, and the laws of the land. Pro:8. ’He that by usury, and unjust gain, increaseth his substance, shall gather it for him that will pity the poor.’

Qu. How do you prove from scripture, that moderate usury, or
common interest, is not oppression in itself?

Ans. From the express command laid upon the Israelites not to oppress a stranger, E:9; and yet their being allowed to take usury from him, Deu:20; which they would not have been permitted to do, if there had been an intrinsic evil in the thing itself.

Qu. Is it warrantable to take interest from the poor?

Ans. By no means; for, if such as are honest, and in needy circumstances, borrow a small sum towards a livelihood, and repay it in due time, it is all that can be expected of them; and therefore the demanding of any profit or interest, or even taking any of their necessaries of life in pledge, for the sum, seems to be plainly contrary to the law of charity. E:25-28. P:5.

Qu. Were not the Israelites forbidden to take usury from
their brethren, whether poor or rich? Deu:19: ’Thou shalt
not lend upon usury to thy brother.’

Ans. This text is to be restricted to their poor brethren, as it is explained, E:25, and Le:35, 36; or, if it respects the Israelites indifferently, then it is one of the judicial laws peculiar to that people, and of no binding force now.”

In the answer to the 34th question he appeals to the light of nature. That light, as he interprets it, may be applied as follows. We follow his language closely and his argument perfectly.

From the very light of nature which teaches, that since the borrower of the hoe purposes to dig his own garden with it, the lender should have a reasonable amount of his garden dug, as a recompense for the use of the hoe, which he might otherwise have used himself to dig his own garden.

Fisher confirms his conclusion with a Scripture reference but it is so irrelevant that it would seem Wilson was wiser in omitting Scripture reference altogethe Co:13, “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”

The only explanation the writer ever saw or heard of, that was seriously made was this: “If using my brother’s money without interest offends him, then I will never while the world standeth accept his money without interest lest I make my brother to offend.” If this is the intended application then it may be further applied. If using a brother’s money at six per cent. offends him then I will surely give him ten per cent. lest I cause my brother offence. Could there be a more absurd application of a Scripture passage?

The later theologians have seldom mentioned usury and none have discussed it at any length, and no divine to our knowledge has undertaken a defence. The “Systematic Theology” of Dr. Charles Hodge is perhaps the most elaborate and exhaustive. He does not more than refer to usury; he does not even mention it by name. But in his discussion of the violation of the eighth commandment, he ridicules the idea that “a thing is worth what it is worth to the man who demands it.” He says: “If this be so, then if a man perishing from thirst is willing to give his whole estate for a glass of water it is right to exact that price; or if a man in danger of drowning should offer a thousand dollars for a rope, we might refuse to throw it to him for a less reward. Such conduct every man feels is worthy of execration.”

He closes the discussion of the eighth commandment with this significant and emphatic sentence: “Many who have stood well in society and even in the church will be astonished at the last day to find the word ‘Thieves’ written after their names in the great book of judgment.”

2. “To prohibit usury is revolutionary.”

Revolutions are not necessarily evil. They have been justified in all the ages to overthrow tyranny and oppression and to secure freedom and establish justice. Oppressors and evil-doers in power have ever been anxious to maintain the “statu quo”: that is, to be let alone. The “Man of Galilee” is the prince of revolutionists. He has overthrown and turned down the civilizations of the world and has brought in his own, called by his name, Christian civilization. His followers were revolutionists. The idolatrous craftsmen of Ephesus, not wishing to be disturbed in their profitable business, in order to defeat the work of Paul and his associates, raised the cry of revolution. “These that have turned the world upside down have come hither also.”

The things that are wrong side up must be revolved. When material things are found superior to true manhood and womanhood, they must be reversed. When the works of men’s hands are given a place above the hands that formed them, when the results of labor are given a place above the vital energy of the laborer, there is call for revolution.

But this revolution should be the most peaceful the world ever saw. This need not require the destruction of any property nor the shedding of one drop of blood. It need interfere with no man’s rights nor enforce upon any man a burden he should not be willing to bear. A man is not interfering with the rights of another when he is paying his debts, and a man should not feel that there is placed upon him a burden he is unwilling to carry, when his own property is returned to him. Yet that is the ultimate, the extreme goal, to be reached by the abolition of usury; every man free from debt and every man caring for his own property.

3. “If usury is not permitted, the great modern enterprises are impossible.”

A great modern enterprise that is not for the general good has no right to be. Splendid enterprises are often made possible by the sacrifice of the welfare of the many for the interests of the few. The splendid plantations of the southern states flourished in time of slavery, when the labor of many was subordinate to the welfare of one. They are not now possible; yet the present and future general good is better secured by the sacrifice of the splendid past. A splendid military campaign is only possible by the complete subordination of the many to the will and order of the commanding head. One hundred thousand in an army is now receiving the attention of the world. One hundred thousand in happy homes are commonplace. The pyramids are splendid monuments, but they were not a blessing to the slaves, who built them.

Splendid enterprises in which the few command the many may be an unmitigated curse.

“Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen who survey
The rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay;
’Tis yours to judge, how wide the limits stand,
Between a splendid and a happy land.”

No enterprise, however brilliant, can be in the model state, that blesses the few by the losses of the many.

Great and benign enterprises are possible without usury. There is no greater enterprise than the postal system in this land and extending to all the nations in the postal union. You owe it nothing; like poor Richard, “you pay as you go.” It owes nothing, pays no interest and renders a great service for the small amount you pay. It is a standing illustration of the success of a strictly cash business.

The great benevolent missionary enterprises, that send their messengers to all lands, over the whole earth, receive and disburse the gifts of the benevolent. Their work is not interrupted, but continues from age to age.

The commerce of the world can be carried on just as effectively without usury. A mortgage does not make a farm more productive nor does a bonded debt make a railroad or a navigation company more efficient. The railroads and express and telegraph and telephone and other enterprises are greatly hindered in the service of the public by the tribute they are returning to the usurers. Had this farmer not this mortgage he could improve his farm and bring from his land better results. Were it not for the unceasing drain upon the income of great enterprises to meet the interest on bonds, the properties could be improved and the public better served at greatly reduced rates. Indeed the most successful enterprises are now operated by the owners.

4. “It will be hard to borrow, if you will not pay interest.”

It would be a happy condition if no one should want to borrow except in urgent need from an accidental strait; if that old independent, self-reliant spirit that refused to be indebted to any man could be universal, that preferred frank and honest poverty in a cabin, to a sham affluence in a mortgaged palace.

It should be hard to borrow, but easy to pay. Usury makes it easy to borrow, but hard to repay. Usurers even make it attractive and entice the victim into the trap of debt and then it is all but impossible to find a way out. An honest, industrious man of good habits must be ever on the alert or he will be entangled, sooner or later, with debts.

It will not be harder for an honest man, who is in need, to borrow. He will not be able to borrow more than his need requires. The debt will not increase during the period of disability, and it will be easier to repay without increase. The usurer requires more than honesty for the security of his loan. The loan to him is precious seed, that must be planted where it will grow. To merely have the loan returned without increase does not meet his claim. To remit the increase, to make it easier for the poor debtor to pay, he would regard as a positive loss to himself and a gift to his victim. The usurer prefers rich debtors, who have abundant property to secure the loan and its increase.

There is a despised class of pawn usurers who prey upon the poor. They are regarded as robbers of the poor in their distresses, but their business would be impossible, were it not that all avenues of relief are closed by usury; “interest must be paid anywhere; why not borrow of them though the rates are high?” The moral quality of the act is the same; the difference is wholly in the degree of turpitude.