Chapter 37 - Extracts from Usury, A Scriptural, Ethical and Economic View by Calvin Elliott 1902

Definition.

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. “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. 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.”

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.

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.”

We must not permit our views of divine and economic truth to be perverted by this modern division of increase into legal and illegal. 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.

The Law By Moses.

... He then gave him direction to lead his people out of their slavery, and also divine authority to announce to his people the code of laws by which they were to be governed in their free state.

The rights of property were sacred. Each had a right to his own. Theft was severely punished. Each must assist in the protection of the property of others; even the enemy’s property must be protected. The laws for the relief of the poor were kinder and more encouraging to self-help and self-reliance than our modern poorhouses. These laws of God, given by Moses, positively forbade usury or interest, and this prohibition was so repeated that there was no mistaking the meaning.

Prof. George Bush makes the following note upon this passage: “The original term ‘Neshek’ comes from the verb ‘Nashak’ (to bite), mostly applied to the bite of a serpent; and probably signifies biting usury, so called perhaps because it resembled the bite of a serpent; for as this is often so small as to be scarcely perceptible at first, yet the venom soon spreads and diffuses itself till it reaches the vitals, so the increase of usury, which at first is not perceived, at length grows so much as to devour a man’s substance.”

An effort is sometimes made to limit the application of these laws by placing special emphasis on the poverty of the borrowers and to confine the prohibition of usury to loans to the poor to meet the necessaries of life; and it is claimed that the laws are not intended to prohibit usury on a loan which the borrower secures as capital for a business.

In reply it can be said:

  1. There may be more benevolence in a loan to enable a brother to go into business than in a loan to supply his present needs. It may be less benevolent and less kind to lend a dollar to buy flour for present use than to lend a dollar to buy a hoe with which to go into business and earn the flour.
  2. A desire for capital to promote a business to gain more than is necessary to nourish the physical and mental manhood is not justified nor encouraged anywhere in the Word.
  3. If the prohibition is applicable only when the borrower is poor it would be difficult to properly apply it by drawing the line between the rich and the poor. ...
  4. The laws of the Hebrews did not discriminate classes except in their ceremonial and forms of worship.
  5. In the Hebrew community, the man of independent resources did not compromise his freedom by becoming indebted to another.
  6. The laws of the Hebrew state were for the promotion of equity between man and man and also for the protection of the weak and the helpless.
Usury and “The Stranger.”

Deuteronomy. 23:19, 20: “Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of anything that is lent upon usury. Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.” While there is no reference to poverty in this passage and the prohibition cannot fairly be limited to loans to the poor, a shadow of permission to exact usury is found in the clause: “unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury.”

Hebrews, who have been anxious to obey the letter of the Mosaic law, while indifferent to its true spirit, have construed this into a permission to exact usury of all Gentiles. Christian apologists for usury, who have not utterly discarded all laws given by Moses as effete and no longer binding, have tried hard to show that this clause authorizes the general taking of interest. To do this it is wrested from its natural connection, and the true historic reference is ignored. Three classes of persons, that were called strangers, may be noted for the purpose of presenting the true import of this passage.

  1. Those were called strangers who were not of Hebrew blood, but were proselytes to the Hebrew faith and had cast their lot with them. They were mostly poor, for not belonging to any of the families of Jacob, they had no landed inheritance. The gleanings of the field and the stray sheaf were left for the fatherless, the poor, and these proselyted strangers. But they were to be received in love, and treated in all respects as those born of their own blood. ...
  2. There was also another class of strangers, including all the nations that were not of Hebrew blood, by which they were surrounded. These traded with them and often sojourned for a more or less extended period among them for merely secular purposes, but never accepted their faith. For this reason, they were often called sojourners. With us, in law, the former strangers would be known as “naturalized citizens,” these as “denizens,” residents in a foreign land for secular purposes. These denizens were to be dealt with justly, to be treated kindly and even with affection, remembering their long sojourn as strangers in Egypt. ...
  3. There was another class called strangers. This class was limited to the inhabitants of their promised land.

Robinson’s Bible Encyclopedia says, on this clause: “Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury.” In this place, God seems to tolerate usury toward strangers: that is the Canaanites and other people devoted to subjection, but not toward such strangers against whom the Hebrews had no quarrel. To exact usury is here, according to Ambrose, an act of hostility. It was a kind of waging war with the Canaanites and ruining them by means of usury.

God withheld his chosen people from taking possession of the promised land until “their iniquity was full” and the divine sentence of condemnation had been pronounced against them. They were to be rooted out of the land and utterly destroyed for their sins, and their land given to the chosen people. God declared that he would execute his sentence, driving them out before them, as his people should increase and be able to occupy the land. ...

Ex. 34:10-12: “And he said, ‘Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the Lord: for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee. Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee.’

They were in no way to covenant with this people and interfere with the execution of divine judgment. They were commanded, willing or unwilling, to be in a measure the executioners of those under sentence. These people of Canaan were deprived of all rights by the divine sentence and the Israelites were not to grant any. ... This compromise was contrary to the divine command for their utter destruction. To condone the guilt of these people, or to interfere with their execution, was as flagrant a violation of law as that of a modern community that seeks to protect criminals, or that interferes with the execution of those convicted of capital crimes. This class of strangers had no rights that Hebrews were permitted to respect. They were not to be given any privileges. ... Debts were not to be forgiven them. The year of Jubilee did not affect them. They remained enslaved forever.

In the fourth commandment Deuteronomy. 5:14, “thy stranger” is mentioned after the ox, ass, and cattle, and was given rest for the same reason the beasts are permitted to rest: “That thy man-servant and maid-servant may rest as well as thou.” They had not the rights of a common servant or slave. The carcass of the animal that died of itself could be given them to eat, and they could be charged usury.

Yet this clause has been seized upon by avaricious Jews as permission to exact usury of all the nations not of Hebrew blood, ignoring the fact that when given it was limited to those peoples under the curse of God for their iniquities. It can not justly be made to mean that the Hebrews have a right to treat other nations with less righteousness than they treat their own people. ... It is an unwarranted broadening to make it a permission to exact usury from all the human race except from Hebrews.

It was chiefly the acting upon this false interpretation, classing all Gentiles with these strangers, accursed of God, that had no rights they were permitted to respect, that set every Gentile Christian’s hand against the Jews for fifteen hundred years. Nothing more clearly marked the line between Christian and Hebrew during fifteen centuries than this one thing, that the Hebrews exacted usury or interest of the Gentiles while the Christians were unanimous in its denunciation, and forbade its practice.

Gentile Christian apologists for the taking of usury or interest, to overcome the force of this prohibition, are compelled to grant that Christians may be less brotherly than Hebrews: that the borrowers whether Christian or not are “strangers” to those who make them loans upon increase.

David And Solomon.

Devout Hebrews during the period of the Judges obeyed the Mosaic prohibition of usury or interest. It was also recognized as binding and obeyed during the reigns of David and Solomon. This was a greatly prosperous period when commerce flourished and trade was extended to the ends of the earth.

His Psalms, in all the ages, have been accepted as expressing the true yearning after righteousness and a longing for closer communion with God. David, in the fifteenth Psalm, expresses the thought of the earnest and reverent worshippers of his time. This Psalm declares the necessity of moral purity in those who would be citizens of Zion and dwellers in the holy hill.

The description, “He that putteth not out his money to usury,” is direct and unqualified. There could be no mistaking its meaning. Those who were guilty could not claim to be citizens of Zion. There is no qualifying clause behind which the usurer could take refuge and escape condemnation. Usury and unjust gain are joined by Solomon as sins of the same nature. It is also implied that they are necessarily connected with want of sympathy and helpfulness toward the poor. They are presented as an oppression that shall not bless the oppressor.

This proverb does not confine the evil to the borrower like the proverb, “The borrower is servant to the lender.” The wrong is not confined to those of the poor to whom loans may be made. The oppression of usury is upon all the poor though they are not borrowers. They are the ultimate sufferers though the loan may be made by one rich man to another to enable him to engage in some business for profit. Usury is so bound up with injustice that its practice cannot fail to result in increasing the hard conditions of all the poor.

Solomon’s reign was brilliant, and the ships of his commerce entered every port in the known world, yet usury was not necessary and was not practiced in that prosperous age.

Denunciation Of Jeremiah And Ezekiel.

The Hebrew nation reached its summit of power and glory during the reign of King Solomon, but corruption crept in and disintegration followed, and a series of conflicts between portions of the kingdom. The laws given by Moses were neglected, and a long period of gross sinning followed. They were warned by the faithful yet hopeful prophet Isaiah that the overthrow of their nation was certain, and that their people would be carried captive to a strange land unless they forsook utterly their sins and turned to righteousness. They did not heed and the predicted calamities came upon them.

In a catalogue of the sins prevailing in Jerusalem ... this prophet places “Usury and increase.” Ezekiel 22: 7-12: “In thee have they set light by father and mother: in the midst of thee have they dealt by oppression with the stranger: in thee have they vexed the fatherless and the widow. Thou hast despised mine holy things, and hast profaned my Sabbaths. In thee are men that carry tales to shed blood: and in thee they eat upon the mountains: in the midst of thee they commit lewdness. In thee have they discovered their father’s nakedness: in thee have they humbled her that was set apart for pollution. And one hath committed abomination with his neighbor’s wife; and another hath lewdly defiled his daughter-in-law; and another in thee hath humbled his sister, his father’s daughter. In thee have they taken gifts to shed blood; thou hast taken usury and increase, and thou hast greedily gained of thy neighbors by extortion, and hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God.”

It would not be easy to give a list of more gross and flagrant sins than those associated with usury in this passage.

It will be noticed that usury or increase is here mentioned among the grossest and foulest sins of which that people were guilty.

Financial Reform By Nehemiah.

But there was a strange interruption in this patriotic work. A sordid covetousness possessed their nobles and rulers. While the people were absorbed in their patriotic service, these persons were planning successfully to despoil them.

A cry of distress came to the ears of Nehemiah. The people found, now that they had made the sacrifice and suffered deprivations and cheerfully given their labors for the common good, they were deprived of their blessings and enslaved.

This enslavement was not to foreign rulers, but to those of their own blood. A division had grown up among their own kindred. Some had grown rich and become their masters. Others were in hopeless poverty. The distinctions came gradually or grew up among them, possibly unobserved: the rich becoming richer and the poor poorer, until the nobles held their lands and were selling their sons and daughters as chattels.

The king’s tribute, too, was heavy upon them and some were not able to pay and they were compelled to borrow, but had to give mortgages upon their land as security. Now lands, homes and all, had passed to the creditors and they were despondent and helpless.

This cry caused Nehemiah great distress,... He took counsel with himself ... and worked out an independent, individual policy which he should pursue. His sympathy was with the suffering people... He then called the nobles and rulers and charged them to their face with oppression. He .... charged the fault to their covetousness, to the exacting of usury or interest. It was this, he declared, that had brought them to wealth, but driven others to poverty. He demanded reparation. When they were slow to yield, he called a convocation of the people and aroused them to a due sense of the wrong they had been enduring, and laid bare the sins of the rulers and nobles.

While he and the patriotic people were busy with hand and brain in rebuilding the nation and fighting the enemies, these usurers were busy getting in their work of ruin, gathering the property into their own hands and enslaving the patriots. The usurers were not able to withstand this onslaught of the chief commander and the aroused people... Then he stated the terms and conditions of the reform he would institute.

  1. They must return the pledges they had taken for debts, without reserve. The people must not be deprived of their land, tools, or instruments of production. The foreclosure of mortgages must be set aside and the people again given possession of their lands.
  2. Interest must be returned or credited upon the debts. If the interest equaled the debt, then the debt was fully discharged. ...
  3. They must take a solemn vow that this sin shall henceforth be unknown among them. The law against usury or interest must henceforth be carefully obeyed.

To these conditions the usurers assented, made ashamed by the conduct of the noble patriot in contrast with their own selfishness, though they had not yielded until awed and compelled by the indignation of the people, which Nehemiah had enkindled against them.

Teachings Of The Master. [Jesus]

Psalmist and prophets had sung of the exalted character of the coming Messiah. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Matt. 5:17: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfill.” He taught that mere external compliance was not sufficient in the All Seeing Eye. The affections and desires of the soul must be in agreement. So murder is not merely the external act, but the law for murder, completed, forbids enmity or hatred hidden in the heart. Again, the year of Jubilee was a kind of legal time limit to debts. All obligations were then cancelled. ... The selfish Hebrew feared to make a loan shortly before Jubilee lest it should not be repaid promptly and his claim would become worthless. Our Lord taught his disciples to ask for forgiveness of God only as they forgave their debtors,.. he broke down the artificial barriers, the distinction of Hebrew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, bond and free. The law forbidding the Hebrews exacting usury of their brethren, of the stranger who had accepted their faith and kept the passover, of the stranger, sojourner who dwelt among them, of everybody except the Canaanite who was under the condemnation of God, could not have been annulled or suspended ... Our hoarding of earthly treasures must be limited...

Practice Of The Disciples.

The conditions in the very early church were not such as to make prominent the sin of usury. Later, ..... the church came face to face with this sin, there was but one voice and that in the denunciation, for the fathers were unanimous in its condemnation.

  1. The first disciples did not loan, but gave to their needy brethren. ... It is evident they did not assist their brethren with “loans,” but with gifts;..
  2. They were diligent in business. They provided things honest in the sight of all men.
  3. Covetousness was hated and denounced and classed with the most flagrant violations of the moral law. Covetousness is an inordinate regard for wealth of any kind.
  4. The early disciples kept out of debt. The early Christians were not borrowers. The doctrine and practice of the early church was to owe no man anything. Any Christian conscience at that time would have been satisfied with the settlement ... commanded by Nehemiah. This text also required that they keep out of debt.

Now, I repeat, there is too much laxity about contracting debts and too little conscience about the necessity of paying for what we use. ... Struggle as he may the man is not free who is under obligations to others.

Church History.

The Church, from the time of the apostles, was emphatic in its denunciation of usury.

The fathers unanimously condemned the taking of interest, Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome can be quoted against it. The popes followed the teachings of the fathers and forbade it under severe penalties. The priests guilty of this sin were degraded from their orders. The laymen found guilty were excommunicated. Interest paid could be reclaimed, not only from the usurer but from his heirs. A bargain, though confirmed by an oath never to claim back the interest paid, was declared not binding. A council at Westminster (1126) approved the degradation of all clergy, who were guilty of this practice. Archbishop Sands said: “This canker (usury) hath corrupted all England.” A council in Vienna (1311) reaffirmed the denunciations of previous popes and councils, and then adds: “If any shall obstinately persist in the error of presuming to affirm that the taking of usury is not a sin, we decree that he shall be punished as a heretic.”

There is no record of the repeal of any of these edicts. The leaders of the Protestant reformation also denounced usury. Luther was violent in his opposition, using the strongest language he could command. “Whoever eats up, robs and steals the nourishment of another, commits as great a murder, as he who carves a man or utterly undoes him. Such does a usurer, and he sits the while on his stool, when he ought rather to be hanging from the gallows.”

The decisions of Ecclesiastical Councils were numerous and emphatic until the seventeenth century. Since that time interest taking has become common, ... but there is no record found anywhere of its direct approval by any ecclesiastical body. The Church has come to tolerate it but has never given it official approval.

Calvin’s Letter On Usury.

A mere hint of encouragement to the usurer came from Calvin. In a letter, to a friend, he hesitatingly expressed opinions that have ever since been quoted in defense of the practice.

Our Changed Conditions.

The changed conditions of the race in these last years are urged as a sufficient reason for annulling this law.

The prohibition of usury belonged to the past, the practice of usury is all but universal in the present, therefore they argue that usury is a part and a necessary part of our civilization and to revive the old prohibition would turn the world’s civilization backward and be as absurd as to now dispense with steam or electricity.

American Revision.

The Revision by the American Committee is the latest effort of scholarship to bring King James’ Version up to date by eliminating effete terms and using words in their modern sense.

The references to usury are here collated so as to give a general view of the question from the translations of the passages in this the latest Revision. The reader will notice that the modern word “interest” is substituted for “usury” in nearly every passage.

Exodus 22:25: “If thou lend money to any of my people with thee that is poor, thou shalt not be to him as a creditor; neither shall ye lay upon him interest.”

Effect On Character.
  1. Usury discourages industry and encourages idleness. The laborer is stirred to diligence when he gets good wages. When his wages are meager he becomes discouraged, relaxes his efforts and may abandon his work altogether. When he knows that he is receiving less than he is earning, and that a part of his earnings are appropriated by another, he is embittered and becomes indifferent.
  2. It prevents open and frank honesty. When the thought is turned to an endeavor to secure a dollar that is not earned, there is secretiveness of purpose and inward guile.
  3. It discourages the spirit of self-reliance. Usury causes a broad separation between a man of property and the man of mere muscle or brain.
    The independent spirit slips away so gradually that its going is scarcely noticed, but when once gone the degradation is complete.
    A family of free Hebrews went down into Egypt, and for a long time was in favor with the rulers, but they gradually lost their independence and became more and more servile and cringing until the Egyptian masters dared to go into their homes and pick up their boy babies and take them out and drown them as if they were worthless puppies.
    Every man who loves his country and his race must view with alarm this growing feeling of subordination and cringing disposition. It is the very reverse of that democratic spirit or consciousness of equality that must prevail to secure the permanency of our republican institutions.
  4. It destroys fraternal sympathy. Two classes are found in every modern community. The one is the laborers with muscle or brain, the other class, those whose property produces for them. Between these classes there is a great wall fixed. It cannot be expected that they will mingle harmoniously and be in sympathy in civil and social relations. Producing and non-producing classes can never be congenially associated.
    The question is frequently discussed in church circles, “How can the laboring man be attracted to the churches?” The discussion often presumes that the non-laboring man does find the church congenial. If he does, all efforts to win the other class will be in vain. The church itself needs to correct its teachings and reform its spirit.
  5. Usury promotes that ““Covetousness which is idolatry.” “As heathens place their confidence in idols, so doth the avaricious man place his confidence in silver and gold. The covetous person, though he doth not indeed believe his riches or his money to be God, yet by so loving and trusting in them, as God alone ought to be loved and trusted in, he is as truly guilty of idolatry as if he so believed.”
    Idolatry is the act of ascribing to things or persons properties that are peculiar to God. The principal objects of worship are those things which bring to men the greatest good.
  6. It destroys spirituality. Property is matter and not spirit. With the thought and heart and effort directed to a material thing, the spirit is neglected. It destroys spirituality, too, because it holds the mind to a material thing as the source of all good. This, as all idolatry, leads to a breaking away from the restraints of the moral law.
Crushed Truth Will Rise Again.

The practice of usury is so general, and it is apparently so fully approved and sanctioned by many of the most intelligent and virtuous of our people, that those who believe in its prohibition and are disposed to pessimism may be utterly discouraged. The whole commercial credit system built on this monstrous falsehood must either crumble or tumble.