These realities prompted younger Protestants to prize a different set of values. They drew on the idea that had emerged in the Second Great Awakening that Christians were called to collectively address social injustices such as slavery. Thus, they wanted to limit child labor and establish a 10-hour workday. They were members of Protestantism’s “public party,” meaning they felt society in general could be redeemed through collective social action.
While the views of the public party hadn’t caught on with the religious mainstream, Protestants in many professions, including law, theology, and journalism, felt compelled to take a new approach to their work in order to address the injustices they saw in the economy. For instance, the Danish immigrant Jacob Riis, a fervent evangelical, established himself as one of America’s first great photographers by documenting the lives of the urban poor. Together with Ida Tarbell, a journalist who also brought her Christian values to her work, he helped to create the journalistic tradition of muckraking.
Younger evangelical economists also took a stance on their work that differed from the previous generation’s. Richard T. Ely, the man who is most responsible for leading this younger Protestant cohort in the 1880s, saw the new industrial economy quite clearly. His own father had suffered a long bout of unemployment, and Ely had recently returned from Germany to live in New York City, where he’d witnessed the spread of urban poverty. Ely’s motto, drawn from his German training, was “Look and see”: Like Riis and Tarbell, he believed that people could be prodded out of holding their comfortable ideas about American society if they knew the truth.
Ely called for the older economists to stop arguing based on assumptions about how the economy worked and to join him in the hard work of understanding the institutions that enabled and encouraged poverty. As he did this, he was consciously calling on a different set of Christian values than his elders. Whereas they emphasized individual redemption and saving the souls of sinners, Ely and his peers focused on charity, concern for the poor, and social justice.
It was on these moral grounds that the American Economic Association was founded in 1885. Ely, today considered the founder of the AEA, shepherded his peers to create an organization that, he hoped, would shape the emerging discipline into a tool for making the economy fairer and more equitable. It was around this time that economics departments were starting to be formed as separate entities within America’s emerging research institutions, which meant that a lot of new jobs were up for grabs. Ely hoped that the AEA would help to define who was suitable for these positions.
While Ely was passionate about seeing his vision realized, the older generation still held a lot of power, so his colleagues insisted that the older generation must be made comfortable in the organization if it was to survive. To accomplish this end, many of his allies prevailed at the first meeting in Saratoga Springs, New York, and insured that members retained the right to reject any of the organization’s four founding principles, including a declaration that the government had an important role to play in economic development.