William B. Greene’s 1850 “Mutual Banking”

By 1850, the year William Batchelder Greene turned 31 and retired from the ministry, he had written, in one form or another, nearly all of his major works. He lived until 1878, and was active until about 1875, and he certainly did not stop writing, revising or organizing in support of his ideas. In 1853, in the course of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, questions of women’s suffrage and voter qualification would assume a new importance for him—and this line of thought would not see its full expression until after his Civil War service, in the essay “The Sovereignty of the People.” His works on calculus, grounded in an early exposure at West Point, and no doubt affected by his command of an artillery unit, were still to come, as was his study of the Kaballah. But the bulk of his work had been accomplished in the years between 1840 and 1850, and much of what followed in his work on mutual banking, transcendentalism, theology and psychology consisted of a paring down or recontextualization of work that had already been, for the most part, written.

Greene’s work was largely self-published. He had the means to issue his books and pamphlets on a vanity basis. That he frequently did so meant that they appear at times to have escaped portions of the ordinary editorial process that might have rendered them a bit friendlier to the reader. If you follow Greene, step by step, edition by edition, he is really admirably clear. But it is not always the case that Greene’s condensations and simplifications were well suited to clarify his ideas for new readers.

I have written elsewhere about the convoluted, and often misunderstood, history of Greene’s mutual banking writings. Let me recap the basic outline, with a few clarifications:

  1. In 1849, Greene wrote a series of essays for the Worcester Palladium, touching on economic, political and theological points. He was, at this point, deeply influenced by a number of French socialist figures, particularly Pierre Leroux and Proudhon. Leroux and Proudhon, of course, had found themselves on opposite sides of the debate over Proudhon’s banking proposals, and differed as well on questions of religion. Greene had been introduced to these French thinkers by Orestes Brownson—who by this time had abandoned all hope for large-scale self-management and was pursuing more authoritarian solutions to the social problem through the Catholic church—and his father—who had translated Lamennais’ People’s Own Book—and was trying to harmonize elements from a variety of influences. Leroux’s triads, the Baptist trinity of his early education and the Proudhonian interest in antinomies are all in play here.
  2. The Palladium essays, along with some others, were collected in 1849 as Equality. We should probably think of Equality as a kind of early synthesis of Greene’s interests, and as a mark of the extent of his reading beyond what was readily available, in English, in American journals. His earliest writings show the influence of Leroux (through Brownson), but mostly in a philosophical sense. In Equality, we see that Greene has taken on the broadly “socialistic” task of solving the Social Problem. He always painted his conversion to Christianity in dramatic terms, and he was undoubtedly more than a bit of romantic, prone to throwing himself at projects will all the enthusiasm of youth. (We can’t leave out, in this context, his first published work, the “Song of Espousal.”) After 1850, however, he was a bit of a disappointed romantic. Frustration with at least some of the transcendentalists—who had been among his early heroes—with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law—which his uncle failed to condemn—and with military leaders during his service in the Civil War, had the effect of “destroying illusions.” But in 1849, Greene was obviously still on fire, and reading in French as much of Proudhon, Leroux, Buchez and others as he could find, and also keeping current with works like Mills Principles of Political Economy. He was also still a practicing Unitarian minister, and his writings are peppered with evidence that he took theological questions as seriously as economic or political ones. Indeed, it is hard to see that there was much separation of spheres for Greene.
  3. 1850 saw the publication of Mutual Banking (which I am very pleased to be able to present online) . This is not the text that most of us are familiar with, although it contains nearly half of the material that made up the standard 1870 and posthumous 1927 and 1946 editions. (These last two differ only by one paragraph, appended at the end of the latter.) Taken together, Equality and the 1850 Mutual Banking contain nearly everything we associate with these later publications—and a whole lot more. It’s worth noting what is unique to this first Mutual Banking. The Introduction to the 1850 text is a sort of sermon on communion and the historical forms of inequality, drawn from biblical and theological sources. It draws on Leroux’s (still-untranslated) De l’égalité, and forms a strange sort of historical context for the (largely familiar) section on William Beck and Proudhon which immediately follows it. Other unique sections discuss The Proletariat, biblical arguments against Usury, and The Cherubim, whom Greene associates with the sphinxes and the Collective Adam.
  4. As the Panic of 1837 had driven earlier banking debates, and formed one of the sources of Greene’s work, the Panic of 1857 undoubtedly provided some of the impetus for Greene’s next banking work, The Radical Deficiency Of The Existing Circulating Medium, And The Advantages Of A Mutual Currency. This 1857 text collects and condenses sections of Equality and the 1850 Mutual Banking, with some revisions.
  5. It was essentially this text, with some revisions, that was published in 1870—as Mutual Banking, Showing The Radical Deficiencies Of The Existing Circulating Medium, And The Advantages Of A Free Currency—by the New England Labor Reform League, with an introduction by Ezra H. Heywood. This is the period in which the individualists and mutualists had their greatest connections with the broader labor movement, through organizations such as the International Workingman’s Association and the National Labor Union. This edition is, consequently, the leanest and clearest of all—the definitive edition if we grant that Greene’s mutual bank writings are primarily economic. It is, however, this assumption that the 1849 and 1850 texts draw into question.
  6. I’ll skip mostly over the posthumous editions published by Tucker and Cohen. It’s worth noting, however, an important debate between those two over the redemption of mutual bank bills in specie. Tucker claimed victory, in part because of his personal acquaintanceship with Greene, and the later editions are somewhat ambiguous on the questions raised. I encourage those interested in these fine points, however, to read closely the 1850 Mutual Banking to see if perhaps Cohen was on a sounder footing than he was given credit for.
  7. 1927 saw the Vanguard Press collection, Proudhon’s Solution to the Social Problem, and a new edit of Mutual Banking, based on the 1870 edition. Among the significant edits was the removal of a section critical of Proudhon. Somewhat unfortunately, this edition has been the source for the only modern reprints, the 1946 Modern (India) and 1974 Gordon Press editions.

That’s the story, more or less, and it is largely a matter of paring down the early texts. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Equality evolved from more texts than we have yet accounted for.

I’ll end this with a short piece from The Cherubim, which ends the main text of the 1850 Mutual Banking (followed only by a variant version of the mutual banking petition). How different it is from the text most of us are familiar with:

The Past and the Future.

The times are fulfilled: the prophecies are accomplished: and the nations are expecting the immediate advent of the Son of Man. As the Hebrews were deceived in their expectation of a military Messiah, so, without doubt, the existing generations will be disappointed in their expectation of a coming of Christ in the clouds of heaven; for the predictions are fulfilled, never in their literal, but always in their spiritual sense. We are living at the end of a dispensation: the blast on tile trumpets of the last Judgment has already sounded: the old social and religious order is giving way under our feet, like ice in the time of spring freshets. The religion of the Father prevailed before Christ: the religion of the Word has prevailed in the Christian Church; the sun of the religion of the Holy Ghost now dawns on the horizon

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: and she being with child, cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.” The existing Jewish—Grecian—Roman—Christian civilisation, is taken with travail of birth, and verily it shall be delivered of the man child that is to rule all kindreds, and tribes, and tongues, with a rod of iron. The Spirit now broods on the hearts of men, as it brooded of old on the original darkness of Chaos. Social Unity is the manifest destiny of the nations

The existing Christianity is but a preparation for a higher Christianity that shall shortly be revealed: the Terrestrial Paradise is not behind us in the shadowy ages of the past, but before us. Religion is one, identical to itself, and unchanging: but—because the human race advances like. a single man in its joint life and experience—dispensation follows dispensation; each dispensation being adapted to its peculiar stage of human progress. New light will soon break forth from the Gospel, and the NEW CHRISTIANITY will establish itself in the world—a Christianity as much transcending the one now known in the Churches, as this last transcends the religion of types and shadows revealed through Moses

This is the order of the dispensations:—the Covenant with Noah; the Covenant with Abraham; THE MOSAIC DISPENSATION; CHRISTIANITY; CHRISTIAN MUTUALISM

Christian Mutualism is the RELIGION of the coming age:—Sanscrit, yuga; Heb. yom, or ivom; Gr. aion; Lat. oevum; Light’s manifestation, revolving age, dispensation, world, day.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.