I have been exploring nineteenth century wealth inequality and working on papers for upcoming conferences and the relationship between religious affiliation and wealth distribution in late nineteenth century Ontario has caught my interest. Work on religion and wealth has certainly been done for the modern era especially for the United States (see Keister reference below). My data is a set of census-linked probated decedents from the years 1892 and 1902 that has data on socio-economic characteristics (age, occupation religion, birthplace) as well as wealth data. I have been working on this type of data nearly my whole academic career.
Figure 1 presents a Pen’s Parade of the top 1% of these 7,516 probated decedent wealth holders (3515 from 1892 and 3,641 from 1902) and shows that their wealth ranged from 75,346 dollars to a high of 1.2 million dollars. Average wealth in this entire data set was $6,871 with the top 1% averaging $169,415. Yet, compared to other jurisdictions around the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ontario’s wealth distribution appears to have been more egalitarian.
The top 1% of wealth holders in Ontario in 1892 and 1902 held about 25 percent of total wealth. Compare this to other parts of the world as shown in Figure 2 and it can be seen that Ontario seems to stand out as not being as unequal as other parts of the world when it came to wealth. Compared to the United States, Britain or even new settler economies such as Australia, Ontario seems curiously bereft of larger supercharged estates more characteristic of the Age of the Robber Barons. Why Ontario (and maybe by extension Canada) is not as unequal in its wealth distribution as other parts of the world during this time is a question I have been trying to find answers to.
The second dimension of this research I have been pursuing is differences in wealth distribution amongst the major religious groups during the late nineteenth century. In terms of their share of the data, Methodists were the largest denomination at 29 percent of the data set followed by Presbyterians at 27 percent, Anglicans at 19 percent, Roman Catholics at just over 11 percent and Baptists at 5 percent. The remainder are an assortment of all other religions.
There are certainly differences in average wealth with Anglicans and Presbyterians having the highest average wealth and Baptists and Methodists the lowest (See Figure 3). More interesting is that as evidenced by Gini coefficients (see Figure 4) wealth was more unequally held amongst Anglicans and Roman Catholics and less so amongst Methodists and Baptists. So again, my question is why?
Anglicans were the establishment church in 19th century Ontario and some of their members benefitted by land grants early on so that might explain why their wealth was unequally held. What about Roman Catholics? What is it about Baptists and Methodists that might explain lower average wealth and greater wealth inequality? Did religious belief affect the tolerance for inequality within a particular faith and if so what was the specific belief? Were there differences in tithing practices? Portfolio allocation choices? How about intergenerational wealth transmission? Was one group more likely to favour equal estate division over primogeniture? I am still looking for the answers.
Keister, L. (2008) Faith and Money: How Religion Contributes to Wealth and Poverty. Cambridge University Press.
Ohlsson, H.,J. Roine and D. Waldenstrom (2008), ‘Long-run changes in the concentration of wealth: An overview of recent findings’, in: Personal Wealth from a Global Perspective, ed. by J.B. Davis, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Shanahan M.P., (2001) “Personal wealth in South Australia”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History , XXXII:I (Summer): 55-80.