Andrew Carnegie and “The Gospel of Wealth”

This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth: To set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance; to provide moderately for the legitimate wants of those dependent upon him; and after doing so, to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer, and strictly bound as a matter of duty to administer in the manner which, in his judgment, is best calculated to produce the most beneficial results for the community—the man of wealth thus becoming the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.

Andrew Carnegie in “The Gospel of Wealth” 1889

I happened upon this quote today and thought it was a good one. But then I decided to investigate the man behind the ideas. Andrew Carnegie was one of the multi-millionaires of the early industrial period. He earned his riches from making smart decisions to invest in iron, oil and steel companies. Later he became a philanthropist. He had a knack for business and making the most of opportunities to make money such as the Civil War.

Carnegie wrote these words about how the rich should give away their excess wealth to the betterment of society before they die well after he had become the richest man in the world through ruthless, unscrupulous, and oppressive business practices. As a young man, he rose from poverty due to a little bit of luck and a lot of determination and inborn business aptitudes, as well as the providence of being born during the industrial revolution. While this quote and others in the essay seem wise on the surface, it is important to examine the context.

The essay describes using wealth to improve society and provide opportunities for those who will take advantage of them, which he did by funding libraries, schools and educational trusts, as well as donating money for church organs. However, Carnegie was no saint. His goal was not necessarily to ease the suffering of individuals in poverty, but to help humans evolve into a more perfect race. In other words, he was not truly compassionate, he was a social reformer. He would not waste his philanthropy on what he considered to be lost causes.

Carnegie was one of a large number of rich people in that era who were influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution and Francis Galton’s theory of eugenics. They thought they could create the perfect race by preventing the imperfect people from breeding. They promoted the use of sterilization, birth control, and abortion to do so. Rather than attempting to alleviate suffering through charity, these progressive eugenicists believed that they should use philanthropy , education and public policies to eliminate the poor because they had inferior genes.

Andrew Carnegie’s belief in eugenics is a reminder that even the most intelligent and well-intentioned people can be misled by false ideas when they do not seek the wisdom of God. It is also a reminder that the misuse of science can have devastating consequences such as the rise of people like Hitler and the murder of millions of innocent babies.

The history of how Andrew Carnegie became wealthy is well known. But is beliefs about God are not as clear. The internet disagrees. Some say that when he learned that the Bible teaches that it is hard for a rich man to get into heaven, he was concerned enough to start giving away his money. Some claim he was a devout Presbyterian, but this seems unlikely based on his own words. However, he did seem to have some spiritual feelings and enjoyed church music.

According to an article on website of the anti-religion group Freedom From Religion, Carnegie scoffed at religion and did not think missionaries were worthy of receiving financial assistance. But this same article claims that his views on religion may have changed in his later years. It is pretty clear that during the years that he was building his fortune that he had no fear of God.

Near the end of his life Carnegie became interested in the Baha’i religion which teaches that there is one God and that Jesus was just one manifestation of him, among others. He became quite interested and even donated $100,000 to build the first Baha’i church in the US in 1913. But it is difficult to say for sure how deeply Carnegie was involved in the Baha’i faith. He never formally converted to the faith, and he did not always agree with its teachings.

From Carnegie’s autobiography: ““I believe in God, but not in a personal God who concerns himself with the affairs of men. I believe in a God who is the sum total of all the forces of the universe, and who works through natural laws. I believe that man is a part of God, and that he has within him the potentialities of divinity. I believe that the purpose of life is to learn and to grow, and to help others. I believe that the greatest good for the greatest number is the highest moral law. I believe that the world is moving towards a better future, and that man can make it better by his own efforts.”


I have no right to complain of the way I have been treated by the world. I have made a fortune, and I have enjoyed every luxury that money can buy. But I have also had my share of sorrow. I have seen the suffering of my workers, and I have felt the guilt of having contributed to it. I have come to realize that there is more to life than making money. I have come to realize that the true test of a man is not how much he has, but how much he gives.

Like many people, Carnegie was complicated, but because of his great power and wealth he has been studied, condemned, and praised much more than most of us. In the end, his money has been used to promote progress and education based on the wisdom of men rather than God.

Only God knows for sure what Andrew Carnegie believed, but I hope that he repented and was saved before he died.



  1. Andrew Carnegie is one of my favorite historical figures, and his autobiography one of my favorite books. From his own words, he started libraries and universities because he was able to rise out of poverty through self-education and wanted others to do the same. He thought perhaps the next man like himself might come from the black people in America, as they were an oppressed and impoverished group. That was why he started the precursor to the United Negro College Fund. I love his perspective and positivity. He struck me as a humanist, though, with a Christian backdrop rather than actually Christian. His autobiography just ends after he was disheartened by what was going on in the world, so it’s hard to say.

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