I was watching my favorite rerun on TV Land the other day, Bonanza. If you don’t know Bonanza, you should. It’s perhaps the classic TV western, and I was watching episode #68 from Season Three, “Springtime.”

One of Ben Cartwright’s friends, Jedidiah Milbank is injured during a roughousing mud-wrestling match between Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. As reparation Ben volunteers the three boys to take care of Milbank’s business for him. It just so happens that there are three tasks, so each of the boys gets one.

Adam Cartwright gets the final task and it is to evict a family from a ranch for non-payment. It seems that Milbank had set up an arrangement for the family to pay for half of the ranch up front, and the rest in monthly installments. Well, the family was a number of months behind, and Milbank was eager to foreclose.

The eldest Cartwright brother dutifully rides off to the ranch, and happens upon a pleasant but beleaguered clan. It seems that the family had tied up most of their capital in a prize bull, who had been mauled by a bear before it could sire more than a few calves. And all but a handful of those calves were drowned in spring floods. When the water pump broke so they could no longer irrigate their crops, the family was left without any source of revenue.

That’s the situation when Adam arrives. The pieces of the pump need to be repaired, but one necessary part must be purchased new and costs $200. The family just doesn’t have it. Instead of foreclosing on the home, Adam, who shares his father’s “strong moral code,” decides to help out the down-and-out family. They aren’t poor because of the lack of effort or work, but simply because of circumstances and poor decisions such as tying up capital in the risky move to buy the stud bull.

So what does Adam do? He helps the father fix the pieces of the well that can be repaired and comes up with a plan to use the pump to double the land that can be irrigated. This will potentially double the family’s crop, helping them to get their heads above water again. The family will need to sell the few remaining calves from the stud stock to pay for the expensive replacement part for the water pump. In the meantime, Adam loans the family the money to get current on their debt to Milbank, averting the disaster of eviction.

Why am I talking about this episode?

I believe it is a great example of how compassion can work within the capital market system. Certainly Milbank filled the role of the archetypal greedy capitalist, but the Cartwrights themselves own a 1,000 acre ranch and are incredibly wealthy by the standards of the day. The difference between Milbank and the Cartwrights is in how they used their wealth and power. By the letter of the law and justice, Milbank had a right to foreclose. By contrast, it was compassion that motivated Adam.

The Heidelberg Catechism, a traditional symbol of Reformed Christianity, notes that one of the reasons we work is so that we can be good stewards of our wealth. It reads, “I faithfully labour, so that I may be able to relieve the needy” (Q&A 111). That’s exactly what Adam Cartwright was doing with his wealth.

And he did it in such a way that it was oriented toward the family regaining their own financial independence. He loaned them part of the money, as a sort of nineteenth-century version of a micro-capital investment, but also made sure they had to invest what they had in their own future by selling the remaining calves.

There’s a lesson to be learned in all this. The United States is in an analogous situation with respect to the developing world as the Ponderosa and the Cartwrights were to that struggling family. We can choose to embody the “cowboy compassion” of the Cartwrights or the craven greed of Jedidiah Milbank.

A great way to invest in the future economic development in poorer nations is through micro-loan investment. Very often it is difficult to get reasonable long-term or even short-term capital loans in these countries, because of the volatility of the currency and government corruption (for more on banking and corruption, see these two issues of the Christian Social Thought Series: Banking, Justice and the Common Good and A Theory of Corruption).

Here are some groups that do micro-loans in developing economies that are worth checking out: Five Talents, Opportunity International, and Kiva.



  • David Michael Phelps

    Brilliant, man. The pedagogical power of narrative–fabulous. I’ve not seen this episode, but let’s face it–Adam was the coolest Cartwright.

  • Kevin Killion

    A marvelous article! Thank you!

    “Bonanza” was one of the greatest of the Morality Tales in early ’60s television. It continually affirmed the value of hard work, virtuous life choices, concern for fellow man, and the American knack for social betterment and social mobility. The Cartwrights did all this while being unabashed capitalists and free marketers.

  • David Thurman

    Why quote the Heidelberg Catechism and imply a merely human source for this wisdom when the Bible tells us the same in Eph. 4:28b? “that he may have something to share with those in need”. (NIV)I am bothered with how often I see this type of thing on the Acton blog. Are the authors more familiar with later documents that draw from the Bible than they are the Bible?

  • http://blog.acton.org Jordan

    I hold to a traditionally Protestant, specifically Reformed, view of the relationship between the confessional symbols and Scripture. The former are only binding and valid to the extent that they rightly reflect the teaching of the latter.

    And since this section of the HC is [I]almost[/I] a direct quote of Scripture (as is often the case in the HC, the pronoun is changed to the personal “I”), it would seem to have not merely “human” authority.

    As such, I certainly did not imply that the teaching had merely a human source, although that is apparently what you inferred from my reference.

    As is so often the case with confessional documents, esp. the HC, I view them as summaries rather than substitutes for Scriptural teachings. If you look at Q&A 111 in my copy of the HC, you’ll see references to a number of Scriptures including Eph. 4:28.

    I should either have noted the HC’s dependence on Eph. 4:28 or modified the quote to directly refer to Scripture. I’m sorry for the ambiguity.

    As for being bothered with citations of confessional symbols, I hardly think the ratio of my references to them compared to direct quotations of Scripture is out of line. But that may well be a subjective judgment, and you are entitled both to your opinion and your feelings.

    I do agree that it probably would have been more prudent simply to quote Scripture to avoid confusion. But as a summary statement, I can certainly appreciate the text of HC Q&A 111.