Professing Faith: The power of silver in trade and religious traditions

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Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. This photo is from about 2017. (Courtesy Photo)

I am holding in my hand a silver disk, an old silver dollar, the like of which you do not see very often. This one is dated 1921. On its face is an image of the female Liberty wearing a crown. On the reverse is a resting American bald eagle holding laurels in its claws, which is significant in itself. This specimen is called the Peace dollar and it was minted to commemorate the end of the First World War.

American eagles in heraldry are normally shown with laurels in one claw and arrows in the other, to show the American power in both war and peace. However, after the “war to end all wars,” it was deemed appropriate to put the arrows away. Have no fear, gentle reader, for our national security, if you look at the Kennedy half dollar and its eagle, the arrows are back.

This particular coin was the replacement for an older coin called the Morgan dollar, named for the engraver at the U.S. Mint who designed it. Both the Morgan and the Peace dollars carry .77344 Troy ounces of silver, making it 90% of the content, the rest being copper to make the coin harder and more durable. Officially, the coin is worth one U.S. dollar, but its silver content makes it worth about $20 at current rates.

Silver is one of the most ancient metals to be mined and refined by human beings. It is one of the seven metals of antiquity, meaning it is one of the only known metals until medieval times, along with gold, mercury, tin, iron, lead and copper. Because of its rarity and value, along with gold, it is part of the religious heritage of the world and it appears in culture after culture.

The extraction of silver from ore was developed in the Aegean Islands about 4,000 B.C. The Phoenicians were captivated by its value in trade, and when they discovered it in Spain, they went right to work. The Phoenicians mined so much silver that they did not have enough ships to carry it home. After that, the western thirst for silver knew no bounds, and this love for the precious metal was transferred to the level of the supernatural. In ancient Egypt, it was believed that the skin of the gods was made of gold, and their bones were silver. In modern folklore, silver bullets can kill werewolves and witches.

In the Bible, silver was well known. On one hand, the extraction and purification of silver was used as an image of God purifying humanity, removing the base metals of sin and bringing out the best. The Book of Proverbs tells us “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests hearts.” (Prov. 17:3) The purification of the Levitical priesthood was compared to silver refining in the prophet Malachi: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.” (Mal. 3:3) The use of silver in making images for idol worship was frequently condemned. Another prophet warns us, “And now they sin more and more, and make for themselves metal images, idols skillfully made of their silver, all of them the work of craftsmen. It is said of them, ‘Those who offer human sacrifice kiss calves!’” (Hosea 13:2) The economic power of silver could also corrupt the hearts of men and turn their eyes away from the need of their fellows. Amos blasts those who “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?” (Amos 8:6) Nonetheless, many of the worthies of the Bible are known for the abundance of silver treasure, including Abraham, David and Solomon.

Similar passages in the New Testament attest both the powers and dangers of silver. Jesus knew of its value when he said, “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8) The Epistle of James warns the rich of God’s anger at sin, saying “Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.” (James 5:3) Most sinister of all is, of course, Judas selling Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Most likely, those silver pieces were the silver Roman Denarius, 30 of which were about half a month’s wages of a Roman soldier.

On the question of coinage, that is a later development. The first coins in the West were developed by the Lydians in the sixth century B.C., because smaller pieces were easier to use than larger ingots or shekels.  The classical Greeks loved coined money, and when silver was discovered under the city of Athens, the little state became very powerful indeed. The Romans used silver in trade, the first unit being the Libra, or a metal armband weighing less than a modern pound, but the designation “lb” for “pound” lives on today.  Around 300 B.C., the Roman Republic began minting coins, after discovering they were also good for patriotic propaganda.

Silver was associated with more than money and religion. The ancient Greeks and Babylonians observed that there were seven of these early known metals, and also there were seven days of the week and seven planets visible to the naked eye, and so it did not take them long to start making associations between them. Silver was associated with the moon and Monday. By way of comparison, copper got Venus and Friday. In medieval times, the rise of alchemy, or the search for a method of turning iron into gold, took note of these associations. The alchemists postulated that the planets had a “rulership” over the metals, and therefore if they could figure out that relationship, perhaps they could make a transformation.  Alas, silver like the other metals is but an element on the periodic table, with silver known as Ag, from the Latin word “Argentium,” and its atomic number 47.

As I turn this American silver coin in my hands, a century old, I can only ponder what this coin might have seen. Was it in the pocket of a veteran who survived the kaiser’s guns, spent in a poker game in the Depression, or used by some frugal household to buy necessary supplies? Was it thrown into a church collection basket or spent in a brothel … or perhaps both? The Peace dollar went out of use in 1935 and the U.S. stopped using actual silver in coins beginning in 1965. Nonetheless, although I do not collect coins, I shall hang on to this little rascal. One never knows when it might come in handy.

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