The Reformation and Work II: The Protestant Work Ethic

THE LEGACY OF THE REFORMATION

The Weber Thesis

Any discussion of the impact of the Reformation on ideas of work and the economy will inevitably lead to sociologist Max Weber’s book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (first English edition 1930). Weber, who was particularly interested in the influence of religion on economics, observed that the most dynamic economies of his day were found in northern European Protestant countries. His explanation of their economic development centered on the unintended consequences of Protestant ideas.

Weber defined the spirit of capitalism as “that attitude which, in the pursuit of a calling, strives systematically for profit for its own sake. . . .” While some individuals in other cultures shared this spirit, only in Protestant nations, according to Weber, was it widespread enough to establish a new economic order, in which capitalism led to industrialization and commercialism.

Weber identified several sources for the emergence of the spirit of capitalism. First, as indicated in the quotation above, Protestants believed that all work was a sacred calling, and thus good Christians should work hard at their jobs “as to the Lord, not men” (Col. 3:23). This idea was common to all Protestants, but Calvinists and especially Pietists emphasized it particularly strongly. Hard work naturally led to earning more money.

Second, money was to be spent wisely, not frivolously. Luxuries were seen as frivolous. Church buildings (particularly in Calvinist areas) were devoid of icons and other art, so they did not take much money to maintain. Charity was seen (according to Weber) as promoting laziness. (We will discuss this point in a later article.) As a result, the only responsible thing left to do with money was to reinvest it, thus laying the foundation for modern capitalism.

In addition to these economic factors, Weber also identified a psychological motivation for the rise of capitalism. In Catholicism, salvation was obtained by participating in the sacraments and submitting to the church. In contrast, Protestants did not believe the church or sacraments provided salvation. Instead, we are saved purely by grace operating in our lives by faith. For many people, however, this idea was too intangible: No actions were required for salvation, no institutional church or visible signs mediated salvation. So most people found it difficult to adjust to the new doctrine.

Within Calvinism, with its doctrine of double predestination, the tension was even greater: You were either saved or damned, and there was nothing you could do about it, since God made those decisions before the beginning of time. Thus, people began to look for signs that they were among the elect. Weber says that self-confidence was an important element of this, since lack of it equated to a lack of faith and thus was a sign of damnation. Worldly success depended on self-confidence as well as on God’s blessing, and thus was a sign of election. To assure themselves that they had God’s favor, Calvinists therefore put every effort into prospering, leading directly to the economic success of Protestant (and especially Calvinist) countries.

Challenges to Weber

Weber’s thesis has significant flaws and has been challenged on several fronts. Historically, he is mistaken about the origins of capitalism. Although its form changed over time, capitalism had already developed in the Middle Ages—again, at least in part, from theological reasons. The reasoning was simple: As we saw in the previous article, work, understood as production, was seen as a positive good. And if production is good, increased production is better. When medieval monasteries produced surplus crops, they gave some to the needy and invested the rest in land, water wheels, and other capital improvements that increased production further. Early in the Middle Ages, some even lent money at interest to local nobles, though the Catholic church soon put a stop to that. Early capitalism was thus found in monasteries.

After about the year 1000, capitalism moved into medieval cities where its basic principles were adopted by manufacturers, international traders, and the financial industry. A form of capitalism was thus already well established in Europe long before the Calvinists. While Weber acknowledges some of the earlier developments, he does not recognize their significance for the origins of capitalism. Put simply, early capitalism started in Catholic monasteries, and that raises real questions about the entire Weber Thesis.

Weber is also mistaken regarding the role of predestination in spurring economic growth. While it is true that some Calvinists did try to identify signs of election, these were invariably internal and psychological, not economic; the most famous example of this was William Perkins’ book “A Golden Chain,” which provides a flow chart to tell you where you are in the process of conversion. The idea that economic success was a sign of God’s blessing and thus of election simply does not appear in the major Puritan divines. In other words, the Puritans were not forerunners of the Prosperity Gospel.

What Weber Got Right

Despite these mistakes, Weber did identify several important contributions of Protestantism, notably the idea of work as a sacred vocation built on the priesthood of all believers and the breakdown of the sacred/secular divide. He is also correct that the Calvinist Reformation looked askance at spending on luxuries: Our resources belong ultimately to God, and to spend them on frivolous things is sin. (This is one of the reasons why Calvinism tended to appeal to well-educated commoners rather than the nobility: Conspicuous consumption was part of the ethos of the nobility. While some nobles converted, Calvinist values were a bridge too far for many.) Groups that live by the values of hard work and thrift and reject conspicuous consumption tend to prosper, whether Catholics, like the medieval Cistercian order, or Protestants, like the Calvinists.

The values associated with Calvinism and these other groups explain their prosperity, and they are a contributing factor to the prosperity of the countries Weber was discussing. But there was one other factor that Weber missed in his book. Particularly in the Calvinist branch of the Reformation, the rediscovery of the goodness of work led to a growing emphasis on the Cultural Mandate.

The Cultural Mandate

In Genesis, God gave Adam work to do. First, Adam was to tend and protect the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). The text tells us that the trees in Eden were a delight to the eyes and that their fruit was good to eat (Gen. 2:9); tending the Garden thus meant cultivating both beauty and food. In other words, it was a mandate for art and economic production. Second, Adam was to name the animals (Gen. 2:19). Since in Hebrew thought, names were expected to reflect nature, Adam had to study the animals and classify them in order to give them their proper names. This was thus a mandate to do science. Adam was thus given the task of building culture under God—art, economic production, and science—as part of the dominion he was given over the world.

The cultural mandate was never rescinded, though the effects of the Fall would make it far more difficult to carry out. Cultures around the world have developed in rebellion against God. But since Christ came to undo the effects of the Fall, our ability to build culture under God’s authority has been substantially restored. We are thus enabled in a new way to pursue the mandate God gave humanity at our creation.

Protestants in general and Calvinists in particular thus did not see engagement with the secular world as detrimental to salvation; rather, it is part of working out the implications of salvation and fulfilling the purpose of our creation. As a result, Calvinists developed cultures that featured hard work, innovative approaches to manufacturing, agriculture, and trade, and frugal living, leading them to economic success and prosperity.

This is the answer to the question raised by the Weber Thesis. Weber is partly right with respect to the Protestant work ethic: Protestants did have a different vision for the place of work in human society, though, as we have seen, that vision was built on much earlier ideas emanating from the Judeo-Christian tradition. But Weber missed the significance of the cultural mandate for Calvinist economic success. Protestants in general had the work ethic based on the rejection of the sacred/secular divide, which made them prosper; the Calvinist addition of the cultural mandate pushed the Netherlands, Scotland, and England even further ahead and contributed to the prosperity of Calvinist religious minorities such as the French Huguenots.

Image copyright Penguin Books. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.


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  • jason taylor

    The “conspicuous” and the “consumption” must be kept separate. Nobles historically have often been more apt to use their wealth to buy social advantage with patrons, allies, and clients rather then comfort per se. Or just to buy admiration. That is, the luxury is often there more to be seen then to be enjoyed. This has it’s own ramifications. For instance when nobles received a military command they were apt to treat it as a baseball team, showering it with benefits; if they were professional soldiers themselves instead of dabblers they might make a serious attempt to improve performance. This attitude remains very much the case and might be even more emphasized in Constitutional Monarchies where an aristocrat has a choice of being a philanthropist or a dilettante but cannot realistically aspire to being a warlord.