Protestant work ethic

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Cover of the original German edition of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Die protestantische Ethik und der 'Geist' des Kapitalismus original cover.jpg
Cover of the original German edition of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant work ethic, the Calvinist work ethic, [1] or the Puritan work ethic [2] is a work ethic concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes that hard work, discipline, and frugality [3] are a result of a person's subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism.


The phrase was initially coined in 1904–1905 [lower-alpha 1] by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . [4] Weber asserted that Protestant ethics and values along with the Calvinist doctrine of asceticism and predestination gave birth to capitalism. [5] It is one of the most influential and cited books in sociology although the thesis presented has been controversial since its release. In opposition to Weber, historians such as Fernand Braudel and Hugh Trevor-Roper assert that the Protestant work ethic did not create capitalism and that capitalism developed in pre-Reformation Catholic communities. Just as priests and caring professionals are deemed to have a vocation (or "calling" from God) for their work, according to the Protestant work ethic the lowly workman also has a noble vocation which he can fulfil through dedication to his work.

Basis in Protestant theology

Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, reconceptualized worldly work as a duty which benefits both the individual and society as a whole. Thus, the Catholic idea of good works was transformed into an obligation to consistently work diligently as a sign of grace. Whereas Catholicism teaches that good works are required of Catholics as a necessary manifestation of the faith they received, and that faith apart from works is dead (James 2:14–26) and barren, the Calvinist theologians taught that only those who were predestined to be saved would be saved.

Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.

American political history

Writer Frank Chodorov argued that the Protestant ethic was long considered indispensable for American political figures:

There was a time, in these United States, when a candidate for public office could qualify with the electorate only by fixing his birthplace in or near the "log cabin." He may have acquired a competence, or even a fortune, since then, but it was in the tradition that he must have been born of poor parents and made his way up the ladder by sheer ability, self-reliance, and perseverance in the face of hardship. In short, he had to be "self made." The so-called Protestant Ethic then prevalent held that man was a sturdy and responsible individual, responsible to himself, his society, and his God. Anybody who could not measure up to that standard could not qualify for public office or even popular respect. One who was born "with a silver spoon in his mouth" might be envied, but he could not aspire to public acclaim; he had to live out his life in the seclusion of his own class. [6]

Some political scientists have described the term as a myth invented to assert White Anglo-Saxon Protestant superiority. [7] Many have connected this belief to racism. [8] For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor — both black and white, here and abroad. [9]


There has been a revitalization of Weber's interest, including the work of Lawrence Harrison, Samuel P. Huntington, and David Landes. In a New York Times article, published on June 8, 2003, Niall Ferguson pointed that data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) seems to confirm that "the experience of Western Europe in the past quarter-century offers an unexpected confirmation of the Protestant ethic. To put it bluntly, we are witnessing the decline and fall of the Protestant work ethic in Europe. This represents the stunning triumph of secularization in Western Europe—the simultaneous decline of both Protestantism and its unique work ethic." [10]


Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism began in Italy in the 14th century, not in the Protestant areas of Europe. [11] Other factors that further developed the European market economy included the strengthening of property rights and lowering of transaction costs with the decline and monetization of feudalism, and the increase in real wages following the epidemics of bubonic plague. [12]

Economists Sascha Becker and Ludger Wößmann have posited an alternate theory, claiming that the literacy gap between Protestants (as a result of the Reformation) and Catholics was sufficient explanation for the economic gaps, and that the "results hold when we exploit the initial concentric dispersion of the Reformation to use distance to Wittenberg as an instrument for Protestantism". [13] However, they also note that, between Luther (1500) and Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War (1871), the limited data available has meant that the period in question is regarded as a "black box" and that only "some cursory discussion and analysis" is possible. [14]

Historian Fernand Braudel wrote that "all historians" opposed the "tenuous theory" of Protestant Ethic, despite not being able to entirely quash the theory "once and for all". Braudel continues to remark that the "northern countries took over the place that earlier had been so long and brilliantly been occupied by the old capitalist centers of the Mediterranean. They invented nothing, either in technology or business management". [15]

Social scientist Rodney Stark commented that "during their critical period of economic development, these northern centers of capitalism were Catholic, not Protestant", with the Reformation still far off in the future. Furthermore, he also highlighted the conclusions of other historians, noting that, compared to Catholics, Protestants were "not more likely to hold the high-status capitalist positions", that Catholic Europe did not lag in its industrial development compared to Protestant areas, and that even Weber wrote that "fully developed capitalism had appeared in Europe" long before the Reformation. [16] As British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper stated, the concept of that "large-scale industrial capitalism was ideologically impossible before the Reformation is exploded by the simple fact that it existed". [17]

See also


  1. No exact date is known and appeared to the public with the publication of his book in 1905.

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  14. Becker, Wossmann (2007) page A5 Appendix B
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  17. Trevor-Roper. 2001. The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century. Liberty Fund

Further reading

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