Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms & Critical Sources

The Protestant Work Ethic

a.k.a. The Puritan Work Ethic

with notes from

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of Capitalism

"nose to the grindstone":
traditional English idiom for steady hard work

Theorized in the early 20th century by Max Weber (founder of modern Sociology), "the Protestant work ethic" became a popular critical concept for explaining the expansions of empires by Protestant nations like England and the USA. The concept does not imply that people of other religions are incapable of working as hard as Protestants, but only that Protestantism--particularly Reformed Protestantism as practiced by English and other European Puritans--encouraged work habits compatible with modern capitalism, commerce, and industrial progress.

  • Since Protestantism abolished the sale and purchase of "indulgences" by which the Catholic Church assured people of a happy afterlife, Protestants needed a sign of grace and deliverance: hard work so that oneself and one's loved ones would prosper was increasingly witnessed as a sign of God's favor and the individual's likely salvation.

  • Just as military recruiters seek recruits from Scotch-Irish Protestant backgrounds, international capitalists often locate their industrial plants in areas with strong Protestant traditions. (Protestants don't observe many religious holidays.)

  • Emphasis on nuclear families and individualism reduces distractions from work week.

  • Observation of Sabbath as day of worship, quiet, and rest (Sabbatarianism) reserves rest of week for labor and progress.

  • Profits are not wasted in feasting or celebration but re-invested in business. (Protestant aversion to holidays.)

  • Most of Weber's examples are not merely Protestant but the Reformed version of Protestantism called Puritanism.

  • Many "Model-Minority" Chinese-Americans are secular or unchurched, but many become Protestants, e.g. Jeremy Lin of Houston Rockets in documentary Linsanity.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5). Trans. Talcott Parsons, 1930. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

21-22 The modern rational organization of the capitalistic enterprise would not have been possible without two other important factors in its development: the separation of business from the household, which completely dominates modern economic life, and closely connected with it, rational book-keeping.

35 A glance at the occupational statistics of any country of mixed religious composition brings to light with remarkable frequency a situation which has several times provoked discussion in the Catholic press and literature, and in Catholic congresses in Germany, namely, the fact that business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labor, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant. . . .   The same thing is shown in the figures of religious affiliation almost wherever capitalism, at the time of its great expansion, has had a free hand to alter the social distribution of the population in accordance with its needs, and to determine its occupational structure.  The more freedom it has had, the more clearly is the effect shown.

55 without doubt, in the country of Benjamin Franklin's birth (Massachusetts), the spirit of capitalism . . . was present before the capitalistic order.  There were complaints of a peculiarly calculating sort of profit-seeking in New England, as distinguished from other parts of America, as early as 1632.

68 there was repeated what everywhere and always is the result of such a process of rationalization: those who would not follow suit had to go out of business.  The idyllic state collapsed under the pressure of a bitter competitive struggle, respectable fortunes were made, and not lent out at interest, but always reinvested in the business.  The old leisurely and comfortable attitude toward life gave way to a hard frugality in which some participated and came to the top, because they did not wish to consume but to earn, while others who wished to keep on with the old ways were forced to curtail their consumption.

70 The ability to free oneself from the common tradition, a sort of liberal enlightenment, seems likely to be the most suitable basis for such a business man's success.

105 That great historic process in the development of religions, the elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the old Hebrew prophets and, in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin, came here to its logical conclusion.  The genuine Puritan even rejected all signs of religious ceremony at the grave and buried his nearest and dearest without song or ritual in order that no superstition, no trust in the effects of magical and sacramental forces on salvation, should creep in.

158 [Puritan minister William] Baxter's principal work is dominated  by the continually repeated, often almost passionate preaching of hard, continuous bodily or mental labor.

159 Unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace.

166 the Puritan idea of the calling and the premium it placed upon ascetic conduct was bound directly to influence the development of a capitalistic way of life.  As we have seen, this asceticism turned with all its force against one thing: the spontaneous enjoyment of life and all it had to offer.

169 in favor of sober utility as against any artistic tendencies.  This was especially true in the case of decoration of the person, for instance clothing.  That powerful tendency toward uniformity of life, which today so immensely aids the capitalistic interest in the standardization of production, had its ideal foundations in the repudiation of all idolatry of the flesh.

172 the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of that attitude toward life which we have here called the spirit of capitalism.

182 In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport.

Luthy, Herbert.  "Once Again: Calvinism and Capitalism."  Encounter 22.1 (January 1964): 26-38.  In S. N. Eisenstadt, ed.  The Protestant Ethic and Modernization: A Comparative View.  NY: Basic Books, 1968.  87-108. 

89  in this context his [Weber's] words capitalism or spirit of capitalism are used in a very particular sense: they mean no less than the entire inner structure governing Western society's attitudes--not only its economy but also its legal system, its political structure, its institutionalized sciences and technology, its mathematically based music and architecture.

89  This rationality, driven by its own internal dynamic, has overthrown (or tamed) every form of resistance offered by prerational human nature, magic and tradition, instinct and spontaneity.  Finally, with the Reformation, it has forced its way into the innermost temple wherein the motives behind human behavior are generated, into the very heart of religious belief, there to destroy all the dark, magical, mystical tabernacles--image, cult, and tradition--for which it substitutes the Bible as the authentic truth, supposedly unshakable, accessible to critical examination, and susceptible of proof.

91 . . . that the Reformation marks a profound spiritual breach between the Middle Ages and the modern world, bringing a ferment into Western history which has changed its course irreversibly, far beyond the domain of the Protestant churches and communities, to imprint its mark  upon the whole Western world; that without Calvin we could not imagine Cromwell, or Rousseau, or the Founding Fathers; that the modern industrial society, as well as creative science, the rule of law, constitutionalism, in brief the free society, first appeared (and have flourished best) in those countries which were modeled by Calvinism; and that an indissoluble internal bond links all these aspects of our Western society. . . . .  all the splendor and chaos, worldly triumph and metaphysical despair engendered in a world that would be henceforth boundless but that had lost all security and all familiarity.

92 In all these versions of modern history, satisfactorily reconstructed on the great lines of the rise to power of the bourgeoisie and the decline of feudalism, the Reformation takes its place as "the first bourgeois revolution." By analyzing the English Puritan Revolution of the seventeenth century as the second bourgeois revolution, Tawney skillfully constructed a bridge to the third and greatest, the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.

100 The social teachings of Zwingly and Calvin, as well as the revolutionary stance of the Huguenots, the Dutch, and the Puritans, are permeated through and through with the spirit of the Old Testament.

103 [Calvin] forged the Calvinist-Puritan type of man, answerable only to God and to his conscience, that is to say, free and responsible . . . .

103-4 the liberation of man from spiritual submission and fear of man, lies the true and deep connection between Calvinism and the modern industrial society.

105 The whole discussion about Calvinism and capitalism means (and always meant) little else than this: the word capitalism is our modern substitute for chrematistics [acquisition or study of wealth] and the unmentioned, idealized counter-image is the patriarchal, "natural" land economy with its "natural" hierarchical order of master and servant, landlord and serf, monarch and subject—in sum, the image of medieval society—the relationship of which is not defined in terms of money, or of give-and-take, but in terms of personal subordination.

108 The apparent factual research into problems of economic and social history has often been an expression of our uneasiness in modern society, and to some of the scholars engaged in this controversy Calvinism as provided a fascinating scapegoat for the evils of progress.