Donald Frey, Wake Forest University
German sociologist Max Weber (1864 -1920) developed the Protestant-ethic thesis in two journal articles published in 1904-05. The English translation appeared in book form as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1930. Weber argued that Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) Protestantism was the seedbed of character traits and values that under-girded modern capitalism. This article summarizes Weber’s formulation, considers criticisms of Weber’s thesis, and reviews evidence of linkages between cultural values and economic growth.
Outline of Weber’s Thesis
Weber emphasized that money making as a calling had been “contrary to the ethical feelings of whole epochs…” (Weber 1930, p.73; further Weber references by page number alone). Lacking moral support in pre-Protestant societies, business had been strictly limited to “the traditional manner of life, the traditional rate of profit, the traditional amount of work…” (67). Yet, this pattern “was suddenly destroyed, and often entirely without any essential change in the form of organization…” Calvinism, Weber argued, changed the spirit of capitalism, transforming it into a rational and unashamed pursuit of profit for its own sake.
In an era when religion dominated all of life, Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) insistence that salvation was by God’s grace through faith had placed all vocations on the same plane. Contrary to medieval belief, religious vocations were no longer considered superior to economic vocations for only personal faith mattered with God. Nevertheless, Luther did not push this potential revolution further because he clung to a traditional, static view of economic life. John Calvin (1509-1564), or more accurately Calvinism, changed that.
Calvinism accomplished this transformation, not so much by its direct teachings, but (according to Weber) by the interaction of its core theology with human psychology. Calvin had pushed the doctrine of God’s grace to the limits of the definition: grace is a free gift, something that the Giver, by definition, must be free to bestow or withhold. Under this definition, sacraments, good deeds, contrition, virtue, assent to doctrines, etc. could not influence God (104); for, if they could, that would turn grace into God’s side of a transaction instead its being a pure gift. Such absolute divine freedom, from mortal man’s perspective, however, seemed unfathomable and arbitrary (103). Thus, whether one was among those saved (the elect) became the urgent question for the average Reformed churchman according to Weber.
Uncertainty about salvation, according to Weber, had the psychological effect of producing a single-minded search for certainty. Although one could never influence God’s decision to extend or withhold election, one might still attempt to ascertain his or her status. A life that “… served to increase the glory of God” presumably flowed naturally from a state of election (114). If one glorified God and conformed to what was known of God’s requirements for this life then that might provide some evidence of election. Thus upright living, which could not earn salvation, returned as evidence of salvation.
The upshot was that the Calvinist’s living was “thoroughly rationalized in this world and dominated by the aim to add to the glory of God in earth…” (118). Such a life became a systematic living out of God’s revealed will. This singleness of purpose left no room for diversion and created what Weber called an ascetic character. “Not leisure and enjoyment, but only activity serves to increase the glory of God, according to the definite manifestations of His will” (157). Only in a calling does this focus find full expression. “A man without a calling thus lacks the systematic, methodical character which is… demanded by worldly asceticism” (161). A calling represented God’s will for that person in the economy and society.
Such emphasis on a calling was but a small step from a full-fledged capitalistic spirit. In practice, according to Weber, that small step was taken, for “the most important criterion [of a calling] is … profitableness. For if God … shows one of His elect a chance of profit, he must do it with a purpose…” (162). This “providential interpretation of profit-making justified the activities of the business man,” and led to “the highest ethical appreciation of the sober, middle-class, self-made man” (163).
A sense of calling and an ascetic ethic applied to laborers as well as to entrepreneurs and businessmen. Nascent capitalism required reliable, honest, and punctual labor (23-24), which in traditional societies had not existed (59-62). That free labor would voluntarily submit to the systematic discipline of work under capitalism required an internalized value system unlike any seen before (63). Calvinism provided this value system (178-79).
Weber’s “ascetic Protestantism” was an all-encompassing value system that shaped one’s whole life, not merely ethics on the job. Life was to be controlled the better to serve God. Impulse and those activities that encouraged impulse, such as sport or dance, were to be shunned. External finery and ornaments turned attention away from inner character and purpose; so the simpler life was better. Excess consumption and idleness were resources wasted that could otherwise glorify God. In short, the Protestant ethic ordered life according to its own logic, but also according to the needs of modern capitalism as understood by Weber.
An adequate summary requires several additional points. First, Weber virtually ignored the issue of usury or interest. This contrasts with some writers who take a church’s doctrine on usury to be the major indicator of its sympathy to capitalism. Second, Weber magnified the extent of his Protestant ethic by claiming to find Calvinist economic traits in later, otherwise non-Calvinist Protestant movements. He recalled the Methodist John Wesley’s (1703-1791) “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” and ascetic practices by followers of the eighteenth-century Moravian leader Nicholas Von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). Third, Weber thought that once established the spirit of modern capitalism could perpetuate its values without religion, citing Benjamin Franklin whose ethic already rested on utilitarian foundations. Fourth, Weber’s book showed little sympathy for either Calvinism, which he thought encouraged a “spiritual aristocracy of the predestined saints” (121), or capitalism , which he thought irrational for valuing profit for its own sake. Finally, although Weber’s thesis could be viewed as a rejoinder to Karl Marx (1818-1883), Weber claimed it was not his goal to replace Marx’s one-sided materialism with “an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation…” of capitalism (183).
Critiques of Weber
Critiques of Weber can be put into three categories. First, Weber might have been wrong about the facts: modern capitalism might have arisen before Reformed Protestantism or in places where the Reformed influence was much smaller than Weber believed. Second, Weber might have misinterpreted Calvinism or, more narrowly, Puritanism; if Reformed teachings were not what Weber supposed, then logically they might not have supported capitalism. Third, Weber might have overstated capitalism’s need for the ascetic practices produced by Reformed teachings.
On the first count, Weber has been criticized by many. During the early twentieth century, historians studied the timing of the emergence of capitalism and Calvinism in Europe. E. Fischoff (1944, 113) reviewed the literature and concluded that the “timing will show that Calvinism emerged later than capitalism where the latter became decisively powerful,” suggesting no cause-and-effect relationship. Roland Bainton also suggests that the Reformed contributed to the development of capitalism only as a “matter of circumstance” (Bainton 1952, 254). The Netherlands “had long been the mart of Christendom, before ever the Calvinists entered the land.” Finally, Kurt Samuelsson (1957) concedes that “the Protestant countries, and especially those adhering to the Reformed church, were particularly vigorous economically” (Samuelsson, 102). However, he finds much reason to discredit a cause-and-effect relationship. Sometimes capitalism preceded Calvinism (Netherlands), and sometimes lagged by too long a period to suggest causality (Switzerland). Sometimes Catholic countries (Belgium) developed about the same time as the Protestant countries. Even in America, capitalist New England was cancelled out by the South, which Samuelsson claims also shared a Puritan outlook.
Weber himself, perhaps seeking to circumvent such evidence, created a distinction between traditional capitalism and modern capitalism. The view that traditional capitalism could have existed first, but that Calvinism in some meaningful sense created modern capitalism, depends on too fine a distinction according to critics such as Samuelsson. Nevertheless, because of the impossibility of controlled experiments to firmly resolve the question, the issue will never be completely closed.
The second type of critique is that Weber misinterpreted Calvinism or Puritanism. British scholar R. H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) noted that Weber treated multi-faceted Reformed Christianity as though it were equivalent to late-era English Puritanism, the period from which Weber’s most telling quotes were drawn. Tawney observed that the “iron collectivism” of Calvin’s Geneva had evolved before Calvinism became harmonious with capitalism. “[Calvinism] had begun by being the very soul of authoritarian regimentation. It ended by being the vehicle of an almost Utilitarian individualism” (Tawney 1962, 226-7). Nevertheless, Tawney affirmed Weber’s point that Puritanism “braced [capitalism’s] energies and fortified its already vigorous temper.”
Roland Bainton in his own history of the Reformation disputed Weber’s psychological claims. Despite the psychological uncertainty Weber imputed to Puritans, their activism could be “not psychological and self-centered but theological and God-centered” (Bainton 1952, 252-53). That is, God ordered all of life and society, and Puritans felt obliged to act on His will. And if some Puritans scrutinized themselves for evidence of election, “the test was emphatically not economic activity as such but upright character…” He concludes that Calvinists had no particular affinity for capitalism but that they brought “vitality and drive into every area … whether they were subduing a continent, overthrowing a monarchy, or managing a business, or reforming the evils of the very order which they helped to create” (255).
Samuelsson, in a long section (27-48), argued that Puritan leaders did not truly endorse capitalistic behavior. Rather, they were ambivalent. Given that Puritan congregations were composed of businessmen and their families (who allied with Puritan churches because both wished for less royal control of society), the preachers could hardly condemn capitalism. Instead, they clarified “the moral conditions under which a prosperous, even wealthy, businessman may, despite success and wealth, become a good Christian” (38). But this, Samuelsson makes clear, was hardly a ringing endorsement of capitalism.
Criticisms that what Weber described as Puritanism was not true Puritanism, much less Calvinism, may be correct but beside the point. Puritan leaders indeed condemned exclusive devotion to one’s business because it excluded God and the common good. Thus, the Protestant ethic as described by Weber apparently would have been a deviation from pure doctrine. However, the pastors’ very attacks suggest that such a (mistaken) spirit did exist within their flocks. But such mistaken doctrine, if widespread enough, could still have contributed to the formation of the capitalist spirit.
Furthermore, any misinterpretation of Puritan orthodoxy was not entirely the fault of Puritan laypersons. Puritan theologians and preachers could place heavier emphasis on economic success and virtuous labor than critics such as Samuelsson would admit. The American preacher John Cotton (1582-1652) made clear that God “would have his best gifts improved to the best advantage.” The respected theologian William Ames (1576-1633) spoke of “taking and using rightly opportunity.” And, speaking of the idle, Cotton Mather said, “find employment for them, set them to work, and keep them at work…” A lesser standard would hardly apply to his hearers. Although these exhortations were usually balanced with admonitions to use wealth for the common good, and not to be motivated by greed, they are nevertheless clear endorsements of vigorous economic behavior. Puritan leaders may have placed boundaries around economic activism, but they still preached activism.
Frey (1998) has argued that orthodox Puritanism exhibited an inherent tension between approval of economic activity and emphasis upon the moral boundaries that define acceptable economic activity. A calling was never meant for the service of self alone but for the service of God and the common good. That is, Puritan thinkers always viewed economic activity against the backdrop of social and moral obligation. Perhaps what orthodox Puritanism contributed to capitalism was a sense of economic calling bounded by moral responsibility. In an age when Puritan theologians were widely read, Williams Ames defined the essence of the business contract as “upright dealing, by which one does sincerely intend to oblige himself…” If nothing else, business would be enhanced and made more efficient by an environment of honesty and trust.
Finally, whether Weber misinterpreted Puritanism is one issue. Whether he misinterpreted capitalism by exaggerating the importance of asceticism is another. Weber’s favorite exemplar of capitalism, Benjamin Franklin, did advocate unremitting personal thrift and discipline. No doubt, certain sectors of capitalism advanced by personal thrift, sometimes carried to the point of deprivation. Samuelsson (83-87) raises serious questions, however, that thrift could have contributed even in a minor way to the creation of the large fortunes of capitalists. Perhaps more important than personal fortunes is the finance of business. The retained earnings of successful enterprises, rather than personal savings, probably have provided a major source of funding for business ventures from the earliest days of capitalism. And successful capitalists, even in Puritan New England, have been willing to enjoy at least some of the fruits of their labors. Perhaps the spirit of capitalism was not the spirit of asceticism.
Evidence of Links between Values and Capitalism
Despite the critics, some have taken the Protestant ethic to be a contributing cause of capitalism, perhaps a necessary cause. Sociologist C. T. Jonassen (1947) understood the Protestant ethic this way. By examining a case of capitalism’s emergence in the nineteenth century, rather than in the Reformation or Puritan eras, he sought to resolve some of the uncertainties of studying earlier eras. Jonassen argued that capitalism emerged in nineteenth-century Norway only after an indigenous, Calvinist-like movement challenged the Lutheranism and Catholicism that had dominated the country. Capitalism had not “developed in Norway under centuries of Catholic and Lutheran influence,” although it appeared only “two generations after the introduction of a type of religion that produced the same behavior as Calvinism” (Jonassen, 684). Jonassen’s argument also discounted other often-cited causes of capitalism, such as the early discoveries of science, the Renaissance, or developments in post-Reformation Catholicism; these factors had existed for centuries by the nineteenth century and still had left Norway as a non-capitalist society. Only in the nineteenth century, after a Calvinist-like faith emerged, did capitalism develop.
Engerman’s (2000) review of economic historians shows that they have given little explicit attention to Weber in recent years. However, they show an interest in the impact of cultural values broadly understood on economic growth. A modified version of the Weber thesis has also found some support in empirical economic research. Granato, Inglehart and Leblang (1996, 610) incorporated cultural values in cross-country growth models on the grounds that Weber’s thesis fits the historical evidence in Europe and America. They did not focus on Protestant values, but accepted “Weber’s more general concept, that certain cultural factors influence economic growth…” Specifically they incorporated a measure of “achievement motivation” in their regressions and concluded that such motivation “is highly relevant to economic growth rates” (625). Conversely, they found that “post-materialist” (i.e., environmentalist) values are correlated with slower economic growth. Barro’s (1997, 27) modified Solow growth models also find that a “rule of law index” is associated with more rapid economic growth. This index is a proxy for such things as “effectiveness of law enforcement, sanctity of contracts and … the security of property rights.” Recalling Puritan theologian William Ames’ definition of a contract, one might conclude that a religion such as Puritanism could create precisely the cultural values that Barro finds associated with economic growth.
Max Weber’s thesis has attracted the attention of scholars and researchers for most of a century. Some (including Weber) deny that the Protestant ethic should be understood to be a cause of capitalism — that it merely points to a congruency between and culture’s religion and its economic system. Yet Weber, despite his own protests, wrote as though he believed that traditional capitalism would never have turned into modern capitalism except for the Protestant ethic– implying causality of sorts. Historical evidence from the Reformation era (sixteenth century) does not provide much support for a strong (causal) interpretation of the Protestant ethic. However, the emergence of a vigorous capitalism in Puritan England and its American colonies (and the case of Norway) at least keeps the case open. More recent quantitative evidence supports the hypothesis that cultural values count in economic development. The cultural values examined in recent studies are not religious values, as such. Rather, such presumably secular values as the need to achieve, intolerance for corruption, respect for property rights, are all correlated with economic growth. However, in its own time Puritanism produced a social and economic ethic known for precisely these sorts of values.
Bainton, Roland. The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.
Barro, Robert. Determinants of Economic Growth: A Cross-country Empirical Study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.
Engerman, Stanley. “Capitalism, Protestantism, and Economic Development.” EH.NET, 2000. https://eh.net/bookreviews/library/engerman.shtml
Fischoff, Ephraim. “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: The History of a Controversy.” Social Research (1944). Reprinted in R. W. Green (ed.), Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critics. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1958.
Frey, Donald E. “Individualist Economic Values and Self-Interest: The Problem in the Protestant Ethic.” Journal of Business Ethics (Oct. 1998).
Granato, Jim, R. Inglehart and D. Leblang. “The Effect of Cultural Values on Economic Development: Theory, Hypotheses and Some Empirical Tests.” American Journal of Political Science (Aug. 1996).
Green, Robert W. (ed.), Protestantism and Capitalism: The Weber Thesis and Its Critics. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1959.
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