Does it make a real impact in economic development? Peter Sammons considers ….
Vive la difference ….
I first became aware of this concept when, way back in 1984 as I undertook Business Studies at tertiary college, our economics tutor described the concept – briefly – and openly wondered whether the relative economic, political and social strengths of Northern Europe, as opposed to Southern Europe, owed much to the day to day reality that Protestant nations tend to have a far stronger and more developed work ethic than Catholic countries. Similar questions have been asked of the relative status and progress of North America versus South America. Even in 1984 I was struck by the frankness of the tutor’s comment and the uncomfortable questions it raised. A comment by any teacher today along these lines would be absolutely impossible…..
The Protestant work ethic, sometimes called the Calvinist or Puritan work ethic, is a work ethic concept in sociology, economics, and historiography. It emphasizes that diligence, discipline, and frugality are a result of a person’s adherence to the values espoused by the Protestant faith, in particular Calvinism.
The phrase was coined in 1905 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber asserted that Protestant ethics and values, along with Calvinist doctrines of asceticism and predestination, enabled the rise and spread of capitalism. His is one of the most influential and cited books in sociology, although his thesis has been controversial. 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 fulfill through dedication to his work.
Basis in Protestant theology
Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, conceptualized worldly work as a duty that 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 an evidence 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 and barren, Calvinist theologians taught that only those who were predestined would be saved.
For Protestants, salvation is a gift from God. This is the Protestant distinction of sola gratia. In light of salvation being a gift of grace, Protestants view work as stewardship given to them. Thus Protestants do not work in order to achieve salvation but view work as the means by which they can be a blessing to others. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important applications of being a steward of what God had given them. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and strove to reach them.
There are many specific theological examples in the Bible that support Protestant theology. Old Testament examples abound, such as God’s command in Exodus 20:8-10 to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Another passage from the Book of Proverbs provides an example: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Work, then, is seen as foundationally important ….
The New Testament also provides many examples, such as the Parable of the Ten Minas in the Book of Luke. The Apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians says bluntly “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Whilst the context of Paul’s assertion is complex, the need for proper work is perhaps a given in what he said.
American political history
Captain John Smith Admiral of New England (1624)
The first permanent English Settlement in America in the 17th century, at Jamestown, was led by John Smith. He trained the first English settlers to work at farming and fishing. These settlers were ill-equipped to survive in the English settlements in the early 1600’s and were on the precipice of dying. John Smith emphasized the Protestant Work Ethic and helped propagate it by stating “He that will not work, shall not eat”, a direct reference to 2 Thessalonians 3:10. This policy is credited with helping the early colony survive and thrive in its harsh environment.
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 Protestant Ethic then prevalent held that man was a sturdy and responsible individual, responsible to himself, to 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.
Some support exists that the Protestant Work Ethic may be so ingrained in American culture that when it appears people may not even recognize it. This may be due to the fact that ethical values are inherently difficult to measure. Due to the history of Protestantism in the USA, it may be difficult to separate the successes of the country from the ethic that may have significantly contributed to propelling it.
The original New England Colonies in 1677 were mostly Protestant in origin and were thus subject to the ethic.
There are some examples of scholarly work which support that the ethic has had a significant effect on some modern societies. Work at the University of Groningen supports this effect. Other empirical research provides positive correlations as well.
Recent scholarly work by Lawrence Harrison, Samuel P. Huntington, and David Landes has revitalized interest in Weber’s thesis. In a New York Times article, published on June 8, 2003, Niall Ferguson pointed out 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”.
Tshilidzi Marwala asserted in 2020 that the principles of Protestant ethic are important for development in Africa and that they should be secularized and used as an alternative to the ethic of Prosperity Christianity, which advocates miracles as a basis of development.
Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism began in Italy in the 14th century, not in the Protestant areas of Europe. 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.
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 “results hold when we exploit the initial concentric dispersion of the Reformation to use distance to Wittenberg as an instrument for Protestantism”. 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.
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 so long and brilliantly been occupied by the old capitalist centres of the Mediterranean. They invented nothing, either in technology or business management”.
Social scientist Rodney Stark commented that “during their critical period of economic development, these northern centres of capitalism were Catholic, not Protestant”, with the Reformation still far off in the future. Further, he 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. As British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper stated, the concept that “large-scale industrial capitalism was ideologically impossible before the Reformation is exploded by the simple fact that it existed”.
Pastor John Starke writes that the Protestant work ethic “multiplied myths about Protestantism, Calvinism, vocation, and capitalism. To this day, many believe Protestants work hard so as to build evidence for salvation.” Others have connected the concept of a Protestant work ethic to racist ideals. Civil rights activist 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”.
As a commentator I recognize the breadth of the criticism, above, but think this is broadly outweighed by the ‘support’ and undeniable ‘facts on the ground’. The formerly ‘protestant’ countries do seem to have succeeded better than Catholic when all ‘measures’ are applied. So, what might be the real reasons for the relative success economic and social of Protestants, versus Catholics, and will such ‘success’ survive the de-Protestantising, and indeed de-Christianising, of the Western nations? Is the future, after all, Islam – as most Moslems believe?
We commence with a few thoughts about what the Bible says about work. As Christians, it is important to align our perspective with God’s Word when it comes to this topic, as indeed any other.
Back in Genesis, we find that God ‘worked’ as He created this world. Therefore, when we work, we resemble Him and, in addition, work is not God’s way of punishing us as some suggest. Rather, He blesses us with the ability to work so that we, in turn, can honour Him.
Colossians 3:22 tells us, “you who are servants who are owned by someone, obey your owners. Work hard for them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Work for them as you would for the Lord because you honour God.” When we obey the authority figures in our life, we are ultimately serving Christ. As sons and daughters of God, we have all been given different talents and abilities. When we use our gifts, we can experience fulfilment as we serve Christ and share His love with others.
An aspect of worship
Work, then, is an aspect of worship. This sense pervades broadly within broad Protestant understanding. As I work hard I honour and worship my God. The Protestant insight, in any case, is more individualistic than the Catholic. Protestants understand that Salvation is personal and solely on the basis of grace (John 3:16 etc). It is solely on the finished work of Christ upon the Cross. For Catholics there is more need to ‘earn’ at least some of their salvation. A Catholic works in ‘partnership’ with Jesus, each doing their ‘bit’ in the great schema of salvation.
Catholics also (like Moslems) place much more emphasis on the role of the people as a whole (in Islam this is the umma, in Catholicism, it is the Catholic family corporately). Individuals have less personal responsibility within Catholicism (equivalent in this regard to Islam) and serve their true religion by looking up to Priest and Pope as guarantors and guardians of their salvation. Somehow, God is seen to be less interested in personal alignment and more interested in corporate performance. The priest takes responsibility, and the Catholic does what the priest says (the technical term for this is sacerdotalism – see the link at the foot of this article).
For the Protestant performance is unnecessary as salvation is by Grace alone – we do not depend for our eternal future on our own performance – we depend wholly on Jesus and His finished work upon the Cross (validated by His resurrection from death). But our living must reflect our calling and that, in turn, is in our ‘spiritual’ work for the Lord in bringing others into His Kingdom, and our ‘secular’ work in this world as a blessing to society as a whole, and as an act of worship to our Saviour God, Who has already given us everything in His Son.
The foregoing may be a broad brush statement, but it helps to reflect the reality of the Protestant work ethic. Allowing that Protestantism is on the decline and that the West is progressively de-Christianised, we are entitled to ask whether there will be a diminution of the value of work, and all the social progress that historically has gone with worldly success. It remains a legitimate question to ask; is the future Islam?
The Bible reminds us of the importance of rest alongside work. When God created the world, He worked for six days and rested on the seventh. When we give ourselves time to rest and to be in God’s Word, we can recharge for whatever is to come. By resting in Him, we ensure that we will be prepared to serve Christ in whatever circumstances may come to us.
Peter Sammons is editor at Christian Comment. He co-authored Three Days and Three Nights – That Changed The World with David Serle: