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Protestant work ethic

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Title: Protestant work ethic  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Ambivalent prejudice, Protestantism, Protestant culture, Jonathan Norcross
Collection: Max Weber, Protestantism, Sociological Theories, Sociology Index, Virtue
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Protestant work ethic

Cover of the original German edition of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes that hard work and frugality are a result of a person's salvation in the Protestant faith, particularly in Calvinism, in contrast to the focus upon religious attendance, confession, and ceremonial sacrament in the Catholic tradition. This work ethic is also central to Eastern Orthodoxy, although it also has sacraments.

The phrase was initially coined in 1904–05 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[1]


  • Basis in Protestant theology 1
  • History 2
  • Support 3
  • Criticism 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

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 (cf. the Calvinist concept of double predestination) 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, as well as social success and wealth, 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.


The term was first coined by Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written in 1904–05. The Protestant work ethic is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern Europe and other countries where Protestantism was common (for example, the Scandinavian countries, Latvia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States of America). 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.[2]


There has been a revitalization of Weber's interest, including the work of Lawrence Harrison, [3]


The economist Joseph Schumpeter argues that capitalism began in Italy in the 14th century, not in the Protestant areas of Europe.[4] 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.[5]

Becker and Wossmann at the University of Munich have written a discussion paper describing an alternate theory. The abstract to this states that the literacy gap between Protestants (as a result of the Reformation) and Catholics sufficiently explains the economic gaps, and that the "[r]esults hold when we exploit the initial concentric dispersion of the Reformation to use distance to Wittenberg as an instrument for Protestantism."[6] However, they also note that, between Luther (1500) and 1871 Prussia, 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.[7]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Chodorov, Frank. The Radical Rich, Mises Institute
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^

Further reading

  • Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Wossmann. "Was Weber Wrong? A Human Capital Theory of Protestant Economics History." Munich Discussion Paper No. 2007-7, 22 January 2007.
  • Niall Ferguson. "The World; Why America Outpaces Europe (Clue: The God Factor)." New York Times, 8 June 2003.
  • Robert Green, editor. The Weber Thesis Controversy. D.C. Heath, 1973, covers some of the criticism of Weber's theory.
  • Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Chas. Scribner's sons, 1959.

External links

  • Article on the Protestant Ethic from EH.NET's Encyclopedia by economist Donald Frey
  • History of the Work Ethic - Roger B. Hill
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