Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a highly influential 1905 book by sociologist Max Weber. The ethic consists of hard work, disdain for leisure, competitive spirit and a profit motive to provide an incentive to achieve.

Despite being an atheist, Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson declared: "Through a mixture of hard work and thrift the Protestant societies of the North and West Atlantic achieved the most rapid economic growth in history."[1]


Weber argues that the religious values of Protestantism—specifically Puritan values that emphasize hard work and disparage waste and leisure, contributed enormously to the rise of capitalism and economic success of Protestant nations. Protestants saw success in business as evidence of predestination, and thus put a heavy emphasis on entrepreneurial activity, as opposed to Catholics, who saw wealth as a sign of sin. Weber focused on the doctrine of Calvinism drawn from the Bible — which though did not hold that salvation must be earned, according to his interpreter Anthony Giddens, "success in a calling eventually came to be regarded as a ‘sign’ – never a means – of being one of the elect"[2] — to be a major cause of the rise of capitalism. The specific sect was less important than the shared values of the sects and their minority position in the general culture. He used the life and ideas of Benjamin Franklin as part of his evidence.

Weber's intention was to demonstrate a relationship between Calvinism and a peculiar form of capitalism, not in terms of genesis, but in terms of 'feedback.' Weber granted that the Protestant ethic which he described differed in form and emphasis from that immediately following the Reformation, and that it had altered in response to a developing capitalism. But Weber sought to demonstrate that this altered ethic in turn influenced capitalism, serving as an impetus to its further development to a stage characterized by what Weber called the 'capitalist ethos.' He by no means imputed monocausality, nor did he assume that he had at all explained the origins of capitalism. Rather, he focused upon the institutionalization of the capitalist complex, and here the effect of ideology appeared vital.[3] Kishida (1967) shows that John Wesley's (1703–91) exhortation for Christians to enrich themselves lay at the basis of Weber's model.[4]

Related research

Academic research indicates that belief in hell/heaven and various religious heritages are associated with increased economic activity and lower corruption.[5][6] The biblical-creation-affirming United States has a high GDP relative to many evolution-believing countries.[7]


Coleson (1972) argues that the general thrust of the Weber thesis is supported by examining the record of the last century. Those nations with a work ethic and moral standards that are followed, i.e., capitalist nations, are prosperous, while those with a lazy peasantry, a corrupt government, and no moral code, i.e., the Third World, are still suffering famine and poverty.[8]

Weber's thesis is reflected in the business success of the Yankees in the United States, and the Presbyterians in Scotland,[9] as well as by Protestant Germany. In recent years, however, Catholic southern Germany has outpaced Protestant Germany.

Protestant missionaries and economic development statistics

See also: Protestant cultural legacies

The article "The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries" published in Christianity Today notes:

In his fifth year of graduate school, Woodberry created a statistical model that could test the connection between missionary work and the health of nations. He and a few research assistants spent two years coding data and refining their methods. They hoped to compute the lasting effect of missionaries, on average, worldwide...

One morning, in a windowless, dusty computer lab lit by fluorescent bulbs, Woodberry ran the first big test. After he finished prepping the statistical program on his computer, he clicked "Enter" and then leaned forward to read the results.

"I was shocked," says Woodberry. "It was like an atomic bomb. The impact of missions on global democracy was huge. I kept adding variables to the model—factors that people had been studying and writing about for the past 40 years—and they all got wiped out. It was amazing. I knew, then, I was on to something really important."

Woodberry already had historical proof that missionaries had educated women and the poor, promoted widespread printing, led nationalist movements that empowered ordinary citizens, and fueled other key elements of democracy. Now the statistics were backing it up: Missionaries weren't just part of the picture. They were central to it...

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary... a conference presentation in 2002, Woodberry got a break. In the room sat Charles Harper Jr., then a vice president at the John Templeton Foundation, which was actively funding research on religion and social change. (Its grant recipients have included Christianity Today.) Three years later, Woodberry received half a million dollars from the foundation's Spiritual Capital Project, hired almost 50 research assistants, and set up a huge database project at the University of Texas, where he had taken a position in the sociology department. The team spent years amassing more statistical data and doing more historical analyses, further confirming his theory.

...Woodberry's historical and statistical work has finally captured glowing attention. A summation of his 14 years of research—published in 2012 in the American Political Science Review, the discipline's top journal—has won four major awards, including the prestigious Luebbert Article Award for best article in comparative politics. Its startling title: "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy."

...over a dozen studies have confirmed Woodberry's findings. The growing body of research is beginning to change the way scholars, aid workers, and economists think about democracy and development.[10]


A 2011 Telegraph article said concerning the European Financial Crisis: "Either way, not a single Protestant or Germanic EU country has so far needed a bailout" (Some Roman Catholic countries in Europe received bailouts).[11] Germany, the great economic powerhouse of Europe, was the fountainhead of the Protestant Reformation.


See also: Asian atheism

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's website RN reports:

The reason for this rise in Asian Christianity is as varied as the region is diverse. However for South Korea, China and other economically vibrant neighbours contributing to the rise of the Asian Century, German sociologist Max Weber got it right. Christianity is like the spiritual backdrop to the market economy.

Christian business people in China ‘think that the Protestant work ethic is particularly suitable for this market economy,’ claims Professor Fenggang Yang, sociologist at Purdue University in Indiana.

‘The market economy [in China] is sometimes associated with a high ratio of corruption—doing business without rules or regulations, or when those regulations cannot be enforced,’ he says.

Contrary to the belief that modernism breeds secularism, Yang posits that the rise of the Chinese entrepreneurial class has created a demand for internal rules—morality, ethics and spiritual certainty—all the elements that make up religion’s job description.

The demand for this religious foundation is certainly formidable. Beijing controls Christianity by sanctioning only a set number of churches, yet underground or ‘house churches’ keep popping up, like Bible studies groups that gather at McDonalds, recounts Yang.

Buddhism, Confucianism and other great religious and philosophical traditions indigenous to Asia also provide the same spiritual bedrock, and overall, religion is on the rise in China. However Christianity can claim more converts because of its association with other key aspects of a modern life like better education, individual freedom, equality and democracy says Yang.

Sebastian Kim of York St John University in the UK concurs. Unlike other Asian countries, Koreans, not foreign missionaries, planted the first seeds of Christianity in Korea. Yet, it was western missionaries who brought with them hospitals, schools and other social institutions that helped transform Korea.[12]


In China, the growth in religion has accompanied China's fast economic growth over the last twenty years. Christianity is seeing rapid growth in China and the historian Niall Ferguson attributes this recent economic growth to the Protestant work ethic being more incorporated into Chinese society.[13]


Scholars in the Weberian tradition have argued that a Protestant-like work ethic found in traditional Japanese religions provided a motivational force in the early stage of Japanese industrialization during the Meiji era. Such an argument is misleading in several respects. No clear evidence indicates that the work ethic is found in traditional Japanese religions. Moreover, an assumption that religion guided the direction of economic development in Japan is more apparent than real. The Japanese business elite borrowed their work ethic from Europe, just as they borrowed the modern European technology.[14][15]

American business/work/cultural practices also had an influence on Japan and the work of the management consultant W. Edwards Deming has a significant influence on post World War II Japan.[16][17]


See also: Atheism and forced labor

Antsley (1979) analyzes the role of religious forces in the formation and expansion of antislavery movements in the United States and Britain and shows the religious influences on the abolition of the British slave trade, the West Indian emancipation, and American antislavery politics. Theological doctrines - Arminianism, redemptionism, sanctification, and postmillenialism - disposed evangelical Protestants to include the slaves among the potentially saved, to hate the institution of slavery, and to strive for earthly reform. Additionally, slavery became a denominational issue, as Anglican Evangelicals, Nonconformists, and Quakers combined to provide the political organization and strategy for abolition and emancipation.[18] Abolitionists believed that the blacks, once freed of slavery, would adopt the Protestant ethic and become productive workers, which they would not be under slavery. For that matter abolitionists argued that the slaveowners themselves would be freed from an ethic of leisure and honor and adopt the work ethic too, once they lost their slaves.[19]

Southern author Margaret Mitchell explored the Protestant Ethic in her novel Gone with the Wind (1936 novel, 1939 film). None of the characters is profoundly changed by the war, except for Scarlett O'Hara. She moves from the frivolous lover of leisure to a Yankee-like shrewd, hard-driving business leader. It takes a very hard-headed Scarlett to whip the underperforming traditionalistic menfolk into shape to deal with the modern postwar economy. Scarlett's transformation is exactly what they Yankees had planned for the Southern white men during Reconstruction.[20] Rhett Butler, although Southern-born is a war profiteer who is hated by the men because he resembles a mercenary money-grubbing Yankee. He lacks the Protestant Ethic because he is a spendthrift and enjoys leisure and the company of prostitutes. Scarlett marries a series of men for the money to save Tara, her home. That motivation marks her transformation. As the first female capitalist of the New South, she resists Rhett's overtures even after marriage showing her choice of money and power over sex and romantic love.

See also

Further reading

  • Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) excerpt and text search; another edition; excerpt and text search
  • Baltzell. E. Digby. Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia: Two Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Class Authority and Leadership (1979)
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. ed. The Protestant Ethic and Modernization: A Comparative View, (1968) a very useful collection of essays by scholars deal with multiple countries
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel N., ed. Patterns of Modernity, 1: The West; Patterns of Modernity, 2: Beyond the West. (1987)
  • Forcese, Dennis P. "Calvinism, Capitalism And Confusion: The Weberian Thesis Revisited." Sociological Analysis 1968 29(4): 193-201. in JSTOR
  • Ghosh, Peter. A Historian Reads Max Weber: Essays on the Protestant Ethic (2008)
  • Goldstein, Bernice, and Robert L. Eichhorn. "The Changing Protestant Ethic: Rural Patterns in Health, Work, and Leisure," American Sociological Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Aug., 1961), pp. 557–565 in JSTOR, looks at farmers in the American Midwest
  • Gorski, Philip S. "The Protestant Ethic Revisited: Disciplinary Revolution and State Formation in Holland and Prussia," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 99, No. 2 (Sep., 1993), pp. 265–316 in JSTOR, advanced research paper
  • Kalberg, Stephen. Max Weber's Comparative Historical Sociology (1994).
  • Lehmann, Hartmut, and Guenther Roth, eds. Weber's Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts (1993)
  • Marshall, Gordon. "The Dark Side of the Weber Thesis: The Case of Scotland." British Journal of Sociology 1980 31(3): 419-440 in JSTOR
  • Nelson, Benjamin N. "Weber's Protestant Ethic: Its Origins, Wanderings, and Foreseeable Futures" in Charles Y. Clock and Phillip E. Hammond, eds. Beyond the Classics? (1973) pp. 71–130
  • Swatos, William H., and Lutz Kaelber, eds. The Protestant Ethic Turns 100: Essays on the Centenary of the Weber Thesis (2005)
  • Woodward, C. Vann "The Southern Ethic in a Puritan World," William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1968), pp. 344–370 in JSTOR

External links


  1. The Protestant Work Ethic: Alive & Well…In China By Hugh Whelchel on September 24, 2012
  2. Weber, Max (1904-5). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. of "Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus" by Parsons, Talcott 1930, intr. by Giddens, Anthony 1976 (London: Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005), p. xiii.
  3. See Forcese, (1968)
  4. Yuki Kishida, "John Wesley's Ethics and Max Weber," Wesleyan Quarterly Review 1967 4(1): 43-58.
  5. [1]
  6. [2]
  7. [3]
  8. Edward Coleson, "Weber Revisited: The Reformation and Economic Development Today." Fides et Historia 1972 4(2): 73-84.
  9. See Marshall (1980)
  10. Christianity Today, The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries, January 8, 2014
  11. Yet another Catholic country needs a bailout from the Protestant north…
  12. The rise of Christianity in Asia by Masako Fukui, Australian Broadcasting Corporation's website RN
  13. The Protestant Work Ethic: Alive & Well…In China By Hugh Whelchel on September 24, 2012
  14. Moon H. Jo, "Japanese Traditional Values and Industrialization," International Social Science Review 1987 62(1): 3-13.
  15. Impact of Protestant Christians upon Modern Education in Japan Since the 19th Century
  16. Deming Influence on Post-war Japanese Quality Development
  17. Impact of Protestant Christians upon Modern Education in Japan Since the 19th Century
  18. Roger Anstey, "Slavery and the Protestant Ethic," Historical Reflections 1979 6(1): 157-181. Pp. 157-172.
  19. See Woodward (1968)
  20. See Woodward (1968)