Protestant Ethic and Capitalism


Protestant work ethic

In the realms of religious philosophy that governs motivations for wealth creation and distribution, is Protestant Work Ethic or otherwise termed as Puritan Work Ethic which stemmed from ancient classical doctrines from Catholicism. Conventionally, the mainstream church doctrines promoted good works; business with ethics and avoiding all worldly circumstances that would lead to sin by being materialistic. Since the controversial revolutions of this earlier idea by radical leaders like Martin Luther King and John Calvin, the conventional theory adopted a different meaning, more refined to suit civilized man attributed to the works of Max Weber. The content concept covers economics, sociology and history and is based on the notion that hard work is a necessary requisite for fulfillment of an individual’s personal calling on earth.

Besides, the Calvinists’ argue that hard work leading to acquisition of great wealth coupled with achievement of worldly success is the ultimate “sign of personal salvation”. In wholesome therefore, the pioneers and followers of protestant ethic in new work indoctrinated theology, evolve to a people who perpetrate worldly work not only as a personal duty, but also as the part of the general moral obligation of an individual aimed at satisfying selfish interests but the society as whole. Due to complex interrelationship that exists in the belief system that propagates work for wealth; as proposed by Protestant Work Ethic, and the spirit of capitalism which is the general motive behind wealth creation and distribution, this essay develops insights into possible linkages between the two theories with objectives primarily aimed at investigating the concept that Protestantism had an effect on the formation of capitalism.

Spirit of capitalism

Spirit of capitalism is a term first used by Weber to refer to the set of ideas and beliefs that are put forward to rationalize or justify the ends of seeking economic gains. In as much as people need worldly materials; vanity or wealth and lead secular lifestyles, the same society requires an adequate justification to act as a basis for their pursuits. Spirit of capitalism probably got is appropriate meaning in the Weber thesis. In his book “DIE PROTESTANTICHE ETHIK UND DER GEIST DES KAPITALISMUS” translated to English in 1930 by Talcott Parsons, the term is redefined to embrace the meaning of calling to “live the secular lifestyle in a Godly way” as a result of Anglo-protestant Calvinist church beliefs which Weber called Protestantism.

The relationship between the protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism

Several views and arguments have been advanced toward the belief that, puritan work ethic inspired the spirit of capitalism. Some views are made in favour of the idea while others are rather reluctant about such a possibility telling that, the two theories are a little divergent; while Protestants seek wealth as indication of their religious faith in God through Christ, Capitalists need not necessarily be religious persons. Even if they are religious they may belong to a different denomination which may be non-protestant. Generally capitalist are pagans who profess very limited religious faiths and beliefs if any. Therefore, the possibility of mistaking a capitalist who controls a lot of personal wealth acquired as a result of personal motivations par se may cause the concept to fail (Weber 28).

Many a times, capitalists act in accordance with their rational judgement of the environment based on prevailing socioeconomic and political conditions. Consequently, the belief that puritan work ethic had a bearing in the formation of capitalism may only be found in the association between church practices and political philosophies of the state. Such concepts therefore owe their origin to nations in Northern Europe such as The Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom and the US where the majority opinion is inclined toward the notion that “wealth is a sure sign of success, and success is relative”. Worldly success is not limited to material gains alone. It is whole encompassing as it covers satisfaction of all an individual’s “spheres of life”, spiritual sphere is not an exception. Fundamentally, Protestantism was regarded as the basis for national prosperity in the north at the time. States men and women of these nations deemed it fit to pursue wealth by which ever means because it gave them and their territories power to and security to control other regions in the future besides their own boundaries (Abercrombie, Nicholas, Hill, Stephen and Turner, Bryan 29).

When congregations get motivated to work by their leaders, it touches on their material needs besides the spiritual needs that are equally met at the church. The response became enamours when the people learn that working for wealth has no harm in the positions in eternity. Generally, Christians believe that a person [man] has to work in order to eat (Genesis 3: 19) and to be beggar is just like living in perpetual curse. Moreover, more having more wealth out of ones own toil and moil is considered as blessing from the same God who commanded humans in Genesis 1: 28 to be “fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it…”. Such beliefs were strongly held in countries where majority of the citizenry had Protestant affiliations as opposed to catholic faith. The general observation was that individuals with protestant roots are keen on productive work practices and show a lot enthusiasm in their commitment compared to Catholics who are seen to have excitement toward effective work (Baehr 17).

In his argument, Max Weber observed that Protestant ethic had a coincidental effect on the prevailing spirit of capitalism in the beginning of 20th century. Since capitalism emerged at a time when Protestant-Calvinist ethic was the significant force behind mass action; witnessed by large number of people getting involved in trade and ownership of large enterprises in the North, then the possibility of Protestantism informing capitalism could be relatively undoubted. In so far as “the Weber thesis” is concerned, capitalism and Protestantism developed separately with Protestant ethic acting merely as one of the very many factors that led to formation of capitalism. Catholicism advocated for a unique sense of moral good where people across variedly all nations on the planet where its teachings were practiced, to seek the noble good which coherently defines religious pursuits in consistent with rejection of secular values and practices. On the other hand, Protestantism advocated for work and emphasized material gains as an exhibit of Christian faith in salvation. This contradiction which existed in the association between religious belief and worldly affairs is presented by Weber in a paradox that tends to harmonize such divergent views on the premise that individual aspirations and national goals are priority in both interests’ and any other external factor can only complement the means of achieving them. This way, Weber systematically tailors his propositions and arguments to suit the view that Protestantism acted as a precursor to capitalism (Cohen 35).

The paradox seriously considers the fact that people need to be motivated to achieve even their personal ambitions. Institutions of leadership including leaders are also predisposed to function with the favour of people and groups with which they seek same interests. In as much as capitalism which stemmed from industrial revolution in Europe needed highly enthusiastic and motivated workers, Protestantism was ever ready to provide it. John Calvin and Benjamin Franklin were among the first scholars of Dr. Luther who campaigned largely for puritan work ethic; their inspiring pieces of art work featuring poems and speeches gave Europeans and the Westerners hope and increased ambition particularly by theorizing that the workers reward is much more than what they work for. As a sign of their highest commitment to their maker, workers need to work increasingly dedicatedly to gain material possessions. The worldly possessions can then be used to fulfil the Lord’s moral obligations bestowed upon His people through nation’s enrichment and empowerment. Consequently, Protestants were readily willing to work for almost any rewards in the period that transcended the second industrial revolution in Europe and especially in America and the Great Britain where Protestantism gained wide acceptance due to its philosophies (Cohen 73).

Given the natural conditions and circumstances, everybody lives once then they die, Protestantism emphasized that how people spend their economic time on earth has an implication on how their fate might be in the ultimate end-after they die. In Benjamin Franklin’s words quoted to best suit the Weber thesis in this concept, “time is money”. Money is the generally acknowledged item that is essentially used to continuously regenerate nature. Puritan ethic promoted inculcated the spirit of hard work which was rewarded by money from the beginning of Protestantism interaction with the sense of Capitalism. The more and longer people worked in home based and commercial based industries, the more there efforts met financial rewards among other fringe rewards. Eventually, individuals and small groups were able to control inventories of huge capitals run into personal investments and state equivalent enterprises. This way capitalism had found its toll through Protestantism. Similarly, development paths in nations across Europe and the Western world portray significant association between Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of capitalism both in classical industry establishment and the working models designed for employees. The case is true for both public and private establishments though the private sector is leading in the model used for hiring and rewarding of workers. Private business investments were set up by profit motivated individuals under governments’ provisions for autonomous groups and people to own enterprises (Grossmann 37).

These investments which mainly constituted steel industries and construction companies in the down of 19th century greatly benefited from the association that existed between “the church and the state” in the concept of Protestantism and capitalism. Due to autonomous ownership of the means of production-capital goods (machinery and equipment), increased completion arose as was leant by steel making companies in Ruhr- Germany and other individual owned steel merchandize organizations in Detroit-USA. Birmingham city in England also grew profoundly due to capitalism experienced the ownership and management of its textile industries. In all these cases, the owners of the enterprises were keen on workers who facilitated effective work and paid close attention to output (Cohen 110).

As nationalised companies competed for international markets in foreign exchange, investors were in dire need of works that could continuously dissipate their efforts to companies’ production efforts at economically low wages. Protestantism teachings provided relatively good moral support and social encouragement based in orthodox Christian beliefs which favoured the capitalists’ enterprises demand for suitable human labour force. Such workers who would put up spirited efforts in countries’ development sectors were observed by Max Weber as belonging to Protestant denominations. Weber proposes that, since Protestantism in the Calvinists doctrine emphasized the virtue of hard work and moral discipline aimed at timely fulfilment of an individual’s societal and personal requirement issued by God’s dictum. As a result, the direct correlation underpinning this concept is confirmed by Weber in his observations which concludes to the effect the societies dominated by Protestantism lead in the development of Capitalist economy (Weber 138).

As Eurocentric as the spirit of capitalism may appear, philosophers and theologians across the ages have noted that it is not confined to Western traditions alone. Protestant work ethic resonance is generally based on the individuals’ attitude leading to establishment of micro-enterprises. Therefore, capitalism as a form of economic system was equally made possibly by the state which agreed on terms of certainty that it would promote puritan work ethic in the work place. Because certain zealots of capitalism were either indifferent or about Christianity or hated the church, the rest of the society who practiced capitalism from deferent perspectives showed that there can only be loose association between Protestantism and capitalism leading the opinion that, protestant orthodoxy and/Calvinism had any influence on the complete formation of capitalism in western economies. While facing this limitation, Weber insisted that the emergence and subsequent dominance of capitalism had to find some strong basis. This was found in the lifestyles of saved Protestants (Abercrombie et al 87)

Rationally people know that business activities often involve, cost reduction measures in order to improve the profit margins. The spirit of capitalism fed by greed for profits was not introduced by capitalism when the two approaches interacted. Even though, Protestantism advocated for ploughing back of profits through investment schemes, it denied the followers maximum satisfaction from the efforts are proceeds from their work was not meant for luxurious lifestyle as is the case with most established capitalists. On the same view, it would be an individual’s personal choice that warrants no further justifications to honestly pursue his or her ambition, monetary rewards notwithstanding. In yet another controversial philosophy, the notion that protestant-made-capitalism negated the “spirit of brotherhood” and “good neighbourliness” by drastically changing the way beggars and less privileged persons in the society was viewed (Zafirovski 46).

In black and white, the concept outlined that idlers are merely lazy people who are failing in their duty to work as way of giving God his due glory. It proceeds to proclaim that the less fortunate do not deserve any assistance, instead the “money” should be invested in the economy and every body work for a portion of it. Consequentially, it predisposed people to near servitude condition for minimal wages in as much as people worked for personal obligation, moral fulfilment and the glory of God. In addition such hash reactions toward the poor and idlers was tantamount to discrimination against the very “flock” that Protestantism was suppose to lead (Lehmann, Hartmut and Roth, Guenther 32).


The notion of puritan work ethic overlooked prolific growth of Lombardy including Genoa and Venice which were central to European prosperity prior to 19th century Christian civilization. Consequently relating capitalism as a wealth oriented lifestyle with Protestantism was unlikely. The possibility of a country developing into prosperity without fundamental doctrines as in Protestant ethic cannot also be overruled. Japan is one such example which has demonstrated that a country can develop without having association with Christian faith of any kind. Emerging economies in South East Asia such as Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong City and China though have coined their own Confucian work ethic; this is far much different from the Protestant work ethic since it lacks the religious association with Protestantism. The conclusion that, capitalism originated from elsewhere holds. However, it is proven that Protestant ethic had an impression on capitalism and its epitome might have been in mid 19th century when the battle for economic supremacy was stiff particularly in the west.


Abercrombie, Nicholas, Hill, Stephen and Turner, Bryan. Sovereign individuals of capitalism.1986.Allen &Unwin Publishers limited, London.

Baehr, Peter and Wells, Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings.Gordon. 2002. Penguin Books, UK

Cohen, Jere. Protestantism and Capitalism: the mechanisms of influence. 2002. Walter de Gruyter, Inc. New York.

Grossmann, Henryk, Kennedy, Tony and Banaji Jairus. The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System: Being Also a Theory of Crises. Translated by Banaji Jairus.1992. Pluto Press. UK.

Kalberg, Stephen. Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New Translation and Introduction. 2002. Roxbury Publishing, Los Angeles. Web.

Lehmann, Hartmut and Roth, Guenther (Eds.). Weber’s Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts. 1987, Syndicate Press University of Cambridge, New York.

The Holy Bible, New Living Translation.1996. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Illinois. Web.

Weber, Max. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism. 1930. Allen and Unwin, London.

Zafirovski, Milan. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of authoritarianism: Puritanism versus Democracy and the Free Civil Society. 2007. Springer, Denton.

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