The Protestant Ethic of Prosperity

Is it a contradiction in terms for a Christian to be rich? If so, it’s a common contradiction and has been exhaustively studied ever since the Protestant Reformation. Some of the most informative research on the subject was compiled by the German sociologist, Max Weber, who studied the causal relationship of events in history. In 1904 Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This book is his attempt to explain the causes of the seemingly diverse phenomena of capitalism and Protestantism.

Protestantism, of course, refers to those who broke away or were expelled from the Roman Catholic Church following the Protestant Reformation. For a definition of capitalism we must first explain what it is not. In his introduction to The Protestant Ethic Max Weber points out that greed and the desire for personal gain, as well as trading and other economic enterprises designed to make a profit, exist everywhere and have been true of people in all walks of life and in all cultures of the earth. This human impulse to acquire wealth does not necessarily have anything to do with capitalism.

Weber defines capitalism as an economic action that expects to make a profit based on peaceful and mutually beneficial exchanges. He suggests that religious piety and capitalistic acquisition are compatible, and that both traits are characteristic of many of the most important Churches and sects in the history of Protestantism. He notes that in French Huguenot Churches monks and business men were particularly numerous. And the Spaniards knew that the Calvinism of the Dutch promoted trade which coincided with the capitalistic development of the Netherlands.

There is an even more striking connection between religious lifestyles and the intensive development of business acumen among Christians such as Quakers and Mennonites, whose otherworldliness is as proverbial as their wealth. For example, in East Prussia Frederick William I tolerated the Mennonites as indispensable to industry, in spite of their absolute refusal to perform military service. The combination of intense piety and business acumen was also characteristic of the Pietists.

The English were also highly developed in piety, in commerce, and in freedom. Weber suggests that their commercial success and free political institutions were in some way connected to their piety. The same might be said of early Americans. The witty dictums of Benjamin Franklin, for instance, are not just wise business suggestions but the essence of the Protestant ethic. Although Franklin was at best a deist, his values were strongly influenced by a strict Calvinistic father. It is therefore no surprise that in his autobiography quotations from the Bible appear, such as: “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings” (Prov. 22:29).

In another interesting parallel between pietism and capitalism in North America, Weber observes that capitalism remained far less developed in southern states, even though they were founded by capitalists for business motives. Yet the New England colonies were founded for religious reasons by preachers and seminary graduates with the help of craftsmen, yet this region of North America experienced dramatic capitalistic expansion.

Called to Wealth?

To understand how piety and capitalism became compatible it is necessary to recognize the importance of the early Protestant concept of a "calling." The Greek word ponos means "oil" but Luther translates it as "calling," which is evidently an interpretation rather than a strict translation. Whether or not this is accurate theology, the practical result was that Protestants felt labor must be seen as an end in itself, or as a calling.

Protestants were known to work hard, merely for the sake of the work itself, instead of endlessly calculating how to earn their wage with as little effort and as much comfort as possible. In the 18th century, Methodist workmen experienced persecution from their co-workers, not so much because of their religious views as because of their willingness and eagerness to put in a full day of hard labor to earn a just wage.

Prior to the Reformation it was widely believed among Christians that the only way to overcome worldliness was through self-denial and monastic asceticism. In contrast to this view, the Protestant idea of having a calling meant more than merely having a job to do. Believing that you had a calling also meant believing that the only way to live acceptably in the sight of God was through fulfilling the obligations imposed on you by your position in the world. Only through your calling could you do the will of God.

One logical consequence of this view was the belief that every legitimate calling has exactly the same value, as far as God is concerned. This belief provided moral justification for active Christian involvement in the world. The economic impact was far reaching, for those with spiritual natures that led to becoming the highest type of monk now pursued those ideals through families and careers. They set out to prove their faith and confirm their calling in worldly activity.

The concept of a calling ultimately brought with it a new view of the church. The Catholic and Lutheran tended to view the church as a medium for bringing the means of salvation to men. The Calvinist looked upon church as a sort of trust foundation for supernatural ends, necessarily including both the just and the unjust, for the purpose of increasing the glory of God. The Baptists, Mennonites, and Quakers represent a new departure, for in their view the visible church should function solely as a community of reborn believers. They felt only adults who have personally gained their own faith should be baptized.

But in spite of the rejection of worldliness in the early Baptist movement, to take just one example, Weber noticed that even first-generation middle-class Baptists defended the system of private property and practical worldly virtues. He suggests that the Baptist doctrine of salvation, with its emphasis on the role of the conscience as the revelation of God to the individual, played a significant role in the development of capitalism.

Motives for Wealth

We must not assume that, because post-Reformation Christians were aggressively involved in worldly activity, they were trying to become wealthy. Their ethical ideals and the practical results of their doctrines were all based on the desire to see souls saved. Ironically, this single-minded devotion to evangelism held some economic surprises for the Reformers, who tended to consider the accumulation of wealth as a great danger. It was assumed that those who pursued riches despised their souls. Striving after wealth was thought to be senseless compared to the value and importance of seeking first the kingdom of God. However, wasting time and enjoying recreation or amusement were also considered sinful. Hence, the obedient and industrious Christian soon found himself accumulating wealth, whether that was his objective or not.

A consistent teaching on wealth was complicated by the Puritan belief that the hand of God could be seen in all things. Therefore, if a conscientious Christian saw an opportunity to make a profit, he should by all means take advantage of the opportunity. Refusing to do so would be to refuse to be God's steward and to rebel against his calling and God's leading in his life.

Both necessity and luxury were considered threats to a life of virtue. As Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac, "It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright." As an alternative to either poverty or luxury, the Protestant ethic set as an ideal the clean, simple comforts of the middle class. The careful stewardship of possessions was seen as a very serious, God-given responsibility. The greater the possessions, the heavier the responsibility for using them for the glory of God and increasing them by restless effort.

Apparently a balanced and well-integrated perspective on finances was seen, not as an impossible ideal, but as realistic and practical, though not likely to be achieved without struggle. While the pursuit of wealth as an end in itself was reprehensible, attaining wealth as a fruit of labor in a calling was a sign of God’s blessing.

The remarkable parallels between the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism do not necessarily mean that capitalism as an economic system is a result of the Reformation. However, it is apparent that the Reformation, as much as any other factor, influenced capitalistic development. Or, if a casual relationship cannot be proven, we can at least say that the two movements happened at the same time and seemed to feed off each other.

Economic Revolution

To help us imagine the impact capitalism had on the simple lives of those who lived at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, consider how economic life must have functioned for the typical peasant. He raised both crops and animals for raw materials and to a large extent subsisted on what he could extract from the earth. One product he manufactured at home was cloth, which he took to market to be appraised for quality and sold at the customary price.

With the Industrial Revolution came textile factories which dramatically changed both the way cloth was produced and the lives of those who produced it. But the leisurely way of life was threatened long before the arrival of factories. The real changes no doubt took place when a young cloth buyer hit upon the idea of going out into the country and hiring specific weavers for his cloth. He then began to carefully supervise their work, thereby transforming peasants into laborers. This was soon followed by more vigorous marketing of the product as well as lower prices and rapid turnover of inventory. This competitive approach soon resulted in the making of a fortune for a handful of people while putting less efficient cloth producers out of business.

A similar scenario could be written for virtually every product used in that era, with the result that a long established way of life was forever changed. Some of the changes were for the better, but many were not. The less desirable outcomes of the Industrial Revolution have led many Christians today to the view that, if capitalism begins as the outgrowth of middle-class ideals, it ends as an orgy of materialism.

What should be the proper relationship between a person’s moral and religious values and his economic behavior? While some live compartmentalized lives, Christ calls us to the careful integration of every aspect of life. The practical result, stated in terminology of a "calling" is this: If we have a calling at all, we have as much of a calling to serve our fellow man and the community of Christians as we have a calling to capitalism based on individualism. This means using money only in ways that are redemptive.

The Calvinistic economic system that evolved (at least among Christians) following the Reformation put tremendous emphasis on individualism, leaving little room for a sense of responsibility to the church and other less fortunate individuals. This overshadowed any concept of each Christian as a responsible part of a community of believers, and of the importance of membership in the body of Christ.

Here is a danger for Christians today to avoid at all costs. Richard Baxter concisely summarized the appropriate Christian response when he wrote in his Christian Directory, "Avoid sin rather than loss." CH

By Virgil Hartgerink

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #14 in 1987]

Virgil Hartgerink is a Dutch layman who has devoted many years to the study of Christians and their money. He is self-employed and lives on a small farm in Michigan.
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Issue 14

Christian History Magazine #14 - Money

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