Protestant work ethic

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

The Protestant work ethic, the Calvinist work ethic[1] or the Puritan work ethic[a][2] is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes that hard work, discipline and frugality[3] are a result of a person's subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism.

This contrasts with the focus upon religious attendance, confession, and ceremonial sacrament in the Roman Catholic tradition. A person does not need to be a religious Calvinist in order to follow the Protestant work ethic, as it is a part of certain cultures impacted by the Protestant Reformation.[b]

The concept is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern, Central and Western Europe such as in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland. Even though some of these countries were more affected by Lutheranism or Anglicanism than Calvinism, local Protestants nevertheless were influenced by these ideas to a varying degree. As penal law was enacted to uphold the uniform teachings of the Church of England in England, only various English dissenters[c] held to those values. Among them were the Puritans who emigrated to New England, bringing the work ethic with them and helping define the culture of what would become the United States of America. Germanic immigrants brought their work ethic to the United States of America, Canada, South Africa and other European colonies.

The phrase was initially coined in 1904–1905[d] by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[4]

A number of leading contemporary historians, including historian Fernand Braudel (d. 1985) and British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (d. 2003), assert that the existing consensus among scholars is that Protestant Work Ethic theory is false. They refer to the pre-Reformation existence of rapid economic development of Catholic capitalist communities.

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 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 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.