Protestant Ethic Research Paper

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Published originally as two  long articles in  1904  and 1905, Max Weber’s  classic The Protestant  Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1920) is one of the most enduring and widely read volumes in modern social science. On its publication it immediately set off a heated debate and, remarkably, to  this day the  controversy has continued almost undiminished.

The   Protestant Ethic  investigated  whether   the “Protestant ethic” found among seventeenth-century Puritans  (mainly  Calvinists, Methodists,  Baptists, and Quakers) “coparticipated” in  giving birth  to  a driving force Weber (1864–1920) saw as contributing to the rise of the  industrial west: a secular “spirit of capitalism.” Adherents of this “modern economic ethic,” he argued, viewed work as a vocational calling (Beruf ). Characteristic was a rigorous—an ascetic—organization of occupational life according to a set of values, a methodical and dutiful striving for profit and wealth, and a systematic reinvestment of money rather than its enjoyment.

The Doctrine  of Predestination

The doctrine of predestination anchors Weber’s argument in The Protestant Ethic. According to the French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564), an inscrutable Old Testament God, omniscient and omnipotent,  has determined that only a chosen few will be reborn into heaven. Good works or ethical behavior can never influence His decisions. Unbearable anxiety and fatalism were the consequence of this doctrine for the faithful, Weber noted. However, revisions were undertaken in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by the “Puritan Divines,” a group of Methodist, Calvinist, Quaker, and Baptist ministers, theologians, and lay believers in England. Herein lies the source of the Protestant ethic, Weber maintained.

Weber’s  analysis at this point can be seen to divide into two stages. First, the Puritans elevated to the forefront methodical work and wealth. The purpose of life itself involved labor, they argued; work in  a calling is “commanded to all” by God, and He is gratified by the active execution of His will by believers. Moreover, by taming base wants and  desires, systematic labor assists concentration upon God and His plan; it also dispels the overwhelming doubt, anxiety, and sense of moral unworthiness caused by the doctrine of predestination. A parallel sanctification took  place in  respect to  wealth. The creation of God’s kingdom constituted the purpose of this short life, according to the Puritans, and an earthly cosmos of wealth and  abundance would surely serve His glory. Methodical  work—a crucial means toward  this noble end—thereby acquired a further special dignity. In sum, this ascetic Protestantism bestowed clear “psychological premiums” upon  constant labor and the search for riches.  Both  activities lost  their  exclusively mundane meaning and became providential.

Although  influential,  this  sanctification failed  to overcome fully the long-standing ethos anchored in medieval Catholicism. Labor, according to  this  “traditional economic ethic,” was understood as a necessary evil, and profit was seldom earned honestly. If this “frame of mind”  was to  be  banished,  work and  wealth had  to acquire an even more comprehensive sanctification, The Protestant Ethic  held.  Furthermore,  the  all-important question  to   anxious  believers—“am  I   among   the saved?”—had not yet been answered adequately. In this regard, the second stage of Weber’s analysis proves crucial.

Despite the predestination decree, the Puritan Divines concluded that signs from God of the believer’s salvation status could be discovered. Above all, the deity’s favor seemed apparent  if  the  devout  demonstrated  a capacity, as required by their vocational calling, either to labor systematically or to remain focused upon the onerous task of acquiring wealth. Indeed, the faithful convinced themselves that their strength and discipline to do so, as well as their intense devotion and righteous conduct, came from God: His energy was “operating within.” And surely this majestic divinity would bestow His powers only upon the predestined elect. Methodical work and great wealth now became “evidence” of one’s favorable salvation status.

From “Spiritual Foundation” to “Mechanical Foundation”

Now awarded psychological premiums in an even more thorough manner, constant labor and the possession of riches became viewed by believers as testifying to their salvation. They  offered literal proof  (Bewährung) to  the devout of redemption. As anxiety declined, the depressed and  bleak Puritan  became transformed into  the  disciplined “tool” of God’s will, proudly engaged in the task of building His glorious kingdom on earth.

According to Weber, this methodical-rational organization of life and inner-worldly asceticism—a “Protestant ethic”—distinguished the  “Puritan  style of  life.” The faithful focused their energies and conduct in a comprehensive manner upon God’s will, restricted consumption, reinvested profits,  banished  the  traditional  economic ethic, and placed work at the center of life. Extreme loyalty to His grand design marked the devout, as did cognizance that  riches emanated  from  the  hand  of  this omnipotent deity and thus belonged exclusively to Him and His kingdom. Wealth must be, on His behalf and for His community, invested instead of enjoyed. Simultaneously, the image of those engaged in business and oriented to profit changed: Rather than viewed as calculating, greedy, and self-interested, as had been the case since antiquity, capitalists were now perceived as honest employers engaged in a noble project given by God. The halo of religion—a “spiritual foundation”—surrounded their activities, and hence the understanding of the production and exchange of goods as involving exclusively utilitarian  calculations and  clever business procedures must  be  abandoned,  Weber  contended.  Specialists in vocations—a new “type of person” (Menschentyp)—now embarked upon the stage of western history. They “coparticipated” in the formation of the spirit of capitalism and constituted one of its major “social carriers.”

Weber saw this “modern economic ethic,” which is represented in The Protestant Ethic by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790),  as providing an underlying psychological thrust and legitimation to modern capitalism’s early development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, its value-oriented roots gradually died out as industrialization and urbanization proceeded over the last two centuries, and today capitalism unfolds exclusively on a purely “mechanical foundation.” Impersonal exchange relationships, pragmatic necessities, and manifold external constraint—a “steel-hard casing” (stahlhartes Gehäuse)— now predominate. “The Puritan,” Weber maintained, “wanted to be a person with a vocational calling; we must be” ([1920] 2008, p. 123).

Criticisms of Weber

Controversy surrounded The Protestant Ethic immediately after its publication. Generations of critics and defenders have debated vehemently “the Weber thesis.” Arguably, no other volume in the social sciences in the English-speaking world has generated a more intense and long-term discussion. Four of the major lines of criticism are adumbrated here.

First,  commentators  have  frequently  viewed The Protestant  Ethic as proposing that  ascetic Protestantism caused, in a linear manner, modern capitalism. Innumerable critics then insisted that beliefs never explain historical change. Some maintained that new technologies introduced industrial capitalism (e.g., the cotton gin, the steam engine); others perceived the heroism and greed of great capitalists (e.g., Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt) as pivotal; still others insisted that sheer business astuteness or the economic and political power and interests of a dominant class were central—and then argued that a systematic work ethos developed out of power and interests alone. All then dismissed The Protestant Ethic as naively trumpeting the power of ideas to change history. This criticism—“Weber is an idealist”—misses the mark, however. The  Protestant Ethic acknowledged the  necessity for a complex and multidimensional analysis ([1920] 2008, p. 125),  yet Weber  focused intentionally in  this  volume upon only “one side” of the causal configuration. He did so in order forcefully to bring a heretofore neglected cultural factor into an ongoing debate. Moreover, as noted, he sought to explain the origin of the spirit of capitalism rather than of modern capitalism.

Weber held in The Protestant Ethic that subsequent research must address the large question of whether the spirit of capitalism played a significant part  in  calling forth industrial capitalism. In fact, this broad theme—the unique development of the modern west out of arrays of “ideas and interests”—directly captured his attention  in an ambitious series of comparative studies almost entirely neglected by his critics. He asked, what constellations of interacting  social, economic,  political,  technological, legal, and religious activities explain the particular historical pathway taken in the west? How can sociologists oriented to multiple causes analyze the specific direction and outcome of western history? The Protestant Ethic’s exploration of the religious sources behind the secular spirit of capitalism must be understood as Weber’s first step toward fulfilling this broad-ranging agenda.

Second, theologians in particular have been critical of Weber’s  discussions of Catholic,  Lutheran,  and  ascetic Protestant doctrines. Many have dissected Calvin’s teachings and failed to discover an emphasis upon work in a vocation. However, these scholars have neglected to note Weber’s distinction between Calvin’s doctrines and  the ascetic Protestantism of the  sixteenth and  seventeenth centuries. He locates the source of the Protestant ethic in the Puritanism of this latter period rather than in Calvin’s teachings, and emphasizes the many revisions of Calvin’s thought introduced by the Puritan Divines.

Third, commentators frequently insisted that capitalism predated Puritanism. They discovered it to be significantly widespread in the ancient and medieval worlds in the west and Middle East, as well as in China and India. Although Weber maintained that his main concern in The Protestant Ethic involved the origins of a Protestant ethic and the extent of its influence upon a spirit of capitalism, capitalism’s general origins were also of interest to him. His  discussion of  this  theme,  however, distinguished sharply between modern industrial capitalism on the one hand and “political,” or “adventure,” capitalism on the other hand. Whereas the former—his interest—arose only in  the  modern  west,  the  latter  appeared  universally, he held.

Fourth, a long list of critics argued that two Renaissance figures, the great entrepreneur Jacob Fugger (1459–1525)  and  the  urban  architect and  aesthetician Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), possessed a spirit of capitalism  essentially similar  to  Benjamin  Franklin’s. These commentators further maintained that the spirit of capitalism blossomed forth  exclusively  out  of practical interests and utilitarian business astuteness. A religious source must be seen as both superfluous and historically inaccurate, they insisted.

Weber countered this attack in endnotes added in 1919 and 1920 to The Protestant Ethic by repeating and elaborating upon his defense against these “relativizing” critics. While noting that Alberti and Fugger had accommodated to, rather than changed, the economic conditions of their time, Weber contended that the central issue here involves a distinction—pivotal for him  yet unacknowledged by the critics—between utilitarian activity on the one hand  and value-oriented activity on  the other hand. Motives vary, he emphasized, and the “practicalrational” approach to life is not dominant in all groupings in all historical epochs. This commentary, he maintained, neglected the ways in which values may independently motivate action. Indeed, a methodical aspect—an element indispensable for the birth of the spirit of capitalism and the  shattering  of  the  traditional  economic ethic—was alone introduced by action oriented to values, according to Weber.

In sum, Weber often has been misunderstood by his many  critics.  A  dynamic  tapestry  characterizes The Protestant Ethic analysis. Despite regular indictments, the Weber thesis survives to this day and must be confronted by scholars seeking to understand the rise of modern capitalism. By calling attention  to the important  historical roles played by both a Protestant ethic and a spirit of capitalism, The Protestant Ethic questions all those theories that explain the origin of the modern world exclusively by reference to  utilitarian  activity (for  example, rational choice theory) or structural transformations (whether of Marxian or Durkheimian lineage). The varying subjective meaning of persons in demarcated groups proved central to Weber, as did the other-worldly, value-oriented ancestry of the modern world. The Puritan’s asceticism originated from his life “in but not of ” the world.

The Protestant  Ethic must be comprehended as the father of all schools of sociological thought that, in seeking to explain long-range social change, explicitly attend to cultural forces. It must be further understood as declaring emphatically that  the past is interwoven with, and influences, the present. Finally, in an age of universalizing globalization, The Protestant Ethic conveys the causal significance of the indigenous cultural make-up inevitably manifest when a nation embarks upon an economic modernization course. He admonished social scientists generally to take account of religion-based background contexts for social change.


  1. Chalcraft, David J., and Austin Harrington, eds. 2001. The “Protestant Ethic” Debate: Max Weber’s Replies to His Critics,

1907–1910. Liverpool, U.K.: Liverpool University Press.

  • Kalberg, Stephen. 2003. Max Weber. In The Blackwell Companion to Major Social Theorists, ed. George Ritzer,

132–192. Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Kalberg, Stephen, ed. 2005. Max Weber: Readings and Commentary on Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lehmann, Hartmut, and Guenther Roth, eds. 1993. Weber’s “Protestant Ethic”: Origins,  Evidence,  Contexts.  New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Swados, William H., and Lutz Kaelber, eds. 2005. The “Protestant Ethic” Turns 100. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
  • Weber, Max. [1920] 2008. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings on the Rise of the West. Trans. Stephen Kalberg. New York: Oxford University Press.

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