Protestant/Puritan Work Ethic - Where did it come from?
April 7, 2006 5:39 AM   Subscribe

Is the phrase "Protestant Work Ethic" and "Puritan Work Ethic" the same thing and what is the source of this concept?

I have heard both phrases used quite a lot and wondered where it originated from. There are references to both in other AskMeFis but these are just using the phrase themselves.

Is there a single place that this phrase was first used in the world or maybe during a particular century?
posted by pettins to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I assume that this is what brought the term into common usage..
posted by themel at 5:43 AM on April 7, 2006

While the term existed before Weber's book, in this day and age we usually define it based on what Weber wrote, so yes, follow themel's link, or buy the book.
posted by tiamat at 5:55 AM on April 7, 2006

It was used primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century as a means of explaining why protestants (white western Europeans and their decendents) had in such a short time grown so dominant in such a short time. It may have old roots then that but as far as I know it was a byproduct of the social Darwinism fad of the period.

Hope that helps.
posted by BobbyDigital at 6:48 AM on April 7, 2006

A quick google search turns up five good links right at the top.
posted by jmgorman at 7:00 AM on April 7, 2006

I'm by no means an expert, but during the reformation Martin Luther advocated "The Doctrine of Vocation," a fundamental concept to the reformation. Essentially the doctrine argued -- contrary to the Roman Catholic church at the time -- that there were no higher religious occupations. But that you served God by fully utilizing your talents and performing your chosen vocation. Those work hard at their chosen vocation no matter how lowly aren't any less inherrently holy than a priest. Here's a nice summary:

"When we pray the Lord's Prayer, observed Luther, we ask God to give us this day our daily bread. And He does give us our daily bread. He does it by means of the farmer who planted and harvested the grain, the baker who made the flour into bread, the person who prepared our meal. We might today add the truck drivers who hauled the produce, the factory workers in the food processing plant, the warehouse men, the wholesale distributors, the stock boys, the lady at the checkout counter. Also playing their part are the bankers, futures investors, advertisers, lawyers, agricultural scientists, mechanical engineers, and every other player in the nation's economic system. All of these were instrumental in enabling you to eat your morning bread."

Anyway, suffice to say that early protestants took this quite seriously (combined with Luther's culturally German predisposition about hard work). Working hard became a very protestant ethic that marked their committment to their religion.
posted by Heminator at 7:17 AM on April 7, 2006

themel is right. It was Max Weber's book that really brought the ideas into common currency.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:46 AM on April 7, 2006

Heminator is also right, though I had a rather old, dry textbook on Christianity post-Reformation and I remember there being a Protestant concept for making things better meant making earth more like heaven, where we get the "Sunday Best", when the various Anglican demoninations began to equate wealth and economic prosperity with achieving some religious perfection. That's a very condensed version, if I get home and find it I will put the larger answer, it's quite convincing.
posted by geoff. at 8:23 AM on April 7, 2006

Though I subscribe to all said aboive I don't think the "Puritan ethic" is what really is intended.
posted by Postroad at 11:30 AM on April 7, 2006

"Puritan Work Ethic" is clearly a misstatement - Puritans were hardworking ascetic fundamentalists but hardly a mainstream sect in Europe, where it was and is an important thing to distinguish between development of England and Germany compared with (say) France and Spain.

Further, I think Weber is being very much undervalued. Although the Protestant Work Ethic idea is overly simplistic today, at the time it was an extremely important book and is still today a must-read for any theorist or policy student.

There is a great deal of value to understanding how cultural differences related to religion affect societies in large and small ways. The effects of the difference between Catholic and Protestant places is still keenly felt in places like Quebec (in comparison with Ontario) and very likely any comparison of Mexico/US or Ireland/England.
posted by mikel at 11:53 AM on April 7, 2006

The Protestant Work Ethic I believe is derived from Max Weber's famous work of the same title, which was an examination of capitalism.

Simplified, the idea is this: back in the day (18th Century) of fiery Protestant Calvinist preachers like Jonathon Edwards (he of Sinners in the hands of an Angry God fame) put forth the idea that people are "elected" to go to heaven, that is God has known since the beginning of time, exactly who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. This means that "works" has nothing to do with your chances of making the cut, you are either in or out, "by the grace of God". As you might imagine this idea really stressed the congregation out because it caused such a great deal of uncertainty. I can just imagine the parishoners pulling nervously at their collars and looking at each in the pews thinking: Am I one of the elected? What about my wife and children? Please God, give me a sign, I must know if I am elected or not!

In order to feel better about themselves they chose to believe that if one does well on Earth (economically, for instance), it was a sign from God, they were elected! Therefore they became industrious because having a successful business, and being wealthy was surely a sign that they were elected! However, this version of Calvinists also believed that one shouldn't enjoy the earthly life too much, so no buying fancy clothes and living lavishly -- all the profits were reinvested into the business, while they lived relatively Spartan lives. Therefore they worked hard, they reinvested everything back into their enterprises, they lived frugally - they eventually became the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, at least the really and truly elected ones did.

This is the Protestant Work Ethic: a desperate plea to God to let them into Heaven.
posted by sic at 1:52 PM on April 7, 2006

Haven't followed the links, so take my answer with a lump of salt. Somewhere along the line I picked up that it had to do with Calvinist predestination: The "elect" were going to Heaven and uncoincincidentally, these were the same folks doing well on Earth. Hard Work -> Success -> Heaven.

Looks like trying to stack your own deck--what kind of omnipotent deity worth her salt is going to fall for that?--but logic and religion don't necessarily go hand in hand. Also 20+ year old memories, so I may well just be unintentionally full of shit.
posted by phrits at 7:38 PM on April 7, 2006

« Older Where to buy men's jeans in San Francisco?   |   Replacement for email? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.