Daily Devotion: The Legacy of the Protestant Work Ethic

Are we too leisure oriented, or is our cyber world turning us into workaholics? Has technology brought lasting benefits to workers? Should employment cut so deeply into personal time and family life? These and other questions arise often and illustrate the controversy that surrounds what many of us do most: work.

To understand why we face such issues today, it’s helpful to rehearse some recent history to uncover the roots of our modern concept of work.

The Protestant Reformation, a time of great upheaval in Europe, played a pivotal role in a number of respects. The enormous challenges and changes of that period affected political and religious institutions and impacted the development of Western civilization.

Two 16th-century religious reformers, whose influence is felt all over modern society, are Martin Luther and John Calvin. The latter is credited, rightly or wrongly, with the origins of what has become known as the Protestant work ethic, a term closely associated with America’s rise to economic and political power in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Culture Clash

The Protestant Reformation revealed the underlying tension between the physical and spiritual realms of human existence. Previous cultures had not generally regarded work as having intrinsic spiritual value and, in some cases, had even seen it as demeaning and the domain of the slave class. At the time of Luther, the dominant Roman Catholic church culture placed a higher value on the monastic life of prayer and contemplation than on manual labor. However, in line with the feudal system of the Middle Ages, it affirmed the value of such labor by equating a person’s calling with his vocation. As an Augustinian monk, Luther taught that individuals should remain in the vocation and station of life they had when called, because God had placed them there; and they should earn an income to meet personal needs rather than to accumulate wealth.

At the same time, Luther objected publicly to the church’s sale of what was in effect a certificate of human good works to placate God for sins committed. Specifically, the sale of indulgences was intended to provide relief from purgatorial punishment. Thus Luther began a movement that was to challenge the church in more ways than perhaps he intended. In so doing he introduced novel ideas about the diminished value of works in everyday life.

Luther’s fear of eternal torment led him to develop a doctrine of being set right with God (“justification”) by faith alone, as opposed to any such relief being a reward from God for good works, which was the basis of indulgences. The idea of being justified by faith alone allowed him to accept his sinful nature and yet have a positive view of the afterlife as a gift of God’s grace. As Luther said, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world.” For Luther, any discussion of the good that might come from human work and effort was eclipsed by the benefits of faith alone.

Calvin, on the other hand, took the doctrine in a different direction. Rather than separate man’s spiritual future from his earthly labor, Calvin combined the two. His attitude toward work developed from his revolutionary interpretation of predestination. According to this doctrine, God calls certain people (the elect) to salvation, applying grace to them, while He rejects others and consigns them to eternal damnation.

This thinking became central to establishing the worth of human endeavor. Since the called stood shoulder to shoulder with the uncalled, how could people know whether they were of the elect? Unlike Luther, Calvin saw much value in worldly activity: God could receive more glory by the conscious good works of the Christian. Because only the elect could glorify God, their success in human endeavors not only contributed to God’s glory but also served as evidence of His calling.

As this idea matured it became known as “covenant theology.” God’s grace was given only to the elect, and this meant in effect that the one called had entered into a covenant or contract with God that ensured salvation. However, as the term covenant implies, there were conditions that bound both parties. God’s part of the bargain was the promise of salvation, while the elect’s part was the promise to abide by certain moral obligations, by which he was assured that he was indeed one of the elect.

With Calvin there grew a new theology that attached dignity to all occupations and assured the right to choose one’s work. Closely related to this was the concept that the called were to build God’s kingdom on earth by their hard work, the accumulation of wealth, and its constant reinvestment.

Calvin’s approach to wealth has sparked much debate regarding the free-market system and whether the Protestant ethic was the womb from which modern capitalism was born.

As Calvinism took hold in western Europe, so did the concept that work was good and that profit from hard work was to be held in high regard. In fact, Calvin’s approach to wealth has sparked much debate regarding the free-market system and whether the Protestant ethic was the womb from which modern capitalism was born.

A New Asceticism

Contributing to the discussion of the modern work ethic and the rise of capitalism was sociologist Max Weber. Weber noted that Protestants, especially Calvinists, played a prominent role in early-20th-century business success. He noted that “business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labor, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, [were] overwhelmingly Protestant.”

He also commented that a related characteristic of modern life had its origins in a religious trait that predated Protestantism: “One of the fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism, and not only of that but of all modern culture [is that] rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the [Christian] calling was born . . . from the spirit of Christian asceticism”—not the asceticism practiced by monastic withdrawal from the world, but by severe self-regulation in the world.

One of the ways in which Protestantism differed from Catholicism was that it did not insert a priest between the believer and God. The Catholic was assured the comfort of forgiveness, atonement and release through the sacrament of absolution as administered by the priest. The Protestant had no such recourse. The Calvinistic Protestant believed his lot was to add to the glory of God on earth by consistent achievement in the course of daily life. Living under grace meant that every moment and every action must be guided by the constant pressure of the thought processes. It is not difficult to understand how this would lead to a more ascetic outlook on life.

Calvinism became the trunk of a tree from which grew different regional and cultural offshoots and variations. Each had accompanying ascetic tendencies that translated into an approach to work.

Shifting Sands

Over the three centuries following the Protestant Reformation, Calvinistic ideas about work underwent a gradual change. If it was to serve as evidence of divine calling, both to individuals and to the world at large, “work” could not be confined to a job but had to embrace all of life. Spiritual election could thus be demonstrated not only in tasks that brought financial reward but also by political activism. The ascendancy in England of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) encouraged such activism among Protestant reformers. Their aim was to “purify” the national Church of England after the heavy Catholic hand of Queen Mary had been lifted. Elizabeth, however, held more moderate views, and the purifying element became politically marginalized.

Then James I became king. He and his Stuart successors were outwardly Protestant but more than tolerant toward Catholicism, a fact that alarmed England’s predominantly Protestant population. The less patient among them, labeled Separatists, departed the Church of England and in 1620 moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts, via exile in Holland. But a much larger group continued to work within the political system and within the national church for spiritual purity and became firmly established as Puritans. In the late 1620s, some of this group also emigrated and established themselves in New England.

In accordance with their ascetic approach, the way of life of this first wave of New England Puritans was austere and work centered—an approach we recognize today as the Protestant work ethic. It ostensibly stood for hard work, honesty and justice, though many adherents throughout the New World depended heavily on slave labor and indentured servitude over the next two hundred years.

Following the upheaval of the Civil War and the official end of slavery, the core concept underlying work began to be transformed.

By [the Civil War’s] end, secularism and industrial development had combined to affect religious attitudes toward work.

Valuing the Secular

Weber noted that as the Protestant work ethic developed, the nature of work changed and capitalism took hold in Europe and Britain, and later in America. The Protestant ethic of the 18th and 19th centuries was indeed a major factor in the development of the New World. It was built on a faulty foundation, however—a foundation that could not support it in the face of massive cultural change.

While the reformers’ frustrations with the church are understandable, two wrongs don’t make a right. Instead of going to the Word of God and questioning the legitimacy of the church’s theological foundations on that basis, Luther and Calvin fell into the trap of allowing personal dispositions to influence their theological concepts.

Luther’s doctrine of salvation by faith alone was an outgrowth of his fear of punishment for sin, while Calvin’s doctrine of predestination allowed him to embrace the temporal world in a way the church had not previously. But obsession with wealth as a sign of God’s acceptance can ultimately only play on the negative aspects of human nature. As it happens, Scripture substantiates neither doctrine.

Today’s widespread secularism, for its part, leaves people to decide which values constitute the basis for human happiness and fulfillment. Given that humankind cannot arrive at a consensus as to what these values should be, secularism provides only a shifting, insecure foundation.

The Protestant work ethic was built on a faulty foundation, which could not support it in the face of massive cultural change.

Biblical Work Ethic

Where the Protestant work ethic purported to be biblically based, a cursory reading of Scripture shows otherwise. It’s true, of course, that work is an important factor in the human realm. Throughout the Bible, people are admonished to work and be diligent. What is important to note, however, is that scriptural references to work are given a clear context: the development of moral strength or excellence. In other words, character.

The Bible contains a wide-ranging set of moral guidelines that, when followed, regulate all aspects of our lives and provide the basis of character.

Conducting ourselves according to this moral code makes a sense of fulfillment and lasting happiness more achievable. These guidelines can be summed up in the simple directive of loving our neighbor as ourselves (Romans 13:9). When this principle is followed, employers will show—and put into practice—genuine concern for the well-being of their workers, and employees will provide honest, diligent effort. Society as a whole can only benefit.