Protestant Work Ethic, Capitalism, and America’s Founding

It is what made this country great. Max Weber’s thesis recently got a significant boost in the Philippines. Look at the evidence in this post.

In his book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05, translated into English in 1930), Max Weber first posited the thesis that the Protestant work ethic has opened the door to prosperity through capitalism for the nations that practice it: northern Europe; the U.K.; the United States; and presumably Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  What about other nations not historically known for this religious element?

It can work for them.

In an article titled “The ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ Really Does Fight Poverty” in Christianity Today, written by Lincoln Lau, director of International Care Ministries, and Bruce Wydick, professor of economics at the University of San Francisco, they summarize a study about the Philippines in this way:

Three years ago, IPA asked ICM to run its normal four-month Transform program in 80 randomly selected communities, incorporating its spiritual values program along with its secular health and livelihood program.  Another 80 communities were to run only secular components (health and livelihood) in a government center.  A third group of 80 communities ran only spiritual aspects of the program.  And a fourth group of 80 communities – a control group – received no intervention at all.  ICM was comfortable running this study since it has a backlog of thousands of Filipino pastors who would like to run a Transform program, but it only has resources to run the program in 300 communities at a time.

Six months after the conclusion of the Transform program, IPA surveyed all 6,276 families.  Those who received Protestant evangelical training experienced increases in household income by 9.2 percent when compared to those in the experiment who did not receive the religious training.  The values lessons also appear to have improved hygiene and “grit,” or persistence through life’s difficulties.  Researchers believe that the increased income is caused by the participants working harder and working in higher-income activities.

Let’s apply these positive results to our own nation in a short historical overview.

Lost in the shuffle in the left-right divide nowadays is the historical fact that religious Protestants founded this country in the seventeenth century.  How religious were they? They refused to allow anyone to serve in local governments who would not forswear the “papacy” and allegiance to Rome.  Record after record proves it.

Were they religious bigots?  Maybe by our modern standards, but all the provinces, which morphed into states, were always nervous about attacks from France and its Indian allies, for they wreaked havoc in New England from Canada often enough.  They were genuinely afraid of spies when the French Huguenots settled among them.  They were also nervous about a Spanish invasion. Even a small Spanish flotilla could do a lot of damage. Thus, King William of England (his queen was Mary) sent a shipload of gunpowder to Virginia because he had declared war on France (King William’s War or the Nine Years War from 1688 to 1697 in North America).  The Council and House of Burgesses had to scramble to built storage facilities for it.  To honor the monarchs, they founded William and Mary College in 1693.  The Quakers up in Pennsylvania got the same message from the king; they said they were concerned, though it did not touch them directly.  Yet they too made their government officials affirm that they put the monarchs in the primary place and recanted any “popery.” They too were scared. It was militarily, politically, and psychologically impossible to allow Catholics to serve in any official capacity up and down the country.

It is best to take each generation in its historical context; then we can avoid chronological snobbery and arrogance.

These people’s descendants fought the War of Independence and wrote up the Constitution.  France was no longer an enemy so they could afford to write that there would be no Test Act (Article Six), which would have said or implied Catholics were excluded. But make no mistake: they never lost the Protestant ethos and ethic.  Some may have gone in a more non-orthodox direction (e.g., Jefferson and Franklin), but even those two maintained a basic belief in God from a Protestant point of view.  Many others who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were serious and devout Protestant Christians (and one Catholic signed the Declaration).

It is my private theory that one factor in the founders’ framing a small and laconic and razor-thin Constitution is that by religious instinct and training and the air they breathed, they did not like a system of many laws because it smacked of medieval Christendom, and some knew about Islamic sharia. And, yes, they read the Old Testament and the New, and observed that the New stripped away countless religious laws. Streamlined simplicity.

Have we left their legal austerity far behind in our massive federal law today?  Yes.  The gigantic federal bureaucracy violates the spirit of this country.  Gradually we are losing this country and our liberties by suffocation.

Not long after the Constitution was ratified in 1788 and the Bill of Rights was, at the very end of 1791, in the next generation, Cornelius Vanderbilt was born in 1794, when Washington was president, and died in 1877, when Grant was president.  Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835 (in Scotland), when Jackson was president, and died in 1919, when Wilson was president.  J.P. Morgan was born in 1837, when Jackson was still president, and died in 1913 during the Wilson presidency, the president who sneered at the Constitution.  John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839, when Van Buren was president, and died in 1937, when FDR was transforming this country. Henry Ford was born in 1863 during the Civil War, and died in 1947, to see the end of WWII – just to name those few.

In their lifespans, America went from hugging the eastern coast to conquering a nation all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  America opened up prosperity that the world had never seen before in just over a hundred years. Astonishing.

What about economic exploitation? It happened, and the entrepreneurs should have worked with labor; then business would not have slowed down. But consider this: These super-wealthy were wildly philanthropic–donating what would add up to billions today.

None of this accounts for the small yeoman farmers who moved westward (many of your ancestors were part of this Manifest Destiny).  The common man could make it without being part of the old European aristocracy or gentry that had swallowed up much of the land for centuries.  He could own land in his own right.  My second great grandfather, William Ryland, settled in Ohio from Pennsylvania in 1815, and in the 1830s, he was part of local county government.  His father, John Ryland, fought in the Revolutionary War as a wagon master.  America solved her problems locally, without undue dependence on the nation’s capital.

William’s son, also named William, married in Ohio and soon moved to Missouri. They had several kids, two of whom he named Martin Luther Ryland and Benjamin Franklin Ryland. His first wife died, and he and his youngest, Benjamin, moved to Kansas. Then he married again and had two children, one of whom was my grandfather.

Independence.  Pioneer spirit.  All born from their reading of Scripture. No wonder many believe God is behind this nation.

What about the Indians, as the pioneers moved westward? Sometimes injustice was done against them, but in the continent north of Rio Gran River, including Canada, there were only about 4 million at most, (not the much bandied and false number of 50-100 million, which is absurd on its face). One state with only 4 million in it would be sparsely populated today. Pioneers barely saw Indians, except maybe in passing.

It could also be pointed out that Catholics and Jews and Chinese were part of this American story, and that is true.  They were.  Let’s celebrate it.  It could be pointed out that slaves were part of the story, too.  That’s true.  They were.  However, the vast majority of Americans from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries were Protestants and did not own slaves.  The Protestant storyline dominates all other religious ones by a wide margin. And most of the slaves and their free descendants converted to one Protestant denomination or another.

Why is this Protestant work ethic important?  Lau and Wydick state that other religions did not do as well in the experiment in the Philippines.  No, it is not the only factor in prosperity, but it is an important one.

What is this Protestant message boiled down?  Hard work in secular employment is a call from God.  Serve others in your work.  That’s the practical outworking of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let’s not forget about the men and women of yesteryear who put together the framework–the founding–of this country from a religious point of view.  Let’s fight a certain side of the political spectrum – the left – that seeks to secularize America.  Let’s refuse the left-wing bigotry that manifests its ugly head against the Protestant males (and females) who lived the work ethic and the spirit of capitalism for the past 400 years.

Thank you, men and women back then.


Timeline of Renaissance and Reformation

Outline of Renaissance and Reformation

William Penn Proclaims Liberty of Conscience in 1701 Colonial Pennsylvania

“Loyal Subjects, Staunch Protestants, and True Patriots”

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