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September 13, 2021

The Protestant Work Ethic

One of the great puzzles of history is why some societies thrive and others do not. Capitalism emerged in the late Middle Ages and became an engine of growth that propelled northern Europe into a world power. But why did capitalism develop there and then? Could the Bible have had something to do with it?

German scholar Max Weber thought it did. Weber examined the religious history of Europe and published his theory in a landmark book called, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued that European Protestants more than other religious groups cultivated wealth. Among other factors, Weber credited Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. In his translation, Luther used the German word Beruf (meaning “vocation”) in a new way. The term normally referred to a religious vocation, like becoming a monk or a nun. But Luther used the word to refer to nonreligious work, like carpentry or farming. Because of this, everyday work was given a new sense of importance. Weber’s conclusions have been controversial since its publication in 1905. An alternative theory focuses on high rates of literacy as a primary engine of growth. Literacy led to improved work skills and higher prosperity. Since Protestantism placed high value on reading the Bible, it was a primary motive behind the push for literacy. Largely Protestant regions like Holland and northern Germany are cited as examples. At least according to these two theories, the Bible had a significant role in the development of capitalism and the way modern people think about work.

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