One perspective was the materialist viewpoint which stated that the belief system, called the Protestant ethic, grew out of changes in the economic structure and the need for values to support new ways of behavior. Anthony (1977) attributes this view to Karl Marx. The other perspective, delineated by Max Weber (1904, 1905), viewed changes in the economic structure as an outgrowth of shifts in theological beliefs. Regardless of the viewpoint, it is evident that a rapid expansion in commerce and the rise of industrialism coincided with the Protestant Reformation (Rose, 1985).
Bernstein (1988), in an argument supporting the materialist viewpoint, enumerated three sixteenth century trends which probably contributed to the support by Luther and Calvin of diligence: (1) a rapid population increase of Germany and Western Europe, (2) inflation, and (3) a high unemployment rate. Probably the most serious of these was the rapid expansion in population. Between 1500 and 1600, the population of Germany increased by 25% and the British population increased by 40% (Bernstein, 1988). In the cities, the increases were even greater as people from rural areas were displaced by enclosure of large tracts of land for sheep farming.
In addition, the import of large quantities of silver and gold from Mexico and Peru contributed to inflation in general price levels of between 300% and 400%, and even higher inflation in food prices (Bernstein, 1988). Along with the growth in population and the inflation problems, unemployment was estimated at 20% in some cities (Bernstein, 1988). People without jobs became commonplace on the streets of cities, begging and struggling to survive.
European cities acted to alleviate the problems of unemployment and begging on the streets by passing laws which prohibited begging. The general perception of the time was that work was available for those who wanted to work, and that beggars and vagrants were just lazy. The reality was that the movement of people into the cities far exceeded the capacity of the urban areas to provide jobs. The theological premise that work was a necessary penance for original sin caused increased prejudice toward those without work. Bernstein (1988) suggested that a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic realities facing the poor contributed to the theological development of the Protestant ethic.
From a marxist view, what actually occurred was the development of a religious base of support for a new industrial system which required workers who would accept long hours and poor working conditions (Anthony, 1977; Berenstein, 1988). Berenstein did not accuse the theological leaders of the Protestant Reformation of deliberately constructing a belief system which would support the new economic order, but proposed that they did misconstrue the realities of the poor and the unemployed of their day.
From the perspective of Max Weber (1904, 1905), the theological beliefs came first and change in the economic system resulted. Motivation of persons to work hard and to reinvest profits in new business ventures was perceived as an outcome primarily of Calvinism. Weber further concluded that countries with belief systems which were predominantly Protestant prospered more under capitalism than did those which were predominantly Catholic (Rose, 1985).
excerpt from - Historical Context of the Work Ethic
Roger B. Hill, Ph.D.
© 1992, 1996
Anthony, P. D. (1977). The ideology of work. Great Britain: Tavistock.
Bernstein, P. (1988). The work ethic: Economics, not religion. Business Horizons, 31(3), 8-11.
Rose, M. (1985). Reworking the work ethic: Economic values and socio-cultural politics. London: Schocken.
Weber, M. (1904, 1905). Die protestantische ethik und der geist des kapitalismus. Archiv fur sozialwissenschaft. 20-21. Translated by T. Parsons. The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Charles Scibner's Sons.