In my second blog on the Protestant Ethic, I discussed the changes in the theology of vocational calling brought about by the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther leveled the hierarchical Catholic theology of sacred over secular using Scripture (1 Peter 2:9). John Calvin embedded this theology in his systematic theological writings. Protestantism expanded from its foundations in central Germany and Swiss cantons into other western European regions, which included the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom.
Dr. Stephen Kalberg, Professor of Sociology at Boston University, translated from German to English Max Weber’s groundbreaking book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2011). Max Weber (1864-1920) was a Professor of Economics at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg. Weber published his seminal thesis in two parts, the first in 1904 and the second in 1905. In this third Protestant Ethic blog, I will explain Weber’s writings on “English Puritanism, which grew out of Calvinism, [and] provides the most consistent foundation for the idea of a vocational calling.” (page 158)
Most American associate Puritans with their November 11, 1620 landing at Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod (Massachusetts). Thanksgiving Day centers on the harvest meal celebrated after this small English Puritan community survived their first year in the new world. Weber focuses on the writings of Richard Baxter (1615-1691), an English church leader and Puritan theologian. He was a prolific writer and his publication of Christian Directory in 1673 “is the most comprehensive compendium of Puritan moral theology.” (page 159)
Calvin did not believe that the accumulation of wealth, per se, was a problem. Puritans condemned pursuing money and accumulating material goods without end. “What is actually morally reprehensible is, namely, the resting upon one’s possessions and the enjoyment of wealth … Only activity, not idleness and enjoyment, serves to increase His glory. … Hence, of all the sins, the wasting of time constitutes the first and, in principle, the most serious. A single life offers an infinitely short and precious space of time to ‘make firm’ one’s own election. … For Baxter, it is always those who are idle in their vocational callings who have no time for God, even on the day of rest.” (page 159-160)
Weber highlights two themes that weave together Baxter’s major treatise on Christian vocation. “First, work is the tried and proven means for the practice of asceticism,” (page 160) defined as “an extreme taming, disciplining, channeling, sublimating, and organizing of the believer’s spontaneous human drives and wants (the status naturae) by a set of values.” (page 416) Both Luther and Calvin fervently wrote against monastic beliefs that advocated self-denial to achieve salvation. Puritanism reintroduced asceticism but in direct contrast to the Catholic theology that placed secular work below sacred. Work became sacred.
“Second, in addition and above all, as ordained by God, the purpose of life itself involves work. … An unwillingness to work is a sign that one is not among the saved.” (page 161) And a sign of being saved is the fruits of work: “its economic profitability for the individual.” (page 163) How do Puritans rectify their theology that accumulating wealth is a sin and economic profitability is a sign of salvation? It all depends on the telos of the work. “Wealth is only suspect when it tempts the devout in the direction of lazy restfulness and a sinful enjoyment of life. The striving for riches becomes suspect only if carried out with the end in mind of leading a carefree and merry life once wealth is acquired. If, however, riches are attained within the dutiful performance of one’s vocational calling, striving for them is not only morally permitted but expected.” (page 164)
The combination of ascetic lifestyle and hard, profitable work caused wealth accumulation. Once wealth is amassed, the worker is not expected to rest and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Puritans were expected to continue to work profitably. Thus, Puritan vocational theology founded upon Calvinism blossomed into the spirit of capitalism.
Almost 400 years ago, Puritans landed in the new world and unleased their vocational theology on a vast landscape of untamed natural resources. Their theology formed the national character of the United States which is the subject of my fourth blog on Max Weber’s classic book.