It was within Protestantism that work was imbued with a moral quality and became a central defining characteristic of human existence. Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism (1904-5) described how work became a religious calling, a way of worshipping God. (The idea of a ‘calling’ is a religious idea and refers to a task set by God.)
To some extent the teachings of the early Protestant leaders were aimed at undermining the power of the Catholic Church which they believed had become corrupt. The Catholic Church advocated the idea that personal salvation could be achieved through good works set out by the Church. The Church even raised money by selling ‘indulgences’ which enabled people to buy forgiveness for sins.
Martin Luther (pictured), originally a Catholic friar himself, argued that the religious work of the monks and priests deserved no special status or influence. Luther accused the monks of being parasitic—living off the work of others. He claimed God’s grace was not restricted to the religious orders of the Church; that whatever one’s work was, it was a way of serving god. He argued that a divine calling could be followed no matter what one’s occupation. Thus elevated, non-religious work was no longer a punishment but was, in Luther’s thinking, a blessing, something sacred to be enjoyed.
John Calvin, a French theologian and Protestant, was also influential in shaping the Protestant ethic. He argued that God had already decided who would be blessed after death, even before they were born. Most people were born in a state of sin and were unable, through their own actions, to save themselves from damnation and hell. However, a few people, through God’s grace, were predestined to everlasting life and would be called out of the state of sin and blessed.
Calvinism eliminated the priests and the church hierarchy from the relationship between an individual and God. The individual stood alone before God. No intermediaries could interfere with what had already been predestined. It was because of this that “there arises at the very heart of the Calvinistic system a tremendous emphasis upon individualism”.
For Catholics, doing good works could lead to salvation. But for Calvinists, since God’s blessing was decided in advance, doing good works would not change one’s fate. However people who were blessed did good works so doing good works was a ‘sign’ that one had been blessed. People who wanted to convince themselves or others of their state of grace had to do good works and devote themselves to their calling. Good works were not the means to salvation but the “the means of assurance” of salvation.
Unlike the Catholics, Calvinists could not be forgiven for occasional lapses; rather such lapses were a sign that a person was not one of the elect. In particular, dislike of work was a sign that one was not one of the elect. So self-discipline was all the more important if they wanted to feel sure that they would be saved. Their work could at no time be sloppy or inconsistent. It had to be “methodical, disciplined, rational, uniform.”
For believers work was not done for the purpose of earning a living but to glorify God and demonstrate one’s state of grace. No matter how much money one had, one still had to work for more. Hard work served God and wasting time was therefore the deadliest of sins. Work had not only a moral value but a status value. Even if they lacked a work ethic and didn’t believe in the virtue of work, it was necessary for Protestants to work hard so as to be respected in the community, to persuade others that they were amongst God’s elect.
The idea of the moral value of work spread through Europe and to English Protestants. The English Puritans in particular, embraced the gospel of work. The work ethic helped to supply the new entrepreneurs with “sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God.”
Those Protestant sects which adopted Calvinism, including the Puritans in England and others in Germany, became known for their industry and their frugal lifestyles. Puritan writers embraced the moral value of work, the need to work long and hard and continuously: “Idleness also and negligence of our Callings, is sinful...” Only by hard work could one serve God and at the same time avoid the temptations of fleshly indulgence.
From England, the Puritans took this idea of work as a calling to America where, as in England, preachers made it a topic of sermons. “In terms of work values, it remained the keystone of Christian thinking about work until well into the eighteenth century.” Work had become a good in itself and “the core of the moral life”. (This was less so in the south, where slave labour was employed and wealthy landowners emulated an aristocratic way of life.)
Prominent sociologist C. Wright Mills noted that “the gospel of work has been central to the historical tradition of America, to its image of itself, and to the images the rest of the world have of America.” And Robert Eisenberger in his book on The Loss of the Work Ethic in America noted that:
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the personal work ethic had three strong intertwined components: a perceived moral duty as a worthwhile person to work hard; a willingness to exert high effort to achieve material well-being; and a pride in one’s work skills and in the quality of the product or service that resulted.