One of the most influential and controversial books of our century was Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930). Beginning with the observation that the rise of middleclass trade occurred chiefly among Protestants, Weber set out to explore the connections between the “the Protestant ethic” and “the spirit of modern capitalism.” He found many connections: a belief that one can serve God in one’s worldly calling, a tendency to live disciplined and even ascetic lives, a spirit of individualism, emphasis on working hard, and a good conscience about making money. Although Weber was highly selective in the data he chose to consider, his analysis uncovered much that is important about the Protestant movement.

The so-called Weber thesis produced some unfortunate results, however. Protestants have been pictured as elevating money-making to the highest goal in life, as viewing the amassing of wealth as a moral obligation, and as approving virtually every kind of business competition. A look at Puritan attitudes and practices toward money will show that the Weber thesis was a good idea that ended up seriously perverting the truth.

Is Money Good or Bad?

When Martin Luther became a monk, he took a vow of poverty. This reflected a long-standing Catholic view that poverty is inherently virtuous for a person. But the Reformers—including Luther himself—did not see it that way. The starting point in their thinking about money and possessions was that these things are good in principle.

The Puritans agreed with Calvin that “money in itself is good.” When Samuel Willard eulogized John Hull at his funeral, he saw no contradiction between the merchant’s having been “a saint upon earth” who lived “above the world” and his ...

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