Protestantism and Capitalism

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Protestantism and the Rise of Capitalism

It has been asserted that the Protestant Reformation, a Christian transformation movement beginning in the 16th century, may have impacted Western European thinking in a way that changed society in a fashion that extended well beyond the church. This paper will examine whether the Protestant movement played a role in the rise of Capitalism. A German Marxist economist, Max Weber, dubbed the term “The Protestant Ethic” which has become common today. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1904, Weber theorizes that Protestantism had a significant influence on the development capitalism in Europe and that this had important repercussions on shaping modern society (Pierotti, 2003). In this work, Weber defines capitalism as an economic system that depends on the rational organization of free wage earners (Pierotti, 2003). Weber defines Protestant Ethic as a moral code stressing hard work and asceticism and that the combination of asceticism and worldliness facilitated the rise of capitalistic productive efficiency (Stark, 2005). Weber intimates that capitalism originated in Europe since Protestantism was the only religion that emphasized a morality regarding restraint of material consumption while at the same time seeking to accumulate wealth (Stark, 2005). As well, Stark (2005) says restraint on spending was previously seen in terms of asceticism and condemnations of commerce. However, the rise of Protestantism created a culture of entrepreneurs who valued accumulation and the pursuit of wealth, which was a key feature of capitalism since capitalism relies on the creation of a consumer culture (Stark, 2005). Sixteenth century Protestants challenged the authority of the Church and the Pope, as initiated by Martin Luther who posted his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg door in 1517 (Gonzalez, 2010, 22). Luther shocked the clergy in his bold statements against Papal authority and attacked the practice of papal indulgences and abuses in the Catholic Church (Gonzalez, 2010, 22). Noll (2000) believes that a critical turning point in the history of Christianity occurred during the 16th century, of which Martin Luther and John Calvin were instrumental in bringing about radical changes. Protestantism and the emerging modern nation-states and the modern economy transformed European Christendom (Noll, 2000, 157). The Protestant Reformation marked a time where medieval foundations such as the papacy, the Empire and feudal system was making way for new traditions, including capitalism (Gonzalez, 2010, 123). Calvinism would go on to survive and thrive throughout the next several centuries to the present. Calvinism was carried on and transformed into Methodism in the 1700’s. John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement, was a Calvinist but departed from orthodox Calvinism (Gonzalez, 2010, 215). In the 19th century, protestant revivals carried on through revivalist camp meeting held by figures such as Dwight L. Moody. Eventually Protestant liberalism emerged as an attempt to gain wide acceptance among the American intellectual elite (Gonzalez, 2010, 256). This liberalism made a significant impact on pitting the urban middle class against the poor (Gonzalez, 2010, 257). According to the economic liberal beliefs in the early 19th century, the law of supply and demand was adequate in regulating the marketplace (Gonzalez, 2010, 257). Calvinists believe in an ascetic life that involved denying worldly pleasure and thought there was nothing wrong with getting rich through hard work. If they did accumulate riches through hard work, they felt strongly that it was their duty to reinvest the riches rather than enjoying them. Calvinists believed that individuals who had good material fortune were considered to be part of God’s chosen elect and were thereby individuals of high moral character (Kilcullen, 1996). This led to rationalist thinking. Weber argues that...
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