The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Other Writings

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One of the central disputes in Protestantism had long been that between the Calvinists and the Arminians. The Calvinist believed that every person had been chosen by God in the beginning to be either saved or damned, and that there was nothing anybody could do to change his decision. These "elect" individuals could not be certain of their salvation, but they might be identified by their tendency to live lives of piety and goodness. In contrast, the followers of Arminius thought that each individual could hope to gain salvation by repenting his sins and by asking God to bestow his Grace. In the United Kingdom, Calvinism was centrally been found in Scots and Ulster Presbyterianism, while Arminianism had ruled among Anglicans and Methodists.

From the great revivals of the 1850s steadily until the Great War, this great divide began to dissipate. A new division was emerging between "liberals" and "conservatives". Nevertheless, the old disputes limped on, still quite strenuously among Ulster Presbyterians who fought a bitter if obscure theological battle over church music. So when a list of "fundamental principles" was formulated to unite conservative Christianity, these American "fundamentalists" tiptoed carefully to avoid stirring up the old dispute. They made no mention of individuals turning to or putting trust in God, and no mention of predestination.

Weber's most famous study has its focus in the Calvinists. Calvin established a new kind of saintliness for merchants and artisans living first of all in Geneva, but later in London, Amsterdam and Edinburgh and then further afield. The piety of the Calvinists had strong echoes of an older piety found in the best of the monasteries. Like the monks, the life of a dutiful Calvinist was one of hard work and diligence, frugality and seriousness with little frivolity. Since everything was pre-ordained, this life of obedience and frugality could not be hoped to bring salvation. Rather, it was a mere subservience to God's Law which, in Calvin's system, replaced the Rule of the great monastic leaders. Calvinism also claimed the right of the Elect to rule over the non-Elect in a theocratic political system.

The monks, in pursuing pious obedience, poverty and chastity had inadvertently made their houses and their orders rich. So it was with the pious businessmen. They too lived frugally and worked hard. Without really intending to, the Calvinists made themselves and their households rich. This was the so-called "Protestant ethic" identified by Weber as giving birth to capitalism.

After the Great War, Calvinism slipped finally from view, overtaken, diluted and absorbed by the Arminian doctrine that now became Protestant "conservative" or "evangelical" orthodoxy. Protestants conservatives were now universally enjoined to turn to God, to confess their sins and put their trust in a God who would reciprocate by offering salvation. The few people who still called themselves Calvinists merely emphasised the last part of this process, the positive activity of God. There were still other movements within Protestantism, the enlightened theology of the Quakers or the Unitarians, for example, and the High Church found in Anglicanism, both of which, however, were more important as belonging to the liberal camp. But it was now a different theological world.


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