Puritan social justice (aka Protestant work ethic)

In part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant work ethic, we look at why the Puritans were the first powerful, politically organized group in England to try to wipe out poverty.

First, 16th-century Puritans, like many northern European Protestants, were strongly influenced by humanism. Humanist philosophers, like Erasmus, promoted the idea that all human life had dignity and worth and that human reason could discern right and wrong. Humans didn’t need to rely on revelation from the supernatural, from God, to figure out how to live their lives. Humans were able to reason out which form of society and government best promoted human happiness and then to construct that society and government, and were even obligated to do so. Not using our reason was an affront to the God which endowed us with it.

Now the English Puritans believed in the individual. Their religious beliefs were centered on the individual person seeking God’s wisdom and receiving God’s grace. The only real way to learn about God and what God wanted was to read the Bible. The Puritans, like all Protestants of the time, thought the Catholic method of having a priest read a portion of the Bible to an assembled congregation was a travesty. The passage was chosen in Rome to fill out the church year, it was read out in Latin to people who didn’t understand it, and the individuals in the congregation felt no connection to it. To the Puritans, every person had to be able to read the Bible for themselves, choosing passages based on their own unique spiritual needs, or based on insights gained from sermons or Biblical study groups. Only by reading God’s word, in silent contemplation, might one receive an understanding of God’s will, and the realization that they had received God’s grace–salvation from Hell. Reading the Bible was the only path to discovering one’s salvation (or damnation).

This meant, astoundingly, that the 16th-century Puritans believed everyone–even girls and women–must be taught to read. This was a wild, liberal, revolutionary plank in their platform. Universal literacy was undreamt of at the time. But the Puritans demanded it; it was the only way people could understand God’s will and the state of their own souls.

Combine this religious conviction with the humanist conviction that all people have value, and you get the Puritan belief that everyone must have the chance to better themselves, both spiritually and materially. For if you are poor, then you have no home, no Bible, and no education. You can never read the Bible, and you can never be anything but a burden on others. So the poor are damned, both on this earth and in the afterlife. On earth, they are disdained and mistreated, and they bring others down with them. In the afterlife, they are damned.

Eradicating poverty, then, was just the first step in creating a government in England which allowed people to live dignified and productive and religious lives. If people are taught to read, they can do business, and make money for themselves, and buy a Bible, and read it and receive God’s grace. At this time in England, capitalism as we know it was just gathering its first steam. Merchants and other businessmen were able to build considerable wealth.

Most of the early Puritans were city-dwellers, mostly in London, and they were self-employed businessmen who were doing pretty well–often very well. They were eventually able to fund the company that sponsored the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630). They felt themselves on the cutting edge of a new world, wherein anyone could start a business and prosper if only they were hard-working, literate, and righteous. Everyone should take that path. Poverty should not be encouraged or tolerated.

Next time: Failure in England and determination in America

4 thoughts on “Puritan social justice (aka Protestant work ethic)

  1. Brilliant stuff! I’m doing an ou course and this is really helping to fill in the gaps in my knowledge on history and religious movements. Thanks


  2. Well, you should point out WHY the Puritans were the first to come up with universal literacy.
    Prior to 1453, the dream of universal literacy was literally impossible to actually realize.

    People didn’t read prior to 1453 for the same reason people don’t fly helicopters today – the vehicle is too expensive and the skill is therefore not worth cultivating. Prior to the printing press, creating a single Bible took a team of literate men literally months, sometimes years. One Bible could cost more than the cathedral in which it was housed.

    Within 50 years, the printing press dropped the cost of a book to 2% its former value, but now the fixed cost of creating a wholly literate society has to be factored in. Most people lived their whole lives without learning how to read and were quite comfortable. They had to be convinced of the need to learn this particular skill, and everyone had to be taught. Where would all the necessary schools and teachers come from?

    It would take quite a while to ramp up production.
    Millions of people, not very much time.

    One of the reasons America hit 100% literacy from its very earliest days was
    a) you couldn’t be Protestant unless you could read and
    b) mostly Protestants emigrated to the colonies and
    c) Protestants largely ignored the illiterate Indians.

    Furthermore, poverty became an issue precisely because Henry VIII destroyed all the monasteries. Once the monasteries were gone, the poor were very visible in England because there was no longer a Catholic monastic system to care for them.

    Thus, the English were the ones who were first forced to address the problem of the poor – they did it by creating the poor-houses, forerunner of the welfare state which Protestant Bismarck would eventually inflict on Germany, and FDR would inflict on us.


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