The final installment of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic is here. Let’s examine the idea that the prosperity of the United States was founded on Puritan hard work.
We’ve seen that the Puritans left England when their ambitious social reforms—most notably eradicating poverty—came to nothing in the early 1600s. England was in the grips of an anti-Puritan campaign originally launched by King James by the time the Puritans set sail for America in 1630, and there seemed to be no hope of reforming any part of English society.
When they arrived in America, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony with its headquarters in Boston, the Puritans did indeed work hard. But this was not really because they wanted to implement their radical social reforms. It was because hard work was required to settle the land—at least in an English way.
Remember that the Puritans were almost entirely city people. They were not farmers. Even those who had lived in the country had not been farmers. So when they arrived in America, and suddenly had to become farmers, it was extremely difficult for them. Three things were against them: first, the land was not great, being rocky and not too rich; second, they had no farming knowledge; third, they refused to adopt American farming strategies. If they had been willing to farm like the Massachusetts people did, life would have been much easier.
There are many howling complaints from early Puritan settlers about the inexplicable injustice of heathen Americans seemingly laying around all day, doing only the smallest amount of farm work, yet bringing in bountiful harvests while the God-fearing Puritans broke their backs from sunup to sundown without ever having much of a food surplus.
Puritan farmers did adopt some American tools and techniques, but mostly they struggled along, never doing very well. So that hard work was not part of a solid plan, or “work ethic,” but a reaction to stark necessity and a fruit of ignorance.
Puritans did do away with holidays in America. In England it had been impossible to block out the hordes of rabble-rousing celebrants on the scores of religious holidays, but in America they could impose a strict policy of forsaking “the observation of days.” All days were alike, all days were holy because they were given by God, and holidays were banned as excuses to get drunk and fornicate (which is, in truth. what they were to most people at that time). But Puritans did not work 365 days a year. Many days of fasting and prayer were called in Puritan Massachusetts, when problems were facing the colony, and many days of thanksgiving were celebrated in good times. On these days work was dropped or minimized. And on Sunday, of course, no work was done.
Another contributing factor to the “work ethic” was that the early Puritans (1620 to about 1684) did not engage in the slave trade in any substantive way. Rich households included enslaved Native Americans, and sometimes enslaved Africans or black Americans. But most households were too poor to purchase slave labor, and some felt it was wrong to avoid the work God gave you. Therefore, New Englanders necessarily worked more hours than, say, Virginians, who almost immediately adopted the plantation system and staffed it with indentured servants and enslaved people, and who practiced Anglicanism in its impure state, celebrating many holidays.
If the Puritans worked hard in 17th-century New England, then, it was by necessity rather than choice. This hard work kept the vast majority of families living hand-to-mouth from harvest to harvest without ever creating a lot of wealth. And Puritan farmers could not be said to have worked harder than Virginian indentured servants, enslaved people, or yeoman farmers. All farm work was hard in colonial America (for non-native Americans, at least).
So the Puritans did bring hard work to America, in the sense that they brought with them a way of farming uninformed by experience and unsuited to their new land. But it was the same hard work done in other colonial English settlements, and it was not part of a plan, or work ethic. And it is difficult to say how this hard work created a legacy that later New Englanders, and then all Americans, tapped into as they built the nation. Then why does the myth of the Protestant work ethic exist? There are two reasons.
Reason 1: In this situation, where life was hard and success elusive, some people did well. Outsiders–non-puritans–looking on decided that doing well must be a sign of God’s favor. The idea that material success was a sign of God’s approval had existed amongst Puritans back in England, and was applied to America, even though it was definitely not part of Puritan religious belief. Pastors constantly reiterated the Puritan theological rejection of the idea that anyone could earn God’s grace with their work.
Most Puritans, then, worked hard in order to avoid being singled out by others as lazy and not doing their fair share to keep settlements afloat. This was an anxiety about community, about being excluded or avoided by fellows, more than an anxiety about God.
Reason 2: It was a 19th-century reaction to Irish Catholic immigration. As “hordes” of Catholic immigrants “flooded” American cities, the usual aversion amongst prejudiced native-born Americans to any immigrants except one’s own sainted ancestors kicked in, and the largely Protestant home crowd let loose with insults about the Irish newcomers’ laziness, criminality, vice, and Catholicism. How unlike our own Protestant ancestors, said ubiquitous editorial voices, who came here and built a nation with their unceasing toil! They never asked for charity! They never sent their children begging in the streets! It’s Catholicism itself that is to blame, came the conclusion; it is a pestilent religion that breeds vice. Prejudice, then, did its work, and created a Protestant, nay Puritan, work ethic.
So between these two reasons, the Puritan fear of failing and being rejected by their community, and the anti-Catholic/anti-immigrant stance of 19th-century Americans, a myth was born. It was unfortunate in the 17th century, harmful in the 19th century, and if it is truly the reason why Americans work so many more hours than employees in other developed nations, it is still harmful today.