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

Truth v. Myth: The Protestant Work Ethic

Welcome to part 1 of my Truth v. Myth series on the powerful idea of the “Protestant work ethic,” which has often been supposed to have built this country.

The Protestants described in this phrase are the 17th-century Puritans in New England who, by virtue of their dedication to hard work, long hours, and thrift, are described as not only increasing their own wealth and power, but instilling within all later Americans the idea that hard work is a virtue that always pays off.

The Protestant work ethic has been hauled out since the 19th century to describe “uniquely” American virtues. The innovations of the Industrial Age that poured out of the U.S. were seen as the result not just of American smarts, but of Americans’ ability to work longer and harder than the people of any other nation. We work hard, and we reap the benefits. Today, in the 21st century, the work ethic is almost always included in discussions of the fact that U.S. workers have the least amount of holiday/vacation/sick leave of any industrialized nation.

The basic notion is that Americans work had because it’s in our blood, and we wouldn’t have it any other way; to take more than two weeks’ vacation would not only be lazy, but it would mean turning our backs on our ancestors, our history, and our own national character.

All of this begs the question of whether the Puritans of 17th-century New England actually venerated hard, unending work like we think they did.

The Puritans of New England are the subjects of many myths–that they only wore black, banned singing and dancing, hated sex, banned alcohol, went to church every day, and were constantly burning people as witches. If these myths were true, there would have been nothing for the New England Puritans to do but work! These myths are not true, but there is a grain of truth to associating the “work ethic” idea with the Puritans of America. It’s a long story, so let’s start at the beginning.

One of the most radical planks of the Puritan political platform in their native England was their determination to eradicate poverty. For over 1,000 years, the Catholic church had taught that the poor were blessed by God and a blessing to humankind. The poor gave everyone else a chance to practice charity, which, in Catholic dogma, was a way to redeem your soul and get to Heaven. Since the poor gave others this wonderful opportunity, they were a blessing. Since God gave them this role on Earth, they were blessed by God.

Therefore, no attempts were made by the church as a whole to stamp out poverty. Rather than try to better the condition of the poor, the church made it possible for many people to live in poverty. Monasteries, hospitals, convents, and other institutions existed to provide charity to the poor. (In the middle ages, hospitals were like hostels for the poor to stay at, and not places to go for medical treatment.) These institutions were supported by donations from the public, and created a comfortable system in which the number of poor never decreased, but the poor did not have to lay out in the streets begging or upsetting people with their terrible condition.

It’s anachronistic, but the situation was like a car with a broken window that has been very skillfully covered with plastic and securely duct-taped in place. The window is still missing, but the fix is very livable, and the owner may never get the window replaced. Not perfect, but very workable.

The Puritans smashed into this set-up with a vengeance. They were the first powerful, politically organized group in England to say that poverty was a curse and a sign of God’s displeasure, and that it ought to be wiped out. Today we are very used to the “war on poverty,” and it’s hard to remember that this was a completely alien idea in the late 1500s when the English Puritans introduced it.

Next time: Why did the English Puritans want to stamp out poverty?