The Protestant work ethic debunked!

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.

The Puritans leave England for America

Welcome to part three of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant or Puritan work ethic. Here we will see how the ambitious Puritan political platform played out in England and was then transplanted to the New World.

We’ve seen that the English Puritans wanted to wipe out poverty, encourage private enterprise, and vigorously embrace the newly emergent capitalist system. Their religion spurred them to achieve these goals, but they did not rely on God to work a miracle for them. The Puritans had many converts from the nobility, powerful men who sat in the House of Lords, and most Puritans of common birth were politically active. The Puritans had members in both houses of Parliament and agitated constantly at court and in the popular press for the changes they desired.

Unfortunately, the Puritans would not abandon their insistence that the Anglican Church (or Church of England), the state church, be radically “purified” (hence their name) and stripped of its remaining Catholic qualities. Elizabeth I and James I after her took a firm hand in stopping such religious agitation, which invariably led to bloodshed and public turmoil, and seemed to promise eventual civil war. (These fears would be realized in the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War.) England had gone through extremely divisive religious conflict during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, and had landed as a unique Protestant nation: the original Catholic church in England was taken over by the English government, completely separate from the Roman Catholic Church governed by Rome. The Anglican church was sort of neutral or Protestant-by-default, but it was not Lutheran or Calvinist. Anglicanism avoided both submission to Rome and affiliation with European Lutherans or Calvinists.

This policy had maintained a fragile peace in England since 1558, when Elizabeth I took the throne. Puritans who agitated for further reformation, with a Calvinist bent, were not looked upon with kindness. James I particularly loathed the Puritans and their near-relations, the Separatists, who decided Anglicanism could not be purified, and therefore separated from it, leaving the church. Puritans and Separatists were persecuted in England as traitors.

By refusing to drop their demands for religious change, the Puritans sabotaged their efforts to get their social reforms passed. By the 1620s, many Puritans were beginning to fear that God had abandoned England, and was about to punish it, perhaps destroy it. When William Laud, a pro-Catholic Puritan hater, was made Archbishop of Canterbury–head of the Anglican church–in 1630, he launched a Puritan eradication campaign that made life very dangerous for Puritans of all walks of life.

In that year, a small group of influential Puritans left England. Led by John Winthrop, a well-known royal lawyer and property owner, they left to establish a safe space in America where Puritans could wait out God’s wrath on England. While England was punished, America would thrive, regenerating a holy people to lead England back to God’s grace. They founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, with its seat of government in Boston.

Next time: Here the work ethic begins?

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?