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?