Puritan Work Ethic: Definition & Overview

Puritan Work Ethic: Definition & Overview
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  • 0:00 What Is the Puritan…
  • 0:29 Calvinism
  • 1:12 Differing Contexts
  • 3:16 Popular Connotations
  • 4:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the Protestant work ethic. We will define the term as it applies to both theology and sociology, and we will learn how it is commonly understood.

What Is the Puritan Work Ethic?

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The Puritan work ethic is more commonly called the Protestant work ethic (the two terms are used interchangeably). It is a theological and sociological concept emphasizing diligence and hard work within the life of the Christian. The term was coined by the legendary German sociologist Max Weber in his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Calvinism

Before we can go any further with the Puritan work ethic, we need to review some things very quickly. The Puritan work ethic is rooted in Calvinist theology. Calvinism, as it has come to be called, is a theological belief system named after French theologian John Calvin. Calvin's teachings emphasized God's sovereignty over the universe, predestination (election), and salvation by God's grace alone. John Calvin had much to say about work. He and many other Protestant theologians (like Martin Luther, for example), taught that hard work was a Christian duty as well as a form of worship to God.

Differing Contexts

As mentioned before, the Puritan work ethic is a concept with both theological and sociological meanings. Let's begin by looking at it in the context of theology.

In terms of Christian theology, the term refers to the view that diligence in one's work pleases God and is a form of worship. This view was popularized by Luther and Calvin and later became prevalent in European and then American Protestantism. Because many Protestants affirmed the doctrine of predestination, diligence in one's work came to be understood as a sign or signifier of being elect (or one of God's chosen). Those who demonstrated hard work unto the glory of God were seen as bearing 'fruit' and thus were truly saved. On the other hand, those who displayed idleness were often considered damned.

The Puritan work ethic emphasized work as a natural part of life, something that could be enjoyed, and something that pleased God if conducted with the right attitude. Hard work in secular occupations came to be seen as a spiritual act of worship. The Puritans of New England especially emphasized this type of work ethic, hence the term 'Puritan work ethic.'

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