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Protestant Echoes and the Spirit of Calvinism

By Rory Bannerman (@BannermanRory)

If there is a work of sociology that has held more attention, generated more discussion, and created more controversy than any other, it is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Released in 1905, its premise is based on Weber’s observation that Protestants, in particular Calvinists, appear to be more economically prosperous than their Catholic counterparts. This looked to be the case at both the individual and national levels. His research set out to find out if there was an element in Protestant thinking that was uniquely compatible with engaging in capitalism that would explain this. [1]

Many have sought to undermine Weber’s thesis from a number of different angles – such as that the capitalist banking system originated in Catholic Italy or the fact there was a “lag” between the proliferation of Calvinism and the widespread adoption of capitalism. [2]

One that has not yet received attention, however, is the strain of thought in Calvinism that is explicitly anti-capitalist. Weber’s shortcoming was to focus entirely on what Calvinist instruction lent towards supporting a “work ethic” – in doing so, overlooking elements that were actively employed in opposition to capitalism. Jean Calvin, the founder or Calvinism, included in his radical interpretation of Christianity that the accumulation of wealth should be opposed insofar as it threatened the social hierarchy. In his view, “great merchants” could engage in the practice, but those lower down the social ladder should be deterred from attempting to climb it. Therefore, when speculation markets provided an opportunity for modest individuals to invest small sums with the possibility of receiving large returns, Calvinist ministers decried the behaviour.

Calvinism was adopted primarily in Holland, Scotland, and parts of Germany and Switzerland. The points made above are best illustrated by propaganda that was circulated by Calvinist preachers in the 17th century Netherlands. One that had perhaps the greatest impact was “A conversation between True-mouth and Ready-Goods.” Published in 1637, the dialogue between these two characters goes as follows:

Ready-Goods begins the exchange boasting of the wealth he has accumulated by trading one particular good – tulip bulbs – or rather, guarantees representing stocks of tulip bulbs. He is also hugely confident that the price of tulip bulbs will continue to rise, and he will continue to be able to sell his stock and achieve handsome profits. True-mouth offers him the warning: “Many a plowman has high hopes when he sowes his grain and all he reaps is stubble.” Ready-Goods is not deterred and believes that even should prices fall, he could find some fool to buy them. True-mouth, being no fool, does not return to Ready-Goods. The tulip price comes crashing down, and after all his hubris, it is clear Ready-Goods will receive his comeuppance. [3]

This might sound familiar, as this propaganda was responsible for the “Tulipmania” legend that the Dutch lost their collective mind speculating on the tulip market. The authors chose the tulip price bubble not only as it was a recent event, but because of how it lent itself to ridicule. After all, who would be so stupid as to believe a product so useless as a flower being sold for the price of a house was a stable state of affairs – or amoral enough to sell to someone who does? Beyond the fact that there was a brief price bubble for tulips in 1636-7, much of the legend is unfounded. However, it is true that this pamphlet clearly demonstrates Calvinist authorities attacking early capitalism and actively seeking to discourage the public from supporting the practice.  

To give Weber some credit, his work was narrower than is often acknowledged. He was preoccupied with the work ethic that resulted from following Calvinist theology rather than other elements of economics. He does acknowledge that “examples of the condemnation of the pursuit of money may be gathered without end from Puritan writings” but does not pursue this, and does not take any interest in how these anti-capitalist trends in Calvinism might counteract any religiously motivated work ethic.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been a victim of its own success. Weber’s greatest work will have led many who haven’t properly scrutinised it to believe that Protestantism is a force in support for capitalism. Yet, even for those who have, few will realise that it was in fact Calvinist anti-capitalists that gave us the “Spirit of Capitalism”.  


[1] Max Weber, trans. by. Talcott Parsons, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (London: Routledge, 1930, repr.1992).

[2] Milan Zafirovski, A neglected gap in the Weber thesis? The long economic lag of capitalism from Protestantism in SAGE Journals Vol.58 No.1 (Sage, 2019).

[3] “Samen-spraek tusschen Waermondt ende Gaergoedt nopende de Opkomste ende Ondergangh van Flora.” Reprinted in Economisch-Historische Jaarboek, XII (1926), pp.21-24. 32-35. Translated from Dutch by Herbert H. Rowan in The Low Countries in Early Modern Times (London: Macmillan, 1972) pp. 165-170.


Image credit: Marketplace at Bruges by Samuel Prout, watercolour on paperboard, accessed via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marketplace_at_Bruges_SAAM-1936.2.1_1.jpg)

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Catie Davies #

    A really interesting article! Simon Schama addresses this a little in ‘The Embarrassment of Riches’, looking at the conflict between Calvinist capitalism and wariness of wealth.

    July 26, 2021

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