The phrase “Protestant work ethic” may have been invented by German sociologist Max Weber over a century ago, but economic historian R. H. Tawney (1880-1962) adapted it to British culture before and after the Reformation. In his 1926 book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Tawney, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, surveys late medieval and early modern justifications that reconciled a pious livelihood with financial gains.

Catholic teachings narrowed the scope of one’s earthly ambitions, according to God’s plan: “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Bound by morality, this medieval influence continued into the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite the Reformation, profits allowed for the merchant or worker remained narrow and constrained by doctrine. Yet this restraint withered within the post-Reformation momentum unleashing individual ambition.

Tawney crafts vivid images throughout his book to enrich its style. “Into commerce, industry and agriculture, the revolution in prices … injected a virus of hitherto unsuspected potency, at once a stimulant to feverish enterprise and an acid dissolving away all customary relationships.” As both a scholar and Christian Socialist activist, Tawney here echoes Marx, who in The Communist Manifesto noted the frenzied and fearful rush of capitalist growth following feudalism during this transformed era.

By the time of the Puritans, a shift away from Christian social teaching regarding usury and cupidity occurred. Tawney credits this to increasing lay involvement against the clerics of the Church of England. Puritan and Dissenter factions, who resented ministerial needling, instigated a lay revolt.

The Anglicans lost their royal role “as an independent standard of values,” and Puritans helped overthrow King Charles I in the English Civil War. This populist revolt weakened hidebound aspersions against the benefits of monetary accrual. Traditions reinforcing hierarchical relationships between the laity, clergy and rulers gave way to mercantile expansion and invention. Puritans elevated the value of hard labor and honest enterprise, if judiciously and ethically pursued, to further the service of God himself.

“Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naive psychology of the business man,” Tawney observes, “who ascribes his achievements to his unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert.” Modern readers may find his prose musty, but Tawney’s donnish tone sparkles with moral power. He analyzes the learned arguments of centuries past and never hesitates to add his own views.

Before the Industrial Revolution, Tawney concludes, the spiritual and the economic spheres reversed. Perhaps this turnabout was necessary to enable the British to break out of a stodgy mindset. The clerical control of free enterprise that dominated the previous centuries was weakened, and the rise of the individual worker and the power corporate culture combined to push the Church aside. While preachers continued to castigate the evils of avarice and greed, their lay congregants increasingly minded their own business. Whatever discipline that Christian teachings had exerted was torn away by the modernizing impulse to enrich one’s self — and one’s investors. It was reasoned that a businessman’s success might well demonstrate God’s reward for energy and wise investments, no matter that the clergy counseled frugality, modesty and self-effacement. The British thus compartmentalized faith from profit.

The new Verso edition is reprinted from a 1938 Pelican Books imprint and does not offer any editorial updates. It reproduces Tawney’s 1937 preface in which he critiques Max Weber’s theory, but lacks any attempt to place the work in a modern context. This is an unfortunate oversight in an age when clashes over the role of religion within morality and the economy are as relevant as ever, a time when Pope Francis addresses Congress and the United Nations.

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