Saturday, September 10, 2016

Puritan Piety through a Communal Work Ethic

Diligence - Frugality - Faith

Inspired by Charles Cohen’s, “The Saints Zealous in Love and Labor,” this analysis details contrasting scholarly perspectives regarding the Puritan psychology of work. Cohen cites Max Weber’s thesis and mentions how Weber links the practice of piety to the development of capitalism and Western Civilization. Weber suggests that Puritans were largely inspired to fulfill their earthly acts of labor due to a higher sense of moralistic reasoning and virtue. Overwhelmingly, from the writings of John Winthrop, one of the leading founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and other Puritan authors, the majority of New England’s early settlers appeared to have desired to manifest their faith through good works and economic activity, whether as a show of their own piety or due to societal pressures to behave accordingly to the ideals of their religiously-based colony. From Charles perspective, Puritans assumed that if they were not being productive, they were not living up to the standards of Christ and that without labor, the Spirit of God was not being accessed, thus not reflecting a transformed state from sinner to a soul regenerated into active Christian life.

Reminiscent of John Smith’s famously attributed quote – “Those who do not work do not eat” –highly incentivized public activity from all members of Puritan society regardless of class or gender is indicative that new settlements along the Eastern coastline were no longer bound by old European ties to class hierarchy. Additionally, each individual, in order to survive the harsh elements of the New World, appeared compelled to participate and contribute, concepts that were exceptionally relevant to the Puritan way of life, as the common belief seemed to hold that the single action from one of their members could result in either God’s favor or displeasure, indicating that there existed subsequent consequences for either their action or inaction.

Historian Sharon Beder explores how a higher motivation is necessary for the efficiency of modern economics, that being portrayed in the success of capitalism. She states that "modern capitalism, more than mere trading for profit, requires a system of values that revolves around economic meanings and goals." She continues to highlight how the Protestant Reformation brought about "moral support and legitimacy" to settlers desiring to impact commerce and industry - one of the hallmarks of those crossing the Atlantic who were set on exploring and cultivating the relatively unclaimed American continent for their own personal or imperialistic gain.

Intriguingly, a critique of Max Weber's initial projection on how the economic motivations of Puritans stemmed from their Calvinistic theology emerges in the form of Anglican dissent. A contrary opinion posed by C. John Sommerville stands refreshingly aloof compared to the amount of research on early colonial piety during the 1600s. Sommerville argues that Anglicans were far more work-focused and efficient in their enterprises compared to their Puritan counterparts. In “The Anti-Puritan Work Ethic,” Sommerville disputes the validity of other scholars whom he sees as having relied too heavily on Weber's analysis and that consideration ought to be placed on other pieces of literary evidence to support the conjected link between Calvinist doctrine and the compulsive desire to work. He suggests, based on religious books penned by Anglican authors within the 17th century, that Anglicans instead placed more emphasis upon worldly acts of labor “as a religious duty" in a way that was "integrated with the rest of their theology in a more logical manner than the Puritans." He sees the Puritan motive for work more as a symptom of psychology branching out from a sense of “religious anxiety” instead of acts conducted out of pure devotion.

Sommerville could be right, however, though more detailed and thought provoking due to how he contrasts the deeper theological differences between Christian denominations, it appears as though his argument misses the point – simply because Anglicans may have been more concentrated on work as a stated “religious duty,” this does not discredit the reasons as to why Puritans were motivated to actively act out the will of God. Cannot both sects be equally motivated by economic and religious factors? Even if Puritans were motivated in part by societal pressures they may have felt, especially in light of conformity, intrinsically the Puritan mindset is fundamentally yet enamored with the idea that each believer is responsible in expressing the Spirit of God and His transformational powers within and through their outward show of labor and good works. Through the tenets of the Protestant Reformation, with Luther’s insistence on Sola Gratia - through God's grace alone, the Puritans heartily believed that salvation can only be achieved through the sacrifice of Christ and not through any humanly effort, thus they were further inspired by Christian principles to dedicate their lives to hard work in service of God in addition to a dedicated display of their own personal piety and devotion in an outwardly visible way.

I do not see the conflict here as anyone can be simultaneously motivated by various influences yet still maintain a genuine and sincere conviction towards an original motivating factor, this being God in the instance through our analysis of motivational factors influencing the Puritans. In fact, Christianity revolves around each saint navigating through the diverse influences and responsibilities of life while always bearing in mind Who ought to have the greatest amount of influence in our lives.

Linking Protestant Work Ethic and Capitalism, Max Weber
Thankfully, historian Marilynn Robinson, points out a unique facet of Puritan thinking in her "Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry" that acknowledges the Christian doctrine of the depravity of man, a notion emphasized quite emphatically by Calvinists from which Puritan methodology strains. She likens a portion of Puritanical society to that of the “National Socialism of Germany” or other fascist communities – “the idea that society can and should produce good people – people suited to life in that idealized society” who must consistently examine whether they and those around them are expressing and living up to that communal standard. However, she retracts that affiliation, suggesting that the Puritans cannot be considered “zealots or Stalinists”, but rather showcases how Puritans have a zealous nature about them only because the passion of these devotees originates from the deep desire to “feel secure in their reasonableness, worth, and goodness,” or rather, to solidly mirror their Christian identity, despite their understanding of flawed human nature. It is actually because of this understanding, Robinson claims, that they are “filled with a generous zeal to establish their virtues through the world of their society with the inspiring hope that this transformation can be accomplished.”

And this leads us back to the beginning of this discussion with the statement Cohen took from Max Weber, suggesting that Puritan motivation for earthly work was uniquely and intimately bound together with their desire to serve and worship God to the utmost of their abilities - a pious expression rooted at the very core of Christian hospitality and compassion which came to greatly influence and alter the course of Western Civilization due to both economic and religious motivating factors.


Cohen, Charles L. "The Saints Zealous in Love and Labor: The Puritan Psychology of Work." The Harvard Theological Review 76, no. 4 (1983): 455-80.
Fitzpatrick, Tara. "The Figure of Captivity: The Cultural Work of the Puritan Captivity Narrative."American Literary History 3, no. 1 (1991): 1-26.
Harper, Preston. "Puritan Works Salvation and the Quest for Community in "the Scarlet Letter"." Theology Today 57, no. 1 (Apr 01, 2000): 51,
Hart, Ian. "The Teaching of the Puritans about Ordinary Work." 67, no. 3 (January 1, 1995): 195.
Laird, Pamela. "Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR."Enterprise & Society 2, no. 4 (12, 2001): 855-7,
Robinson, Marilynne. "Puritans and Prigs: An Anatomy of Zealotry." Salmagundi, no. 101-102 (Winter, 1994): 36,
Seaver, Paul. "The Puritan Work Ethic Revisited." Journal of British Studies 19, no. 2 (1980): 35-53.
Sommerville, C. John. "The Anti-Puritan Work Ethic." Journal of British Studies 20, no. 2 (1981): 70-81.
Winthrop, John. "John Winthrop: A Modell of Christian Charity." Hanover. Accessed September 09, 2016.

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