Weber revisited: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism (2023)

Are Protestants thriftier or more literate than people of other beliefs, or not? Weber (1904, 1905) famously hypothesised that the Protestant work ethic fostered modern economic development through an “ascetic compulsion to save”. One hundred years later, sociologists and economists still debate this question in historical or contemporary settings (see Becker and Woessmann 2009, Cantoni 2015, Bai and Kung 2015, Spenkuch 2017, Alaoui and Sandroni 2018, among many others).

In a recent paper (Kersting et al. 2020), we revisit Weber’s famous hypothesis and the evidence for it in 19th-century Germany. We show that the empirical literature has largely missed the context in which Weber was writing, notably the relationship between religious and ethnic differences in Germany before 1914.

Protestants were in fact neither thriftier nor more literate than Catholics. But there were huge differences between Germans and ethnic minorities, notably Poles.

Protestantism, ethnicity and savings

We first revisit the evidence on the effect of Protestantism on saving behaviour. Weber suggested that Protestantism has led to an “accumulation of capital through ascetic compulsion to save” (Weber 1905: 191). To test for this, we use a recent dataset from Lehmann-Hasemeyer and Wahl (2017) on savings per capita for Prussian counties. Figure 1 shows the share of Protestants in Prussian counties for 1900. Figure 2 shows the distribution of savings per capita in 1905.

Figure 1 Protestants in Prussian counties, 1900

Weber revisited: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism (1)

Source: Kersting et al. (2020).

Figure 2 Savings per capita in Prussian counties, 1905

Weber revisited: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism (2)
(Video) Weber's Protestant Work Ethics

Source: Kersting et al. (2020).

Using pooled OLS we find no significant correlation between Protestantism and savings. This non-result is robust controlling for income, many other controls as suggested by the literature, and variations in the sample.

But what about ethnic minorities? Figure 3 shows the share of German speakers across Prussian counties.

Figure 3 Share German-speaking population in Prussian counties, 1900

Weber revisited: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism (3)

Source: Kersting et al. (2020).

Clearly, the share of Protestants and the share of German speakers are correlated (especially in the east of Prussia), but not perfectly. When we run simple pooled OLS, we find that the correlation between German speakers and savings per capita is strongly significant, while the correlation between Protestantism and savings remains insignificant.

To establish causality, we need to find a valid instrument. Becker and Woessmann (2009) ingeniously suggested using the distance to Wittenberg (the centre of the Protestant Reformation) as an instrument for Protestantism. However, such an instrument is likely to violate the exclusion restriction1 because it is strongly correlated with the share of German speakers.

Instead, we follow Spenkuch’s (2017) instrumental variable approach. The instrumental variable is constructed by regressing Protestant in 1624 on predictors of rulers’ choices within the Holy Roman Empire, as identified by the previous literature, notably Cantoni (2012) and Rubin (2014). The residuals are used as the instrumental variable.

This instrumental variable approach confirms our OLS findings. Crucially, this instrumental variable is not correlated with the share of German speakers and is generally more robust to potential violations of the exclusion restriction.

(Video) Max Weber Lecture by Rogers Brubaker (UCLA), 15 June 2016

Protestantism, ethnicity, and literacy

We next test for the idea that Protestantism mattered not because of its effect on attitudes towards work and consumption, but because it fostered literacy. We provide new descriptive evidence on the difference in literacy rates among Protestants and Catholics at the county level from a historical cross-table, which has been largely neglected in the literature.

Figure 4 shows the share of Protestants among all literates and the share of Protestants for each county. A dot to the right of the 45-degree line indicates that Protestants are over-proportionally literate.

Literacy rates among Catholics are nearly identical to literacy rates among Protestants (Figure 4c). The only exception is among counties in the east, which have a substantial share of Polish people in the population (Figure 4b). Still, there might be potential spillovers of historically Protestant regions.

Figure 4 Literacy and Protestantism, 1871

Panel AAll counties

Panel BEastern provinces

Weber revisited: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism (5)
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Panel CWestern provinces

Weber revisited: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism (6)

Notes: Each dot corresponds to one county in Prussia. Interpretation: Protestants are over-proportionally literate in counties to the right of the 45-degree line. Eastern provinces include Poznan, Silesia, West and East Prussia.

Source: Kersting et al. (2020).

To account for this, we use literacy among Catholics at the county level as our dependent variable and show that the share of Protestants in a county has no positive effect on literacy among Catholics.

We also test for a causal effect of religion on literacy, using the instrumental variable approach by Spenkuch (2017). To account for minorities, we control for the share of people with German as mother tongue. Using this instrumental variable confirms the evidence from Figure 4: Protestantism had no significant effect on literacy. The coefficient on ethnic differences (as captured by share of the German-speaking population) is much larger and statistically and economically significant.

Ethnicity and discrimination in the German Kaiserreich

Our finding on the role of ethnic differences on economic outcomes begs for an explanation; the writings of Weber are a good starting point. In his inaugural lecture of 1895, Weber attributed differences in economic outcomes between Germans and Poles to racial differences and actively supported a stronger Germanisation of the eastern parts of Germany.

In fact, it is well known that Max Weber was a passionate German nationalist, and his writing, including The Protestant Ethic, should be understood as a contribution to the political education of the German public (Barbalet 2008). Thus, Weber’s nationalist position not only puts a different light on The Protestant Ethic but also offers a contemporary point of reference for explaining differences along ethnic lines, namely German discrimination.

After 1871, the German majority increasingly discriminated against the Polish minority in language and education policy, access to public offices, and policies of land redistribution. More research is needed to understand to what extent Germanisation can account for the observed substantial differences in incomes, savings, and literacy rates, which we documented above, and how the Polish minority reacted to it.

The importance of context

To speak with Robert Margo, we see this as an example why “putting the context front and centre is the essence of economic history, its fundamental contribution to economics per se” (Margo 2017: 37). A misinterpretation of historical context can easily lead to missing key elements of the evidence (in our case: the role of minorities).

We do not wish to dismiss a more abstract interpretation of Weber’s writing from the perspective of empirical economics, which can be stimulating and generate valuable insights. But our evidence cautions that studies on the economics of religion should take ethnic differences and discrimination into consideration, in the context of 19th-century Germany or elsewhere.

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Alaoui, L, and A Sandroni (2018), “Predestination and the Protestant ethic”, Journal of the European Economic Association 16(1): 45–76.

Bai, Y, and J Kung (2015), “Diffusing knowledge while spreading God’s message: Protestantism and economic prosperity in China, 1840–1920”, Journal of the European Economic Association 13(4): 669–98.

Barbalet, J (2008), Weber, passion and profits: “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” in context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Becker, S O, and L Woessmann (2009), “Was Weber wrong? A human capital theory of Protestant economic history”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(2): 531–96.

Cantoni, D (2012), “Adopting a new religion: The case of Protestantism in 16th century Germany”, Economic Journal 122(560): 502–31.

Cantoni, D (2015), “The economic effects of the Protestant Reformation”, Journal of the European Economic Association 13(4): 561–98.

Conley, T G, C B Hansen and P E Rossi (2012), “Plausibly exogenous”, Review of Economics and Statistics 94(1): 260–72.

Karadja, M, and E Prawitz (2019), “Exit, voice, and political change: Evidence from Swedish mass migration to the US”, Journal of Political Economy 127(4): 1864–925.

Kersting, F, I Wohnsiedler and N Wolf (2020), “Weber revisited: The Protestant ethic and the spirit of nationalism”, CEPR Discussion Paper 14963 (Journal of Economic History, forthcoming).

Lehmann-Hasemeyer, S, and F Wahl (2017), “Saving banks and the Industrial Revolution in Prussia supporting regional development with public financial institutions”, CEPR Discussion Paper 12500.

Margo, R (2017), “The integration of economic history into economics”, NBER Working Paper 23538.

Rubin, J (2014), “Printing and Protestants: An empirical test of the role of printing in the Reformation”, Review of Economics and Statistics 96(2): 270–86.

Spenkuch, J (2017), “Religion and work: Micro evidence from contemporary Germany”, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 135(3): 193–214.

Weber, M (1895), “Der Nationalstaat und die Volkswirtschaftspolitik. Akademische Antrittsrede”, in W Mommsen (ed.), Max Weber Gesamtausgabe. Band 4. Landarbeiterfrage, Nationalstaat und Volkswirtschaftspolitik. Schriften und Reden 1892–1899, Tübingen: JC.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

(Video) Populism and Religion outside the US: Research and Reflections

Weber, M (1904), “Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus”, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaften und Sozialpolitik 20(1): 1–54.

Weber, M (1905), “Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus”, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaften und Sozialpolitik 21(1): 1–110.


1 We show this based on the approach by Conley et al. (2012) and Karadja and Prawitz (2019).


What is Weber's theory of the Protestant ethic? ›

Protestant ethic, in sociological theory, the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one's worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual's election, or eternal salvation. Max Weber.

What was the conclusion that Weber drew in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism? ›

With a calling, Weber told us, there was no problem at all in squaring up the spiritual and economic aspects of life. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism showed how character traits, strongly shaped by religion, could play a massive role in the creation of wealth.

How does Weber theorize The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism? ›

Weber theorized that the different value systems of the two religions had different effects: the values of Protestantism encouraged ways of acting which (unintentionally) resulted in capitalism emerging, over a period of many decades, even centuries. Protestantism encouraged people to 'find God for themselves'.

What did Weber mean by the spirit of capitalism? ›

Weber notes that the spirit of capitalism can be thought of as “an ethically-oriented maxim for the organization of life” (p. 71). This is the spirit of modern capitalism which must be differentiated from other forms of historically existing capitalisms, which retained a traditionalistic cast.

What was Max Weber's theory on religion? ›

For Weber, religion is best understood as it responds to the human need for theodicy and soteriology. He believes that human beings are troubled with the question of theodicy. How can the extraordinary power of a divine god be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over?

What did Max Weber argue was the relationship between the Protestant ethic and capitalism quizlet? ›

According to Weber, the relationship between the protestant ethic and capitalism is that the protestant ethic played a role in creating the spirit of capitalism that sees profit as an end in itself and pursuing profit as virtuous. Weber attributed this spirit to some protestant groups belief in predetermined fate.

What did Weber argue was the key factor in the rise of capitalism? ›

The focus of Weber's study was that religion was an engine of social change. Weber identified features of the Calvinist protestant religion which he argued had the unintended consequence of playing a major role in kick-starting capitalism. Calvinism was a protestant religious movement from the 16th century.

How does the Protestant ethic relate to capitalism? ›

Protestantism gave the spirit of capitalism its duty to profit and thus helped to legitimate capitalism. Its religious asceticism also produced personalities well-suited for work discipline.

Who made the connection between Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism? ›

Max Weber wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–05), Economy and Society (1922), General Economic History (1923), and other works.

Which thinker is associated with Protestant Ethic and the spirit of capitalism? ›

Max Weber (1864- 1920) is perhaps best known of his work on the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. His views have been much debated but the key idea in Weber was that there was a link between the rise of capitalism and an ethos of self control associated with Protestant reformation.

Why was Protestant work ethic important? ›

In light of salvation being a gift of grace, Protestants viewed work as stewardship given to them. Thus Protestants were not working in order to achieve salvation but viewed work as the means by which they could be a blessing to others.

What are the 3 things Weber focused on? ›

The three main themes within the essays were: the effect of religious ideas on economic activities; the relation between social stratification and religious ideas; and the distinguishable characteristics of Western civilisation. Weber saw religion as one of the core forces in society.

Where does the Protestant work ethic come from? ›

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.

Why is Weber's theory important? ›

Weber's wide-ranging contributions gave critical impetus to the birth of new academic disciplines such as sociology as well as to the significant reorientation in law, economics, political science, and religious studies.

What are Weber's 4 ideal types? ›

Weber described four categories of "Ideal Types" of behavior: zweckrational (goal-rationality), wertrational (value-rationality), affektual (emotional-rationality) and traditional (custom, unconscious habit).

What did Max Weber argue about Protestantism? ›

Weber argued that Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) Protestantism was the seedbed of character traits and values that under-girded modern capitalism. This article summarizes Weber's formulation, considers criticisms of Weber's thesis, and reviews evidence of linkages between cultural values and economic growth.

How did Marx and Weber differ in their views on the impact of religion? ›

Weber considered religion as a means of achieving the needs of the society, whereas Marx believed that religion only provides temporary alleviation of the problems of the society.

What is Weber's theory and how does it relate to capitalism today? ›

According to Weber, a modern capitalism is an inescapable consequence of Europe's historical development and there is no way back to the patriarchal structures and values. Weber's analysis focuses on the combination of political, economic and religious structures, which were shaping the Western capitalism.

Which of the following best reflects Weber's view of the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism? ›

which of the following best reflects Weber's view of the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism in the 16th -18th centuries: The core values and attitudes in Protestantism had much similarity with values and attitudes central to the capitalist system.

What does the Spirit of Capitalism refer to as proposed by Max Weber quizlet? ›

What does the spirit of capitalism refer to, as propose by Max Weber? it is a new approach to work and money that emphasizes investment to make profit. What was Weber's term to describe the ideal of a self-denying, highly moral life, accompanied by hard work and frugality?

Which are core values of the Protestant work ethic? ›

Max Weber, the German economic sociologist, coined a term for the new beliefs about work calling it the "Protestant ethic." The key elements of the Protestant ethic were diligence, punctuality, deferment of gratification, and primacy of the work domain (Rose, 1985).

Is the Protestant work ethic still relevant today? ›

The Protestant work ethic still lives on in our society, said sociologist Paul Froese of Baylor University. "People don't have to be Protestants to work hard," he said. "It's become so ingrained in our culture that it influences everybody."

What are the three basic principles of Protestantism? ›

Protestantism originated in the Reformation of the 16th century in Christian Europe, and Protestants have been said to share 3 basic convictions: 1) the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of religious truth; 2) human beings are saved only by God's "grace" (ie, unearned gift); and 3) all Christians are priests; ...

Who were the main Protestant reformers that Weber focused on in his analysis of the Protestant Reformation? ›

Weber argues that for reformers such as Calvin, the Puritan sects, and for men like Menno, George Fox, and Wesley (quote 10):

What is the most important outcome of the Protestant Reformation? ›

It resulted in the creation of a branch of Christianity called Protestantism, a name used collectively to refer to the many religious groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church due to differences in doctrine.

What is the main idea of the Protestant Reformation? ›

The reformers rejected the authority of the pope as well as many of the principles and practices of Catholicism of that time. The essential tenets of the Reformation are that the Bible is the sole authority for all matters of faith and conduct and that salvation is by God's grace and by faith in Jesus Christ.

What were three main causes of the Protestant Reformation? ›

Money-generating practices in the Roman Catholic Church, such as the sale of indulgences. Demands for reform by Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and other scholars in Europe. The invention of the mechanized printing press, which allowed religious ideas and Bible translations to circulate widely.

What are the two kinds of ethics discussed by Weber? ›

Weber explains that “we must make it clear that all ethically oriented action stands under two fundamentally different and irreducibly opposing maxims: it can be oriented by 'the ethics of conviction' or by 'the ethics of responsibility'.” [16]

How does Protestant ethic differ from Catholicism? ›

Catholicism relied on the theology of salvation by works and the role of the Church as intermediary and enforcement agent. Protestantism, on the other hand, relied on salvation by divine grace and enforcement through social interactions.

How is the Protestant ethic different from the traditional attitude towards work? ›

The Protestant work ethic is more than a cultural norm that places a positive moral value on doing a good job. Based on a belief that work has intrinsic value for its own sake, it represents a value system that contributes to the experience of meaningfulness whilst performing work.

How did the Protestant Reformation impact culture? ›

The Protestant Reformation is alleged to have shaped major features of Western culture, including freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, the dignity of the individual, and political democracy.

What is Weber's theory called? ›

What is Weber's theory called?


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