The Puritan Work Ethic Revisited

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  • The Puritan Work Ethic RevisitedAuthor(s): Paul SeaverSource: Journal of British Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1980), pp. 35-53Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The North American Conference on BritishStudiesStable URL: .Accessed: 09/05/2014 16:11

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  • The Puritan Work Ethic Revisited PAUL SEAVER

    Whether Puritanism gave rise to a "work ethic," and, if so, what the nature of that ethic was, has been a source of controversy since Max Weber

    published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism more than

    seventy years ago. Experienced polemicists have waged international wars of words over its terms, and tyros have won their spurs in the battle.1 With repect to England, there is at present no agreement either about the

    reality of a peculiarly Puritan work ethic or about the impact, if any, that such an ethic might have had on the attitudes and behavior of the emerging capitalist bourgeoisie, if such a species indeed existed as a distinctive social class or group in the early modern period. In fact, since perfectly sane and competent historians have questioned on the one hand, whether "Puritanism" is more than a neo-idealist reification of a nonentity, and on the other, whether the early modern middle class is more than a myth, it

    might be the better part of wisdom to inter the remains of these vexed

    questions as quietly as possible.2 What follows is not a perverse attempt to

    flog a dead horse, if it is dead and a horse, but rather on the basis of a different perspective and different evidence to resurrect a part of what

    Timothy Breen has called "the non-existent controversy."3 Since the early 1960s, historians who have concerned themselves with

    the controversy at all have largely argued over two issues:4 first, whether

    The research for this study was made possible in part by a summer grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    1 See, for example, the bibliography in Robert W. Green, ed., Protestantism and Capitalism. The Weber Thesis and Its Critics (Boston, 1959), pp. 115-16.

    2 For the argument that the use of the term "Puritanism" implies a neo-idealist reification, see C.H. George, "Puritanism as History and Historiography," Past and Present, no. 41 (1968), pp. 77-104, esp. 97-100; see also G.R. Elton's comments in a review, Hist. Journ. xvii (1974)214. For the muddle over the middle class, see J.H. Hexter, "The Myth of the Middle Class in Tudor England," Reappraisals in History (London, 1961), pp. 71-116. For a more fruitful approach to the complexities of London society, which avoids the kind of broad generalizations Hexter warned against, see for example, Robert Brenner, "The Social Basis of English Commercial Expansion, 1550-1650," Journ. of Econ. Hist. xxxii(1972):361-84, and Robert Lang, "Social Origins and Social Aspirations of Jacobean London Merchants," Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd s., xxvii(1974):28-47.

    3 Timothy Hall Breen, "The Non-existent Controversy: Puritan and Anglican Attitudes on Work and Wealth, 1600-1640," Church History 35(1966):273-87.

    4 David Little's Religion, Order, and Law (New York, 1969) is an obvious excep- tion to my generalization, since he embarks on a sophisticated reconsideration of Weber's thesis, a considerably more complex task than that implied by my two issues.

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    any late Elizabethan or early Stuart Englishmen espoused a socioeconomic ethic, a position on the doctrine of the calling, on the dignity and necessity of labor, and on the accumulation of riches that is peculiarly Puritan, as distinct from generally Protestant; and second, assuming that there is a position on these issues that is identifiably Puritan, whether it provided more aid and comfort to the expression of the entrepreneurial spirit or appetite than that provided by the spokesmen for the non-Puritan Estab- lishment. In 1964, Christopher Hill suggested that "the Puritan ministers' special emphasis on the duty of working hard," on "the dignity of labor," and more generally on "puritan asceticism," appealed to "industrious artisans and aspiring peasants"-"to those smaller employers and self- employed men ... for whom frugality and hard work might make all the difference between prosperity and failure to survive in the world of growing competition."5 Three years before Hill's Society and Puritanism appeared, Charles and Katherine George had argued that, while no distinctively Puritan position could be identified, the general English Protestant "doc- trine of the calling" not only abolished the traditional "medieval and Roman Catholic moral hierarchy of vocations," but also incorporated "the most outgoing and positive view of work which exists in the Christian tradition."6

    Contrary to the implications of both these positions, Laura O'Connell has recently suggested that a "full blown appreciation of capitalism" does not appear until "the post-restoration period," and that the earlier Puritan "cast of mind" was "precapitalist" and "equated entrepreneurial activity with covetousness."7 In much the same vein, Bernard Bailyn in his study of New England merchants refers to the "medieval social teachings of ortho- dox Puritanism."8 On the other hand, while not expressing the particular traditionalism of Puritan thought on these matters, Timothy Breen has argued that "all Englishmen held common ideas about work and wealth in the early part of the seventeenth century," the one clear exception being the Laudian Henry Hammond, who suggested both that poverty might well be God's punishment for sin, and that improving one's station in life was not "unlawful for a Christian."9 Henry Hammond, it might be argued, represented the wave of the future, for as John Sommerville noted in a recent article, it was the "moderate Anglicans" after 1660 who "turned out to be the most concerned with the sins of the flesh, with ascetic practices as a means of appeasing God, and oddly enough, with the 'Puritan ethic' of

    5 Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (Lon- don, 1964), pp. 134, 138.

    6 Charles H. and Katherine George, The Protestant Mind of the English Reforma- tion, 1570-1640 (Princeton, 1961), p. 143.

    7 "Anti-Entrepreneurial Attitudes in Elizabethan Sermons and Popular Litera- ture," Journ. ofBritish Studies, xv (Spring, 1976):20.

    8 The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1955; Torchbook edition, New York, 1964), p. 39.

    9 "The Non-existent Controversy: Puritan and Anglican Attitudes on Work and Wealth, 1600-1640," Church History, xxxv(1966):287, 281, 286.


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    work as a religious duty."'0 In effect, Hill's position has been turned upon its head: the Puritan preachers now appear as traditionalists, if not abso- lutely reactionary, in their medieval equation of economic ambition with greed and covetousness; and the later seventeenth- century Anglicans are cast as the first apologists on this acquisitive, entrepreneurial spirit."

    Such propositions are not inherently unlikely: they would be congruent, for example, with Sears McGee's conclusion that the Puritans focused more upon their First Table duties, while their Anglican brethren gave more attention to the social ethics of the Second Table.12 If Hill is wrong and Breen and O'Connell right, however, then those of us who supposed that early seventeenth-century London possessed a powerful lay Puritan community, composed largely of the "middling sort"-artisans, shop- keepers, and merchants outside the privileged, monopolistic companies- face some interesting problems,13 for we are confronted with an apparent paradox: Puritan lay vestries, composed largely of the "middling sort," sponsored, financed, and protected Puritan preachers who, on those occasions when they touched on social ethics, preached an anti-entre- preneurial, anti-accumulative economics. Such an apparent paradox, if true, poses some curious possibilities, which merit further examination.

    It is possible, of course, that the London audiences of the Puritan preachers accepted that part of the sermon message that suited their spiritual needs and ignored those strictures that sought to limit certain of their economic practices. All students of the history of the "Christian" West are well aware of the capacity of overtly Christian communities to ignore or disregard much of the Gospel message much of the time, and it may well be that the case in point involving lay Londoners is simply a parochial example of that general tendency. Basically this is the argument that Christopher Hill advances in his article on "William Perkins and the Poor," in which he concludes that "the fundamental concepts of Puritan thought are bourgeois," and that "Perkins is the key figure in the system- ization of English Puritanism."'4 After quoting such phrases from Perkins as that beggars are "[for the most part] a cursed generation," and that "men are to be honored for their riches," Hill then admits that he has been quoting selectively, "for in each case Perkins qualifies heavily by insisting that riches are good as they are used, that men must desire them to glorify

    10 "Religious Typologies and Popular Religion in Restoration England," Church History, xlv(1976):37.

    11 For a radically different perspective, see C.H. George, "The Making of the English Bourgeoisie," Science and Society, xxxv (1971):385-414. If Professor George is correct, it is the seventeenth-century theorists who equate private inter- est and public good and champion the absolute rights of private property, who signal the coming triumph of the bourgeoisie.

    12 The Godly Man in Stuart England (New Haven, 1976), passim. 13 See, for example, P.S. Seaver, The Puritan Lectureships, 1560-1662 (Stanford,

    1970); W.K. Jordan, The Charities ofLondon, 1480-1660 (London, 1960); and Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution (London, 1976).

    14 Puritanism and Revolution (London, 1958), p. 238.


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    God, not for themselves,"15 Hill adds, however, and this is his crucial point, that he suspects "that many good bourgeois in the congregations of Perkins and his followers would follow the same principles of selection" and emerge from church with "the new concessions ... noted, and the traditional qualifications ... forgotten."16 If Hill is correct, and there is nothing inherently improbable about his thesis, it is conceivable that both he and his critics are right, and the contradiction posited between what the laity heard and what they in fact did disappears. The only difficulty lies in proving that such selectivity was indeed the case, for few men are likely to leave us unambiguous evidence that they only heard or read what it was socially and economically convenient for them to hear or read.

    A second solution to the apparent paradox might be premised less on the unconscious hypocrisy of Puritan congregations than on the possibility that many of the London Puritans existed in a state of perpetual anxiety over the apparent tension between their ethical values and their actual behavior. Michael Walzer has made us all familiar with the nervous anxiousness of the Puritan personality, and we have an actual historical example in Robert Keayne, the New England merchant who, to his "shame" and "amazement" was brought before the general court in Boston in 1639 for charging unjust prices for goods imported from London and for making thereby excessive profits in his business. Keayne is Hill's selective hearer brought to book, and in his last will and testament we have Keayne's 50,000 word attempt to prove that, despite appearances, his practices were congruent with Puritan theory and that he was a righteous, if wronged, man. As Bernard Bailyn comments, "To be both a pious Puritan and a successful merchant meant to live under what would seem to have been insupportable pressures."17

    There is a third possibility, and that is that some Londoners may have heard the Puritan message in its fullness, have accepted its strictures regarding the temptations and dangers of economic enterprise, and have perceived no contradiction between the values preached and their business practices, because what was in fact preached was supportive of, rather than at variance with, their way of life. Now all three possibilities-the selective hearer, the anxious auditor, and the comfortable and comforted listener-may all have existed at the same time. These alternatives are distinct but not incompatible or contradictory. In all probability many members of the merchant community, who were most exposed to the temptations of wealth, must have alternated among the three possibilities, believing themselves justified in what were in many cases largely tradi-

    15 Ibid., pp. 229,230. 16 Ibid., p. 230. 17 New England Merchants, pp. 40-44; see also The Apologia of Robert Keayne,

    Bernard Bailyn, ed. (New York, 1965). For Puritan anxiousness, see Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), passim.


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