PRE-REFORMATION ROOTS OF THE PROTESTANT ETHIC: Evidence of a nine centuries old belief in the virtues of hard work stimulating economic growth

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500). From Wikimedia Commons <;

Max Weber’s well-known conception of the ‘Protestant ethic’ was not uniquely Protestant: according to this research published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, Protestant beliefs in the virtues of hard work and thrift have pre-Reformation roots.

The Order of Cistercians – a Catholic order that spread across Europe 900 years ago – did exactly what the Protestant Reformation is supposed to have done four centuries later: the Order stimulated economic growth by instigating an improved work ethic in local populations.

What’s more, the impact of this work ethic survives today: people living in parts of Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

The researchers begin their analysis with an event that has recently been commemorated in several countries across Europe. Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther allegedly nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and thereby established Protestantism.

Whether the emergence of Protestantism had enduring consequences has long been debated by social scientists. One of the most influential sociologists, Max Weber, famously argued that the Protestant Reformation was instrumental in facilitating the rise of capitalism in Western Europe.

In contrast to Catholicism, Weber said, Protestantism commends the virtues of hard work and thrift. These values, which he referred to as the Protestant ethic, laid the foundation for the eventual rise of modern capitalism.

But was Weber right? The new study suggests that Weber was right in stressing the importance of a cultural appreciation of hard work and thrift, but quite likely wrong in tracing the origins of these values to the Protestant Reformation.

The researchers use a theoretical model to demonstrate how a small group of people with a relatively strong work ethic – the Cistercians – could plausibly have improved the average work ethic of an entire population within the span of 500 years.

The researchers then test the theory statistically using historical county data from England, where the Cistercians arrived in the twelfth century. England is of particular interest as it has high quality historical data and because, centuries later, it became the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution.

The researchers document that English counties with more Cistercian monasteries experienced faster population growth – a leading measure of economic growth in pre-modern times. The data reveal that this is not simply because the monks were good at choosing locations that would have prospered regardless.

The researchers even detect an impact on economic growth centuries after the king closed down all the monasteries and seized their wealth on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Thus, the legacy of the monks cannot simply be the wealth that they left behind.

Instead, the monks seem to have left an imprint on the cultural values of the population. To document this, the researchers combine historical data on the location of Cistercian monasteries with a contemporary dataset on the cultural values of individuals across Europe.

They find that people living in regions in Europe that were home to Cistercian monasteries more than 500 years ago reveal different cultural values than those living in other regions. In particular, these individuals tend to regard hard work and thrift as more important compared with people living in regions that were not home to Cistercians in the past.

This study is not the first to question Max Weber’s influential hypothesis. While the majority of statistical analyses show that Protestant regions are more prosperous than others, the reason for this may not be the Protestant ethic as emphasised by Weber.

For example, a study by the economists Sascha Becker and Ludger Woessman demonstrates that Protestant regions of Prussia prospered more than others because of the improved schooling that followed from the instructions of Martin Luther, who encouraged Christians to learn to read so that they could study the Bible.


‘Pre-Reformation Roots of the Protestant Ethic’ by Thomas Barnebeck Andersen, Jeanet Bentzen, Carl-Johan Dalgaard and Paul Sharp is published in the September 2017 issue of the Economic Journal.

Thomas Barnebeck Andersen and Paul Richard Sharp are at the University of Southern Denmark. Jeanet Sinding Bentzen and Carl-Johan Dalgaard are at the University of Copenhagen.


Religion and economics: early Methodism was underpinned by sophisticated financial management

by Clive Norris (Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University)


John Wesley’s efforts to spread the Gospel throughout the British Isles and beyond in the later eighteenth century relied on resources generated and managed using a wide range of techniques. This study of contemporary financial records shows that the evangelistic energy and fervour of Methodist preachers and members was supported – but also frequently constrained – by the movement’s approach to financial management.

The central priority of Wesley’s movement or ‘Connexion’ was to supply enough preachers to meet the needs of the membership and attract new converts. Members’ dues provided the core financing for the growing cadre of travelling preachers, while tools such as central grants channelled resources from richer to poorer areas.

Although the increasing number of married preachers with children raised per capita costs, the annual preachers’ conference tried to keep the deployment of preachers within the envelope of the resources available. By 1800, preaching costs probably exceeded £40,000 a year, met by around 110,000 members.

A second preoccupation was the capital and revenue funding of the expanding network of Wesleyan chapels, which numbered almost one thousand by 1800, costing perhaps £9,000 in annual debt interest alone.

From the 1760s, increasing use was made of an essentially commercial model, overseen by a central committee of business advisers. The opportunity to provide loans at attractive interest rates was offered to wealthier members and supporters, and these both financed chapel construction and offered a good home for their surplus funds. Interest costs were met by renting out seats in chapel, though some seats were always made available free to the poor.

Proposals for new chapels were reviewed annually by the Wesleyan conference, and although many were built without its approval, the resulting pressure on the movement’s finances became marked only after 1800. Chapels also enabled the Connexion to draw income from non-members, who typically outnumbered members by three to one in congregations.

Third, Wesleyan Methodists sought to spread the Gospel through the publication and distribution of cheap and readable publications, including Charles Wesley’s hymnals.

From the 1750s, the so-called Book Room became increasingly profitable, largely because by 1780, almost every aspect of production and distribution had been brought in-house. In particular, Wesleyan preachers were exhorted to market the publications to their members and congregations, and received 10% commission on sales. By 1800, the Book Room’s profits – typically £2,000 annually – were making a significant contribution to overall Connexional finances.

Fourth, the Connexion developed a portfolio of other activities, including educational services such as Sunday schools, poor relief programmes and overseas missions, especially in the West Indies. Most of these activities were not financed directly by the membership.

A key approach was to appeal for public subscriptions, which were widely used outside Methodism to fund public buildings and services such as hospitals, but there were many variations. In the West Indies, for example, some Wesleyan missionaries supplied spiritual services to slave-owners under contract.

One major result of these developments was that the Wesleyan Methodist movement became increasingly dependent on its richer members and supporters. For example, though its areas of greatest membership strength were Yorkshire and the South West of England, subscription income came disproportionately from wealthy London.

But until well into the nineteenth century, this seems not to have blunted its expansion: membership almost doubled between 1800 and 1820. Indeed, the complex and flexible financial policies and practices that underpinned the movement were crucially important in enabling it to respond to the spiritual and (to an extent) material needs of Britain’s growing and geographically shifting population.