2 December 2013 video “The Protestant Reformation” part 4 ‘No Rest for the Wicked’ written and presented by Tristan Hunt

The concluding episode covers the development of what is known as ‘the Protestant work ethic’ and its sidekick ‘profit’. Before the Reformation the ideal was to withdraw from the world eg in Monasteries as poverty and godliness went hand-in-hand, work was demeaning, any profits were distributed to the church for the betterment of all.

Calvin’s interpretation was ‘salvation through faith’, but how might one know if one were saved ie one of the Chosen? The answer became that God’s favour was evidenced if the person prospered.  So now work had an intrinsic value and wealth was the best evidence of God’s favour.  So business success with Christian morality/responsibility/spirituality became intertwined.

Faber introduced the importance of the careful use of time as to be saved one had to account that one’s time had been used properly; therefore idleness was not fulfilling this requirement.  Hence ‘busy-ness => business’.  In 17th and 18th centuries UK became powerhouse for commerce and industry eg Lloyds, Barclays, Wedgewood, Cadbury.  Puritan Winthrop established very successful Boston which demonstrated God’s favour.  Benjamin Franklin spread the Puritan values with his pithy proverbs eg ‘God helps those that help themselves’.  For Wedgewood the efficient use of time established the concept of the modern factory eg fixed hours, training and use of specialists, worker housing, Unions.

The blight of slavery which benefited the Anglican Church in St Thomas was defended as saving the slaves from idleness!  By over working slaves (to death) the church became very wealthy – it became consumed by an overwhelming profit motive.  The Quakers and Methodists as non-conformists succeed in banning it in 1833 after a 40 year (first) human rights campaign.  This highlighted the ‘slaves’ in the UK – child labour which Saddler’s campaign eventually ended.  Children and women were especially degraded by the profit motive which had regained some balance by turn of 19/20th century.

In US liberty and prosperity were the twin objectives as typified by Ford production line.  The godly commonwealth was replaced by individual prosperity and the pursuit of profit and pleasure.  Capitalism devoid of Christian ethics has lead to environmental destruction and the rise of the countering (17th century non-Conformist) challenge of on-site, non-violent protest eg Greenpeace.

So now we have on one hand work, money, profit and on the other protest, highlighting the high cost of capitalism; individualism – v – ethics & conscience.

What started as God everywhere => search for business success => secular world => now God seems nowhere!  The recent observations by Pope Francis on western capitalism seem to pointing to this loss of an ethical keel to keep us upright in the rising storm of ever increasing consumerism and consumption.

Ian Harris