I could not disagree with Weber's hypothesis more. Protestant is a hyperstable distortion of earlier forms of capitalism; rigid denial of spontaneous behaviour is only good for creating large breeding pools to spend on warfare or migration, which is historically exactly what occured from Protestant Capitalism: mass migration to the US and mass death of the Great War.
The vigor of American protestantism is due to their having migrated, not to their frugality. They have lebensraum (living room) and hence room to think, dream and innovate all the way to the moon.
The notion of good works seems to have been lifted from Judaism and Islam. A university lecturer I worked for once told me that Protestantism was Christianity's assimilation of Muslim ways, which fits well with this notion. Until Islam threatened Europe, it did not develop Capitalism beyond the rigid fuedal form, and even then historical inertia won out with a hyper-rigid Protestant working class ethos.
Here is the hypothesis, then:
Weber’s analysis of the relationship between religion and economic development
placed more emphasis on broad religious imperatives than on the specific injunctions that
each particular religion might impose on economic behavior (Eisenstadt 1968). Hence he
wrote of a “Protestant ethic,” even though Protestantism is a fractured and fragmented set
of religions, each with its own code of beliefs, doctrines and practices. His project aimed
at establishing a link between this Protestant ethic and the “spirit” of capitalism, but it
also sought an explanation for why Western civilization proved to be such fertile ground
for the Industrial Revolution and the growth of modern capitalism. As such, Weber’s
study did not confine itself to religious factors, although he was convinced that such
factors were of greatest importance in the long run (Kaufmann 1997). Although the
Protestant ethic is derived from fundamental religious principles, it is both “secular” and
“worldly”. It includes, or perhaps produces, an economic ethic: “…the summum bonum
of this ethic [is] the earning of more and more money combined with the strict avoidance
of all spontaneous enjoyment of life” (Weber 1930, 53).
For Weber, the spirit of capitalism is antecedent to the emergence of capitalism,
and it is derived from the Protestant ethic. Nowhere in his study does Weber define “the
spirit of capitalism,” but he conveys its meaning in terms of Benjamin Franklin’s
homespun philosophy concerning the utility of virtue: “Honesty is useful because it
assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are
virtues….According to Franklin, those virtues, like all others, are only in so far virtues as
they are actually useful to the individual, and the surrogate of mere appearance is always
sufficient when it accomplishes the end in view” (Weber 1930, 52).
Within this ethic, making money is not only the highest good, it is a duty, one
which is closely connected with the religious idea of a calling: “The earning of money
within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the
expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling” (Weber 1930, 53-54). In other words,
economic success is a measure of individual virtue. It is this idea which sets Weber’s
analysis apart—he limits its acceptance to Western Europe and America, for he was well
aware that: “Capitalism existed in China, India, Babylon, in the Classic World and in the
Middle Ages. But in all these cases…this particular ethos was lacking” (Weber 1930,
Despite popular and naïve perversions of Weber’s thesis, it is important to note
that he did not claim that the Protestant ethic alone was sufficient to bring about the
capitalist system—in other words, religion did not cause capitalism. Nor did he
champion the extreme position that modern capitalism would not have come into being
without the Protestant ethic. Rather, Weber maintained the intermediate position that the
Protestant ethic significantly fostered and accelerated the development of Western
capitalism. As noted above, he was well aware that forms of capitalism existed prior to
the Reformation. But he was equally aware that only in Western Europe and America did
capitalism “develop in a way and on a scale sufficient to bring about an Industrial
Revolution and an industrial civilisation” (Lessnoff 1994). For Weber, therefore, there
was something special about Western capitalism after the Reformation. He found that
special factor in the Protestant work ethic and its strong element of asceticism.
The most basic aspect of Protestantism is its doctrine of salvation. Salvation is
attained by faith alone, but Protestantism advocates forms of human behavior that are
pleasing to God, such as good works. Luther, in particular, decisively altered the (pre-
Reformation) Christian conception of good works by prescribing the fulfillment of duties
in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume (Weber 1930).
Calvin complicated matters by adding the doctrine of
predestination. Under Calvin’s influence, good works became an objective and reliable
sign of grace, so that those who practiced them could thereby assuage their doubts and
allay their fears. Hence, good works became not so much a toll on the highway to heaven
but rather “the means of getting rid of the fear of damnation” (Lessnoff 1994). It is easy
to see how the combination of Lutheran virtue and Calvinist asceticism yielded an ethos
that stimulated entrepreneurs and artisans alike to achieve economic success in their
respective spheres. This ethic was a dramatic shift from the Christian ethic of pre-
Reformatory times. But being preference-based in origin, it postulated a demand-driven
course of action: the advent of Protestantism and its precepts changed tastes in favor of
saving versus consumption. To this demand-side theory we offer a complementary
theory that stresses the supply side of economic behavior and brings more balance to the
historical connection between religion and economic growth."