Self-Help and Popular Religion in Early American Culture: An Interpretive Guide

By Roy M. Anker | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Protestant Ethic and Puritan New England

In seeking to locate the origins of the self-help tradition in American culture, historians have usually pointed to the first decades of European settlement in New England, that part of the New World settled, for the most part, by English Puritans in the early seventeenth century. Popular lore depicts these people as rugged individualists who were primed by their special kind of Protestant religious zeal to tame the wilderness for liberty and God-and to get rich in the process. As we will soon discuss, the accuracy of that portrait has formed the center of much debate not only about American history but also about the rise of capitalism in the Western world. The question has, in fact, occasioned, in the words of one scholar, "one of the most significant and well-publicized disputes of twentieth-century scholarship" ( MacKinnon211). What we are talking about here, of course, is the idea that a distinctively "Protestant Ethic" fostered the rise of capitalism, a notion first set forth by German sociologist Max Weber just after the turn of the century ( 1904-1905). Not only has the controversy over the "Weber thesis," as it is called, run the whole length of the twentieth century, but it has very recently, as scholars have gathered new information and reexamined the sufficiency of old arguments, heated up all over again ( Zaret245). One scholar has recently likened the whole, long-running dispute to a Hollywood movie monster, "the thing that would not die," akin to a creature whose character and visage cannot finally be either accepted or defeated by the people whose lives are shaped by its presence ( Oakes285). Just how important the topic is appears in the very persistence and range of the discussion it has inspired, for its depiction of American beginnings continues to influence many crucial contemporary political and cultural debates about national heritage and future purposes. This chapter briefly recounts the sub-

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