Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Protestant Work Ethic, Capitalism and Revival: Nothing New Under the Sun

Written by: on February 18, 2023

The forces that shape our culture and worldviews are layered and complex.  It’s quite an undertaking to look back on history and attempt to trace the threads that form our current leadership environments. Anyone who does so must acknowledge that such discoveries, while insightful and helpful, are also surely biased through the lenses through which they, themselves, interpret history and view the world. Back in 1904 that’s exactly the type of undertaking that Max Weber pursued in his examination of the relationships between Protestantism and rise of capitalism in the Western World. In doing so, he acknowledged his individual bias and also invited further development and critique.

In Weber’s work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” he makes the case that the Protestant work ethic, an ascetic attitude which emphasizes hard work, frugality, and self-discipline, was a key factor in the development of capitalism. According to Weber, the Protestant ethic encouraged people to work hard, save money, and reinvest it in their businesses rather than spending it on luxurious goods or idle pursuits. This, in turn, led to the accumulation of capital and the growth of capitalism.[1]  Weber defined “the spirit of capitalism” exclusively on text from Benjamin Franklin—“a document…which contains what we are looking for in almost classical purity, and at the same time has the advantage of being free from all direct relationship to religion.”[2]

Reflecting on Weber’s work, I find it interesting that he seems to personify this “spirit of capitalism” to the singular person of Benjamin Franklin. To me, it seems insufficient to base an entire theory on the words of one person, but perhaps my understanding of Franklin’s impact on Western culture is just lacking.  Regardless, Weber goes on to trace this “spirit’s” roots to a Protestant work ethic by examining the way Protestantism developed through the teachings of reformers such as Luther and Calvin-—particularly how Calvin introduced the doctrine of predestination.  Weber argues that this idea of predestination created a sense of anxiety and insecurity among Protestants who were constantly striving to prove their worthiness in the eyes of God. He states that it’s this anxiety (lack of assurance) about their eternal salvation that became the driving force behind the “spirit of capitalism” described by Benjamin Franklin taking hold.

Now, Dr. Jason Clark does exactly what Weber invites academics to do, and he takes Weber’s thread of linking Protestant work ethic and the development of capitalism one step further in his 2018 doctoral thesis by showing how Protestantism, Evangelicalism and Capitalism are all linked. He argues that “Evangelicalism was both a creature of, and generator to, aspects of capitalism. Within this capitalism was on the one hand a product of Protestant work ethics, whilst on the other, the forces of capitalism simultaneously produced and modulated Protestantism into forms of Evangelicalism.” [3]

So here at the most basic level, we have at least four threads showing how Protestant reformers created anxiety about the assurance of salvation, which created an ascetic attitude that both found a home in new capitalistic opportunities AND opposed them on religious grounds. In such an environment, Evanglicalism was born. It is in this murky environment of juxtaposed cause and effect that I see evidence to this very day of the complicated relationship between Evangelicalism and capitalism. Case in point—the Asbury revival currently happening in Kentucky.

How Attitudes Toward the Current Asbury Revival Show the Ongoing Complex Relationships Between Evangelicalism and Capitalism

For the past week, my social media feed and email inbox have been filled with testimonials and stories emerging from the spontaneous revival that is ongoing at Asbury University in Kentucky. In almost all of them, I find a caveat like this from Tom McCall:

As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation. I come from a background (in a particularly revivalist segment of the Methodist-holiness tradition) where I’ve seen efforts to manufacture “revivals” and “movements of the Spirit” that were sometimes not only hollow but also harmful. I do not want anything to do with that.

And truth be told, this is nothing like that. There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor. [4]

Each individual testifying about the revival seems compelled to note that there are no flashy lights, no famous speakers, no polished music, and no set agenda—all examples of what I would ascribe to being capitalistic-inspired elements of modern day worship. And yet, it is communication channels and technology that only exist because of capitalism that allow the wonder of such an event as the Asbury revival to be multiplied and shared.  To this day, it appears that there is something inside the hearts of believers that wants to separate the work of God from capitalism, as evidenced by the caveats I hear about Asbury. Yet God is has and will continue to work through such means to accomplish His will. Sounds a lot like those early Evangelicals trying to find their way in the capitalistic world more than 100 years ago!

Thus, I find myself continuing to ponder these questions:
Is it possible for Christianity to be separated from capitalism? And more importantly, should it?


[1] Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

[2] Weber, 12.

[3] Clark, Jason Paul, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018). Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary, 120.

[4] McCall, Tom. “Asbury Professor: We’re Witnessing a ‘Surprising Work of God.’” ChristianityToday.com, February 13, 2023.

About the Author


Laura Fleetwood

Laura Fleetwood is a Christian creative, certified Enneagram Coach, doctoral student at Portland Seminary and Creative Director at her home church, Messiah St. Charles. As a published author, national faith speaker, podcaster and self-described anxiety warrior, Laura uses storytelling to teach you how to seek the S T I L L in the midst of your chaotic life. Find Laura at www.seekingthestill.com

13 responses to “Protestant Work Ethic, Capitalism and Revival: Nothing New Under the Sun”

  1. Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

    Wow, Laura, that is such a great post. Thank you. I appreciate the way you condensed this complicated reading into concise summaries in which you captured the key points and wove in supportive quotes.

    That is really exciting and interesting to hear about the Asbury Revival. It does sound similar, doesn’t it, to the ways capitalism lent itself to spreading the gospel and stories of revival decades ago? I like your questions at the end. I would love to hear more of your thinking on this! Thank you so much for your post.

    • Thanks, Jenny! I believe this is a case of “both and.” A society does not have to be capitalistic for Christianity to take hold. In fact, we see believers everywhere in the world–definitely in places where capitalism is not prominent. However, I also don’t believe that Capitalism and Christianity have to be at odds with each other. God works in all circumstances, even when an exchange of goods takes place and money is made. The question is how to balance it so that the main thing is the main thing and greed doesn’t get in the way. Not easy to do!

  2. Tonette Kellett says:


    I loved how you compared the early evangelicals to todays revival going on in Kentucky. What a way to bring it home for us. I think this post is a homerun.

  3. mm Becca Hald says:

    Wow Laura, I love the way you have succinctly explained everything. I read your post thinking, “oh, is that what he said?” I have really struggled with Weber this week. I love your connection to the Asbury revival. Your final question makes me think about the “He Gets Us” campaign and the ads in the Super Bowl. Do you think it is worth it to spend a billion dollars to help “everyone to understand the authentic Jesus as he’s depicted in the Bible — the Jesus of radical forgiveness, compassion, and love.” (from the He Gets Us website). I do not have the source, but my husband told me about an article he read where this campaign plans on spending a billion dollars. What are your thoughts?

    • Becca – We’ve actually been focusing on the He Gets Us campaign for our current worship service at our church for the past 8 weeks. I understand how people are skeptical and even those that say the money could go toward a better use. However, if the Holy Spirit has led this group of Christian donors to glrofy the name of Jesus in this way, who are we to question it? Helping people see Jesus for who He was in a non-churchy, non-judgemental way is beautiful to me. I can’t wait to see what happens!

  4. Kristy Newport says:

    I read the article that you cited from the professor. I love how he shared the simple/non hype movement of the Spirit that is taking place in Asbury. Personally, I am glad for the capitalism that is promoting this revival. I have been able to find all of my information about the revival over emails that have been sent my way and Facebook postings. Without these means of communication, would news in Kentucky reach California quickly? I have found it refreshing to get news of God getting some glory for what is taking place in peoples lives (on a college campus).

  5. mm Chad McSwain says:

    Great thoughts on Weber and Clark – you have me considering the way I read both of them in light of your excellent summary.
    I have the same questions about the use of capitalism, while we are quick to disparage it. The Asbury Revival is a great example of this. While they may be not be using the commercial characteristics of worship, they are using social media to spread the word about the revival, which is a commercial tool. I am sure they are the worship leaders and speakers have training in the arts they are employing. It is difficult to separate the means of the culture from the Gospel. It is almost as if the Gospel must be incarnated in the culture to exist within in it. Our culture happens to be defined by capitalism. You asked the question on my mind, “Is it possible for Christianity to be separated from capitalism? And more importantly, should it?”

  6. Alana Hayes says:

    Laura! Great comparisons!

    How do you think that technology has both enabled and complicated the narrative of spiritual revival in modern evangelical societies? How do you think the aftershocks of a modern-day revival like Asbury differ from even the ones in the past at the same university? (1905, 1908, 1921, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1992, and 2006)

    • Great question, Alana! I think technology enabled people from all over the country to be able to participate in the revival, but also encouraged more skepticism than in pre-tech eras. Obviously the earlier revivals were more local and regional in nature, but I know without a doubt that God was working through them all!

  7. Kristy Newport says:

    I enjoyed reviewing your blog and the comments!
    I am prepping for my syntopical essay.

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