Updated on the 1st and 15th of every month
An Upside-Down History of the World [Japanese]
[Chapter 3] The Origins of Monotheism

Part 1: A Human Hypothesis
41 Protestant-Born Capitalism: “Ethical Commerce”

The White House. The history of the United States began with the Puritans, a people who, fleeing religious persecution in their native England, sought new lands to reach the American continent.

One point from last month’s installment bears repeating—one particular detail, that is, purported by John Calvin, the illustrious French-Swiss reformer of Christian thought. Of course, I’m talking about his theory of predestination and its belief that, at the Last Judgment, God will have already decided whom he will save and whom he will condemn to eternal damnation. The will of God, the absolute, is ironclad. Whether or not a person commits acts of good or evil, their earthly deeds have no bearing on God’s decision at the Last Judgment.

You’d think, then, that predestinarians would, with their conviction that God has already made up his mind, live wholly immoral lives rank with unspeakable acts of self-centered satisfaction. After all, any effort put into being good and doing good would be essentially meaningless.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, what followed was the founding of the United States. Its existence is owed to the Puritans, a group of people who, having grown tired of religious persecution in their native England, sought a new land and settled on the American continent. In 1620, a crew of less than one hundred Puritans (one hundred two if you count non-Puritan passengers) boarded the storied Mayflower and set sail for the east coast of the American continent.

They were Calvinist Protestants, and they landed on a small corner in New England called Plymouth. They were the “Pilgrim Fathers.” Just to clarify, New England is a region, centered on Boston, Massachusetts, comprising of six states of the Northeastern United States including Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island.

Forty-two of the Mayflower passengers signed the so-called Mayflower Compact, an agreement based on the theory of social contract that stated that, upon signing, each individual, independent, under God, would draft a constitution and set of laws for the eventual creation of the nation. It’s what would eventually serve as the foundation of the Declaration of Independence.

The founding of the United States had a tragic side as well. The pilgrims massacred the Native Americans and stole their land. The Bible’s Book of Joshua, by the way, and its assertion that it is God’s commandment to slaughter native peoples, likely had something to do with it. To the pilgrims, the Bible was the end-all, be-all. What the Bible ordered, they did.

The Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress

The very people guilty of such brutality were also a people who revered simplicity and hard work and who loathed idleness and “sin.”

The allegory titled The Pilgrim’s Progress offers a glimpse into Pilgrim ideals. Consisting of two parts and published between 1678 and 1684, the book is the work of Englishman John Bunyan (1628-1688), the man behind what not only became the mostly widely read publication after the Bible among Protestants, but also what, in large part, inspired the Puritans to found the United States.

The Pilgrim’s Progress chronicles the journey of protagonist, Christian (a reference to Christians), who escapes the “City of Destruction,” manages to pass through “Vanity Fair,” and while suffering a number of hardships, lives to overcome them all to arrive in the “Celestial City.” Think of it as a Puritanical role-playing game.

Of course, the end goal for Christian is becoming the perfect Christian.

German economist and sociologist Max Weber, who argued that Calvin’s predestination gave rise to modern capitalism, discusses in his epoch-making proof, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, an interesting scene from The Pilgrim’s Progress:

In the description of Christian’s attitude after he had realized that he was living in the City of Destruction and he had received the call to take up his pilgrimage to the celestial city, wife and children cling to him, but stopping his ears with his fingers and crying, “life, eternal life”, he staggers forth across the fields. No refinement could surpass the naïve feeling of the tinker who, writing in his prison cell, earned the applause of a believing world, in expressing the emotions of the faithful Puritan, thinking only of his salvation.

(Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930], 107)

While the latter portion of the paragraph is discriminatory—certainly John Bunyan was under educated as a poor metalsmith—he was a fervent Protestant and an extremely hard worker who, when oppressed and imprisoned, completed an enduring, incredibly influential work.