Weber’s text was first written in 1904 as a series of essays. It evolved into a more cohesive work over time, as Weber incorporated responses to criticism and reworked some of his ideas. The text centers itself on a discussion of the 16th century Reformation period, and attempts to trace how this period influenced the capitalist values of Weber’s time. Weber’s work must thus be contextualized both by the time of its publication, and by the historical period it concerned itself with. When it was first published as a book in 1905, Weber’s work met with heavy criticism and confusion. He would go on to revise the essay and add numerous explanatory footnotes for republication in 1920. However, this did not resolve the fact that the text’s central thesis was controversial. In many ways, controversy over the text was inevitable given the material Weber chose to analyze. Weber’s text addresses a number of issues that were particularly pertinent in his own time. These include the historical origins of capitalism, explaining religious influences in society, and the direction in which humanity was headed at the beginning of the 20th century. All of these questions were at the forefront of scholars’ minds, and Weber’s text served to contribute to their ongoing conversations on these topics.
Much of the controversy around Weber’s text stemmed in particular from the ways in which he responded to Karl Marx. In Weber’s time, Marxism had sparked new enthusiasm for studying the origins of industrial capitalism in the West. Marxism, a set of theories developed by the famous German socialist Karl Marx in the mid-19th century, explained modern society as the result of class struggles. For Marx, capitalism entailed a central conflict between the upper and lower classes. He applied an approach known as historical materialism, which analyzed previous socioeconomic systems as a means of explaining historical attitudes and events. According to this method, Marx concluded that modern capitalism was doomed to implode when the lower class grew frustrated enough with their situation to rebel. Weber was very familiar with Marxism, but also very critical of it. In many ways, his text responds to Marx’s concern with the development and future of capitalism. Weber, however, eschews historical materialism in favor of focusing on how religious attitudes shaped socioeconomic systems in the first place. In other words, Weber does not study materialist changes, such as developments in farming, banking, technology, private property law, etc, the way that Marx does. These issues help to explain the structure of capitalism, but Weber also wants to account for the “spirit” that motivates capitalist attitudes. He emphasizes that certain belief systems formed this “spirit,” or set of values, which motivated and partly caused the growth of capitalism. Weber’s central thesis was radical in his time because it reframed the relationship between religion and capitalism. While Marxism viewed religion as a response to the miseries of capitalism and focused only on secular explanations for the development of capitalism, Weber argued that aspects of religious beliefs were responsible for framing the heart of the capitalist attitude.
Weber believed that, in his own time, Lutheranism had gone from a radical movement to one that was moving toward illiberalism. In the Reformation, Lutheranism had been a revolutionary movement, which encouraged a more personal and less institutional version of spirituality and allowed for less reliance on the church. In his text, Weber studies Lutheranism as one of the denominations that contributed to the capitalist spirit. However, Weber feared that the Lutheran influence in Germany had encouraged a powerful state at the expense of personal liberties. Weber regretted that Germany was most influenced by Lutheranism and not other Protestant sects, such as Baptism or Calvinism, which he believed contributed positively to the capitalist spirit in other countries. For Weber, then, it was important to trace the ways in which religious ethics shaped the motivations of a capitalist society in order to isolate certain problems he saw in his own country. He also believed that these religious ethics could account for successes he observed in other countries. For example, he admired England and America above all for being created with the kind of individualist spirit and emphasis on hard work that he analyzes throughout The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Weber, these values come primarily from Protestantism, and particularly from Calvinism, Puritanism, and Baptism. Weber was also personally opposed to the Catholic tradition in Germany, which he believed was discriminatory and unfair. This is also consistent with the analysis found throughout his book, which explains how Catholicism was not able to spark the kinds of values that Protestantism contributed to capitalism. In fact, Weber begins his text by criticizing Catholicism for promoting social stratification, and goes on to contrast it unfavorably with Protestantism throughout his text. Many of the arguments he makes about different religious denominations in the time of the Reformation can also be connected to his views on their influence in his 20th century society.
Weber’s text was first able to spread throughout the Anglophone world thanks to economist Frank Knight and sociologist Talcott Parsons, who worked on translating the work. Some have criticized this translation for doing too much to Americanize Weber’s text, but it was also the first version to popularize the essay. The text was most favorably received by sociologists, while economists and historians often criticized it for being too vague or for containing faulty logic according to their disciplines. Sociologists recognized the value of the text’s unique interpretation in a different way, and appreciated that it only made tentative proposals, without coming to definitive conclusions. Over the course of the 20th century, the text's influence and recognition grew, and it had become a best seller by the middle of the century. Today, it is still regarded as one of the most influential texts of modern sociology, and indeed one of the most important theoretical works of the 20th century.