The Anglo-American World is predominantly a Protestant and religious world: reformed Christianity largely influenced the culture and ideals. But Protestantism is no British creation for it appeared in the 16th century in continental Europe:

  • A German monk called Martin Luther started a rebellion against the churches’ authority in 1517 and founded a new church: “the Lutheran or Evangelical Church”.
  • A Frenchman called Jean Calvin rose against authority and influenced indirectly the whole civilization of the English-speaking world.

For them, the only authority in the church should come from the Bible and not from priests, for else the interpretation is open to everybody: the Reformation started a real challenge against authority. English and American Protestantisms were defined by plurality: the Reformation had a tremendous influence on the individual freedom and on the development of an atmosphere of tolerance.

In Britain, churches after the Reformation organized themselves as official national churches: one particular protestant church became the established Church [=> rejection & exclusion].

In Ireland, the establishment was the natural elite: that what was called the Ascendancy.

I. The Church of England

The Church of England was created by the top of the British society in 1534 when Henry VIII decided to separate the English Church from the Church of Rome by his own authority. His creation took the simple name of Anglican Church (English Church). The King had 3 main reasons for the creation of the Church of England:

  • Personal reason: the King wished to divorce his wife and the Pope refused. There was a problem of power for the King did not want to be ruled by the Pope.
  • Financial reason: England was small and poor before colonization and the King needed the Church’s wealth. Hence, the King accepted Luther’s theory about the abolition of monasteries and started the Reformation.
  • Political reason: Henry VIII wanted to be free of appointing the leaders of the church, i.e. the Bishops.

The Reformation is a declaration of independence for the rest of the world (especially for France and Italy). In terms of doctrine, Anglicanism is a political, practical and pragmatic compromise between roman Catholicism and continental Protestantisms: several tendencies developed within the Church from the part of the Church called High Church (close to Catholicism) to the low Church (close to Calvinism). The Church developed in a general atmosphere of tolerance. Yet, in terms of organization and discipline, the Church of England kept an elaborate hierarchy of priests, bishops and 2 archbishops under the supremacy of the King, the official head of the Church.

Individual access to reading the Bible, which represents a characteristic of Protestantism, was made possible through the publication in 1611 of an English translation of the texts. But, this was made under a strictly controlled version, known after the very significant name of the authorized version, which is in use nowadays in the USA: King James’s Bible.

From 1563, those who wanted to eliminate catholic survivors from the Church of England were forced to leave it: they were called the Puritans from their wish to purify the Church from popery. They gave birth to England’s religious pluralism that found an echo in a variety of American churches’ denominations.

II. The Church of Scotland

In 1559, John Knox founded a popular Calvinist church in Scotland. He rejected papal authority and all kinds of hierarchy but this democratic church imposed strict moral discipline and social order on the people. It was organized after a system called Presbyterianism in which authority was detained neither by people nor ministers but by a category of members called the Elders.

In 1560, the Scottish Parliament adopted Presbyterianism as the Church of Scotland.

III. The non-established churches

Contrary to the notions of uniformity and discipline, expressed by the established churches (England and Scotland), the existence and persistence of non-established denominations demonstrates the principles of diversity which is characteristic of the protestant world.Historically, both Catholics and Protestants dissenters were first persecuted and then excluded from civic life, i.e. they had no access to professions, to trading corporations, to universities (both as students and professors) and to politics. Protestants independents were finally tolerated in the early 18th century but the formal emancipation of those two groups of people only took place in 182X, when they were given full civil rights.

A. Roman Catholicism

Because of persecutions, Roman Catholicism had almost disappeared from GB in the 18th century. But in Ireland, it remained the religion of a majority of the population. Nevertheless, like the Br counterpart, until 1829, Irish Catholics were discriminated and the minority Anglican Church was established as the official church of Ireland. Mainly because of Irish immigration from 1845 onwards, Roman Catholicism has made constant progress in GB, particularly in the big industrial centers of the Northwest (Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow).

In 1921, the major part of Ireland separated from Britain and became the Irish Free State, which later took the name of Irish Republic or Eire. But the mainly protestant countries of Northern Ireland remained British for political and religious reasons. They formed the province of Ulster. This close link between religion and politics, between Protestantism and unionism on the one hand and Catholicism and republicanism on the other hand is the main reason for sectarian violence in Ulster.

Other problems are typical of the religious context of Northern Ireland:

  • Absence of residential integration between Catholics and Protestants: the two communities live in separate quarters. This problem is responsible for the presence of ghettos in Belfast or Derry.
  • Persistence of job discrimination for the catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Although discrimination was formerly declared illegal in 1979, Ÿ of the jobless in Northern Ireland are Catholics.

B. Other protestant denominations

Several denominations still continue to be in the independent tradition that emerged in England and in Scotland against the established churches:

  • The Congregationalists: emerged as the old puritan separatists. In England and Wales, they have recently merged with the Presbyterians to become the united-reformed church. But this union was impossible in Scotland, where Presbyterianism is established as the official church.
  • The Baptists: were created in England in 1609 by John Smyth. Their action is very important in the USA (especially in the South). Famous Baptists: Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter.
  • The Quakers: were founded by the Englishman George Fox in 1650. They have no clergy at all and advocate pacifism (peace and love). Their influence is very important in charities and education. They played a decisive role in business and capitalism: Barclay founded an important banking company and Cadbury a chocolate company. The Quakers also founded two American states: Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, both famous for their religious tolerance and democratic institutions.
  • The Methodists: were created by an Englishman called John Wesley in the middle of the 18th century. Methodism started as protest against conservatism and formalism in the Church of England. Popular movement insisting on individual freedom and personal enthusiasm.
  • The Salvation Army: was founded by an Englishman called William Booth in 1865 in a very original protestant church without clergy, yet with a strong military organization. Church insisting on the relief of poverty as essential.

IV. The influence of Protestantism

Protestantism and more especially Bible reading in English represent the major origins of the Anglo-American moral and intellectual traditions. It greatly influenced native traditions but it was also influenced by those different traditions. The result of these interactions, sometimes violent, is a complex cultural melting pot that is characteristic of the contemporary English-speaking world.

A. Influence on politics and economics

Protestantism advocated individual freedom and more democracy in Church matters. The Anglo-American tradition emphasizes on the notion of respect for civic liberties and insists on the necessity for minimum intervention from the state in everyday life.

Therefore, both libertarianism and liberalism may be said to be consequence of Protestantism. Parliamentary institutions were first adopted in England before the Reformation but the progressive desacralization of monarchy and the rule of pluralism through the creation of political parties are legacies of Protestantism.

The coexistence between centralism and delegation of authority was inherited from Protestantism. In Britain, the monarchy persisted as the symbol of state. In the USA, the new presidential institutions lay emphasis on a powerful head of state. But in both cases, local authorities have their own say in political matters. The American regime is federal while the British system applies the rule of subsidiarity; i.e. decisions are taken at the lowest possible level.

Capitalism may also be attributed to Protestantism, since economic success and accumulation of capital were considered as signs of salvation.

B. Influence on culture and society

Because of the emphasis put on the individual by Protestantism, Anglo-American societies are strongly individualistic. They expressed the horror of collective structure, the cult of the self-made-man and are very often indifferent to poverty. Society is also animated by a strong sense of community, in a great respect for organization, responsibility and public spirit. Sometimes, the state is committed to social issues: the Welfare State in GB was set up in 1945 to protect national health and social security but there is no Welfare State in the USA.

Hence, opposition of a puritan sense of economy, seriousness, work ethic, counterbalanced by a degree of relativism, distanced humor and nonsense, which are as powerful as the puritan trend. Because of its religious diversity, the Anglo-American World inherited a great sense of compromise in a general context of striking social and cultural contrast.

Sommaire de la série From the Reformation to the birth of the American nation (1534-1776)

  1. The Reformation in the British Isles
  2. English Expansionism
  3. The Glorious Revolution of 1688
  4. The American colonies : Religion and Politics
  5. Birth of a Nation


Max Weber (1864-1920), sociologue allemand, a écrit l’Ethique Protestante et l’Esprit du Capitalisme en 1905 et a essayé d’expliquer le sens profond du passage d’une société traditionnelle à une société moderne.

Il s’interroge sur les origines du capitalisme, la rationalisation des activités économiques et sociales et la bureaucratie. Le Protestantisme est pour Weber lié à l’esprit du capitalisme.

I – La rationalisation des sociétés occidentales selon Weber

A – Rationalité?

Calcul, objectif, contraintes : adaptation des moyens aux fins. Dans les sociétés modernes on accorde de l’importance :

  • aux calculs
  • aux prévisions
  • aux méthodes rigoureuses
  • aux techniques de gestion
  • le droit codifie les relations
  • la loi définit les principes généraux

Weber distingue 2 types de rationalité :

la rationalité par rapport aux fins

exemple : une entreprise a un objectif ( le profit), elle va faire des calculs et s’adapter au contraintes (concurrence).

la rationalité par rapport aux valeurs

exemple : l’éthique protestante

Chaque individu est marqué par des manières de faire et de penser : les hommes ont un éthos. Le capitalisme est avant tout la rationalité appliquée à l’économie (mode de pensée particulier).

B – Rationalisation ?

La rationalisation est un processus des sociétés occidentales qui prône l’extension de la rationalité à l’ensemble du monde social :

  • l’entreprise : taylorisme, techniques de gestion
  • les administrations : bureaucratie
  • la vie politique
  • l’organisation syndicale

Les sociétés modernes sont donc des sociétés rationnelles désenchantées car elles accordent peu d’importance aux croyances, au sacré, aux mythes et au surnaturel.

La rationalisation est le thème central de son interprétation de la société moderne.

C – Les différents types d’action

Weber distingue 4 types d’action.

L’action rationnelle par rapport à un but : l’acteur conçoit clairement le but et combine les moyens en vue d’atteindre celui-ci.

L’action rationnelle par rapport à une valeur : l’acteur accepte tous les risques, non pour obtenir un résultat extrinsèque mais pour rester fidèle à l’idée qu’il se fait de l’honneur.

L’action affective : est dictée immédiatement par l’état de conscience ou par l’humeur du sujet. L’action est définie non pas par référence à un but mais par la réaction émotionnelle de l’acteur placé dans les circonstances données.

L’action traditionnelle : est dictée par des habitudes, des coutumes, des croyances. L’acteur n’a besoin ni de se représenter un but, ni de concevoir une valeur, ni d’être animé par une émotion : il obéit simplement aux réflexes enracinés par une longue pratique.

Les critères utilisés pour bâtir cette typologie sont l’existence ou l’absence de signification donnée par l’acteur à son action.

Pour le sociologue, l’action par rapport à un but et l’action par rapport à une valeur sont les plus intéressantes car elles sont rationnelles.

D – Les 3 formes de domination

1 – Le pouvoir légitime

Le pouvoir légitime est le pouvoir auquel on consent et que l’on ne conteste pas dans son principe. Il existe 3 raisons qui justifient la domination. Selon Weber, il existe 3 types de pouvoir fondés chacun sur une légitimité différente.

2 – Les 3 formes de domination

La domination traditionnelle : (dans les sociétés traditionnelles) : par les habitudes, croyances aux traditions, on obéit à des personnes d’un rang différent (patriarche, seigneur).

La domination charismatique : repose sur la personnalité, les qualités, la confiance d’une personne (prophète, souverain). Jésus et Hitler sont des chefs charismatiques. La seule qualité du chef charismatique est la compétence à persuader ceux dont il cherche à obtenir l’obéissance qu’il possède un ou plusieurs dons extraordinaires.

La domination légale rationnelle : fondée sur la loi, la légalité. Pouvoir dû à des règles établies rationnellement (gouvernement, fonctionnaires). La bureaucratie est l’acceptation de la loi et du droit.

Pour Weber, la bureaucratie représente le mode de fonctionnement des sociétés modernes (processus de rationalisation).

Ceux qui exercent cette domination doivent faire preuve de neutralité : ce sont des agents spécialisés qui agissent de manière impersonnelle. Ils sont nommés par concours et Weber affirme que la bureaucratie n’existe pas que dans l’administration mais aussi dans les grandes entreprises, les partis politiques et les organisations syndicales.

C’est pour Weber la forme d’organisation la plus efficace quant à ses résultats car elle est rationnelle. Elle caractérise les sociétés modernes.

II – Protestantisme et esprit du capitalisme

A – La thèse de Weber

Economie et religion sont deux thèmes étudiés par Weber dans son ouvrage l’Ethique protestante et l’esprit du capitalisme en 1905 et dans lequel il cherche à étudier l’influence que peut avoir la religion dans l’économie.

Weber veut prouver que l’ascétisme préconisé par les protestants entre le 16ème et le 18ème siècle a favorisé l’essor du capitalisme en Angleterre.

La religion protestante produit une certaine éthique et l’intériorisation de cette éthique conduit à un certain éthos.

Weber s’intéresse plus particulièrement au protestantisme puritain (calvinisme). Il existe donc une relation entre religion et changement social. En mettant en pratique cet éthos, les individus ont adapté des comportements favorables à l’essor du capitalisme.

B – Explications

1 – la rationalisation et l’ascétisme religieux

Les protestants doivent avoir une conduite rationnelle :

  • but : accéder au salut éternel
  • rationalité par rapport à une valeur
  • moyen : en menant une vie ascétique rationalisée

2 – la prédestination

Calvin a introduit l’idée de prédestination : le calviniste ne peut savoir s’il sera sauvé ou damné ; de Dieu seul dépend le salut au-delà de la mort.

Pour les catholiques, c’est en fonction de leurs actions qu’ils seront sauvés ou non. Pour les calvinistes, leur conduite sur Terre ne change rien : le protestant est prédestiné. Il faut cependant que sa conduite ne soit pas immorale.

Suis-je un élu ? Le travail sans relâche dans un métier est le meilleur moyen pour dissiper le doute religieux. Le calviniste doit mener une vie laborieuse et austère : la prospérité de ses affaires est le signe de l’élection divine. L’ascétisme protestant est donc l’esprit du capitalisme car deux rationalités sont liées :

  • la rationalité par rapport à une valeur : éthique protestante
  • la rationalité par rapport à un but (économiste) : esprit du capitalisme

3 – la valorisation du travail

Le travail est une forme d’ascèse qui permet de se rapprocher de Dieu, d’éviter de trop s’adonner au plaisir et de ne pas gaspiller son temps.

4 – le métier : une vocation

Le métier a une connotation religieuse de vocation : c’est Dieu qui appelle chaque homme à exercer une activité professionnelle. Ce concept à connotation religieuse valorise l’activité lucrative capitaliste : il s’agit d’une rationalité par rapport à une valeur.

Pour un puritain, l’enrichissement n’est pas une fin en soi, il répond simplement à l’appel de Dieu.

5 – l’épargne

L’ascétisme puritain freine la consommation lorsqu’elle porte sur le superflu et l’ostentatoire. Si la consommation baisse alors l’épargne augmente, de même que l’investissement (E = I).

L’ascétisme protestant a contribué à développer l’esprit du capitalisme : l’enrichissement est un signe que le protestant est promis au salut éternel.

III – L’irrationnalité de certains Pays En Développement (PED)

Les blocages culturels sont souvent évoqués pour expliquer la stagnation de certains PED qui sont encore sous l’emprise d’une pensée magique, irrationnelle ou issue de la tradition. Ils n’ont pas la rationalité nécessaire au développement dans leur culture.

Les modèles de développement capitalistes sont le travail, l’investissement, la recherche du profit, la productivité…

IV – Les Pays En Développement et la bureaucratie

Les dominations importantes dans les PED sont traditionnelles et charismatiques. Or le modèle des pays développés est la domination légale-rationnelle (bureaucratique).

La bureaucratie existe aussi dans les PED mais elle fonctionne sur un modèle clientéliste. L’existence d’une bureaucratie pléthorique est coûteuse pour des pays aux budgets limités.

Le clientélisme est la pratique qui consiste pour le détenteur d’un pouvoir à favoriser des personnes ou groupe de personnes (clientèle) au détriment des autres en échange de la garantie de conserver un pouvoir. Exemple : attribution des postes administratifs en fonction du clientélisme et non du mérite (non rationnel).

I. The Puritan New World vision in the longer schemes of things

English Puritans can be divided into several groups. Most of the Puritans remained in England. They accepted the principle of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, with the Separatists (no affiliation with authority and the English protestant church). They were persecuted and many of them had to run away and come to the New World.

To many Puritans, Christopher Columbus’s passage in America was one of the most important historical events as the sign of a bigger historical destiny, as well as Gutemberg’s printing press (1456) and the Protestant reformation: 3 events, at the same time geographical, textual and religious, marking the beginning of a New World.

Gutemberg’s invention was particularly important for the New -England Protestants for their frequent use of texts (major means of communication). The Puritan society was a unique form of society in the sense that they defined their identity essentially by means of texts. Throughout the 17th century, colonial identity was the product of two things:

  • Literature or texts
  • And concrete movement in social and geographical space.

This particular form of identity can be seen through different aspects of literary expression: the Puritans used these aspects as sermons, declarations, covenants, controversies and statements of purpose. Therefore, the lasting effect of the printing press on colonial America is to be found in its contribution to the emergence of a national identity based first and foremost on language and writing. It was first by means of publication that America declared to the world its identity as a nation and trough an effect of discourse that she defined proclaimed and projected its past, its present and its future.

II. Realizing the vision: the image of the future played out in the New World

As far as the Puritan world vision is concerned, their conception of their role in the discovery of America is profoundly religious: it’s unseparable from the biblical metaphors of the Apocalypse and the coming of the millenium. Indeed, their historical and geographical position in America is closely related to their biblical definition of themselves and of America. In the bigger divine plan, the Puritans are God’s chosen people. Their destination, both spiritual and geographical is America, the new Israel that marks the beginning of the millenium. In this context, it’s also important to add that the millenium utopianism of the Puritans goes hand in hand with their political and religious beliefs.

Through a characteristic synthesis, the Puritans defined their system as a church-state. They believed this religious political system should be a model for the Christian world. The Puritans considered their historical role in the New World as that of a universal community organized under a "federal" or "national" contract, called a covenant. Therefore, in John Winthrop’s words, the new church-state was supposed to be "a city upon a hill", a universal "model of Christian charity" (taken from the sermon he made abroad the ship The Arbella in 1630). But, with the beginning of the Restoration in 1660, the Puritans lost all hope of spreading their universal vision through England. The realization of the Puritans’ vision was turned fully toward America and, consciously or unconsciously, the second or third generation of Puritans adopted European metaphors of America, those that they used in their futuristic vision of both land and history.

Thus, the imaginary visions of America as utopia became synonymous with the New Heaven promised by the Revelation (the Apocalypse). In this apocalyptic vision, geographical and literary exploration, textuality and religious imagery are unseparable. These three aspects of the Puritan New World vision represent their most lasting contribution to the American sense of community and identity. From the Declaration of Independence to the notion of the Manifest Destiny (John L. O’Sullivan) to the New Frontier (John F. Kennedy), the USA has always seen its confrontation with the future as a sort of battle of the wilderness: the nation’s representation of itself reminds us of the Puritans and their imaginary vision of the New World: the vision of a nation in danger, of a plantation facing a complex and hostile environment, of a unified community gaining strength from the challengers of its environment. Throughout this vision, we found three fundamental elements of American identity:

  • The imaginary projection of nature as the scene of an especially American self.
  • The representation of a self that uses such a scene to enact a specifically American mode of self-realization (in the future).
  • The conscious or unconscious references to biblical imagery and the biblical conception of history: American as a necessary self fulfilling promise.

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. Modernism