The effects of the Protestant Reformation on human capital

Sascha O. Becker, Ludger Woessmann

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Max Weber's (1904) thesis that the Protestant Reformation was instrumental in facilitating industrial capitalism in Western Europe is generally viewed as the "most famous link between culture and economic development." Weber suggested that Protestants had a specific work ethic that made them work harder and save more. In recent work, an alternative explanation has been proposed that receives strong empirical support: Protestants had higher human capital, which made them more productive and therefore increased their economic prosperity. This article explores the recent advancements in the economics of religion that assign a leading role to human capital in understanding the economic effects of the Reformation. It first provides a brief sketch of the underlying theory and then presents extensive evidence on the effects of the Reformation on human capital using data from nineteenth-century Prussia. The article also discusses consequences beyond education, covering effects on economic development as well as on the fertility decline. Evidence from outside Prussia, both across and within countries, is also presented.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Religion
EditorsRachel M. McCleary
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780199940332
ISBN (Print)9780195390049
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Economic development
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Fertility
  • Human capital
  • Protestants
  • Prussia
  • Reformation
  • Religion

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