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Is It Fair to Weber?

In response to:

That Was the Reformation That Was from the December 29, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

Lawrence Stone’s scintilating review of the recent Reformation books by A. G. Dickens and G. R. Elton was a pleasure to read in the Dec. 29th issue. It is unfortunate that Professor Stone saw fit, however, to drag in at great length the Weber thesis controversies, and in a fairly opinionated manner.

Kurt Samuelsson’s Religion and Economic Action, which is disparaged and dismissed by overemphasizing one paragraph from its 156 pages (Harper Torchbook ed., 1964), is a most lucid and quite fair work of an economic historian to assess the Weber thesis. Weber’s non-admittance of elementary factors such as geography, as pointed out by historians as diverse as H. Robertson and J. U. Nef, also ought to be mentioned in this context. The bases for the eminence of an Antwerp, laid basically before the Reformation’s impact and developed by a heterogeneous group of merchants and financiers ranging from clandestine Jews to resident Germans, were clearly political and geographical, and had not much to do with any single religiously based ethic. The point made by Samuelsson and others, which to this writer seems plausible enough, is that secular factors affected and even transformed aspects of religion at least as often (if not more so as time progressed past the sixteenth century) as the other way around.

Lastly, is it fair to Weber to do what his disciples did: lift his schematic writings about Protestantism out his general Religionssoziologie concepts which attempted to grasp certain fundamentals about the world faiths (e.g. as in his Sociology of Religion, Beacon Pr. paper ed., 1964)? Clearly thinkers like Weber made a great contribution in suggesting powerfully, if not always with precise accuracy, the role of ideas in the historical and economic processes. There is no further use in rehammering controversies arising from over-emphasizing a relatively isolated part of the corpus of their work, especially in so interconnected a body of endeavor as Weber’s.

Paul J. Hauben

Michigan State University,

East Lansing

Lawrence Stone replies:

If one does not agree with people, one calls their views “fairly opinionated”; if one does, one calls them “most lucid and quite fair.” Neither value judgment is more, or less, “opinionated” than the other. My position is that Dr. Samuelsson makes many telling points, but spoils his case by exaggeration and distortion. It was these exaggerations and distortions which were picked up and repeated by Dr. Elton, and to which I therefore directed my attention. I fully agree that Weber’s thesis about Protestantism is only comprehensible in the light of his more general propositions about the nature and significance of world faiths. Maybe I was guilty here, but I should point out that I was reviewing Dr. Elton, not Max Weber.

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