Re-examining the Protestant Reading Ethic
Qiyi Zhao

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



Stanford University

Primary Discipline

The Reformation and in particular Protestantism?s impact on economic development represents a classical question in the social sciences. In recent years, an influential body of economic and sociology research has formulated a ?Protestant Reading Ethnic? thesis, that Protestantism benefitted economic development through promoting literacy and education. This prevailing scholarly view, however, draws largely upon 19th- and 20th-century evidence. My research examines assumptions and gaps in this literature using archival and published primary sources from the Holy Roman Empire in the centuries immediately after the Reformation, combined with careful econometric analysis. I show that the core methodology underlying this conclusion, using ?distance from Wittenberg? as a source of random variation in the adoption of Protestantism, relies on invalid assumptions about the spread of the Reformation and the statistical properties of ?distance from? variables. Removing these assumptions nullifies the main conclusion of the ?Protestant Reading Ethic.? In addition, I examine the enduring assumption that Protestantism promoted mass literacy through its teaching to read the Bible in the vernacular. Using Protestant and Catholic school ordinances, pedagogical materials, and quantitative measures of literacy, I study the expectations and realities of Bible reading in Protestant education and its relationship with literacy. Further research will quantitatively examine whether Protestantism expanded primary schooling opportunities that cultivated economically relevant human capital.
About Qiyi Zhao
Qiyi Zhao is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at Stanford University, studying early modern economic history. Combining historical knowledge, economic theory, and statistical analysis to interpret archival primary sources, her research seeks to understand the economic development of early modern Europe: how the early modern economy functioned and how it contributed to economic growth in the long run. Her dissertation examines to what extent and how the institutional changes brought forth by the Reformation and printing technology impacted the economic lives, literacy, and education of ordinary individuals and urban communities in the Holy Roman Empire. Qiyi holds a B.A. in Mathematics with a minor in History from the University of California at Berkeley.

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