Extracellular enzymes are the proximate agents of organic matter decomposition and measures of these activities can be used as indicators of microbial nutrient demand. We conducted a global-scale meta-analysis of the seven-most widely measured soil enzyme activities, using data from 40 ecosystems. The activities of β-1,4-glucosidase, cellobiohydrolase, β-1,4-N-acetylglucosaminidase and phosphatase g−1 soil increased with organic matter concentration; leucine aminopeptidase, phenol oxidase and peroxidase activities showed no relationship. All activities were significantly related to soil pH. Specific activities, i.e. activity g−1 soil organic matter, also varied in relation to soil pH for all enzymes. Relationships with mean annual temperature (MAT) and precipitation (MAP) were generally weak. For hydrolases, ratios of specific C, N and P acquisition activities converged on 1 : 1 : 1 but across ecosystems, the ratio of C : P acquisition was inversely related to MAP and MAT while the ratio of C : N acquisition increased with MAP. Oxidative activities were more variable than hydrolytic activities and increased with soil pH. Our analyses indicate that the enzymatic potential for hydrolyzing the labile components of soil organic matter is tied to substrate availability, soil pH and the stoichiometry of microbial nutrient demand. The enzymatic potential for oxidizing the recalcitrant fractions of soil organic material, which is a proximate control on soil organic matter accumulation, is most strongly related to soil pH. These trends provide insight into the biogeochemical processes that create global patterns in ecological stoichiometry and organic matter storage.