Revisiting the Puritan work ethic on Labor Day…
“The Puritans aspired to be worldly saints—Christians with earth as their sphere of activity and with heaven as their ultimate hope. … For them, both worlds were equally real, and life was not divided into sacred and secular.”
Worldly saints. This is Leland Ryken’s description of the Puritans who have much to teach us about our daily labors. For them, the doctrine of calling or vocation was one of the three critical elements of a devoted life—all introduced nicely by Ryken in an article entitled “The Original Puritan Work Ethic.”
The God-centered life
The Puritans’ sense of priorities in life was one of their greatest strengths. Putting God first and valuing everything else in relation to God was a recurrent Puritan theme.
Stressing the God-centered life can lead to an otherworldly withdrawal from everyday earthly life. For the Puritans, it produced the opposite. Richard Sibbes sounded the keynote: “The life of a Christian is wondrously ruled in this world, by the consideration and meditation of the life of another world.” The doctrinal matrix that equipped the Puritans to integrate the two worlds was their thoroughly developed ideas on calling or vocation.
The Puritan doctrine of vocation
The Puritans spoke of two callings—a general calling and a particular calling. The general calling is the same for everyone and consists of a call to conversion and godliness. “The general calling,” wrote William Perkins, “is the calling of Christianity, which is common to all that live in the church of God. … [It] is that whereby a man is called out of the world to be a child of God.”
A particular calling consists of the specific tasks and occupations that God places before a person in the course of daily living. It focuses on, but is not limited to, the work that a person does for a livelihood. Several important corollaries follow from this doctrine of vocation, [three of which are listed here].
· Since God is the one who calls people to their work, the worker becomes a steward who serves God.
· [T]he Puritan view that God calls all workers to their tasks in the world dignifies all legitimate kinds of work. Above all, the Puritan doctrine of vocation sanctifies common work.
· The Puritan doctrine of vocation (inherited, we should note, from Luther and later Continental Reformers) integrated life in the world with the spiritual life.
We need, of course, to draw a distinction between the original Puritan work ethic and the secularized perversion that followed. The original Puritan work ethic was this: “Be laborious and diligent in your callings … ; and if you cheerfully serve [God] in the labour of your hands, with a heavenly and obedient mind, it will be as acceptable to him as if you had spent all that time in more spiritual exercises” (Richard Baxter).
All of life is God’s
An additional genius of the Puritans was the skill with which they managed to view all of life as God’s. The Puritans lived simultaneously in two worlds. For them, both worlds were equally real, and life was not divided into sacred and secular.
There was no place where the Puritans did not find God. They were always open to what Baxter called “a drop of glory” that God might allow to fall upon their souls.
C. S. Lewis wrote enthusiastically of “the beautiful, cheerful integration of [William] Tyndale’s world. He utterly denies the medieval distinction between religion and secular life.” Such integration is one of the most attractive features of the Puritans. Their goal was an ordered and disciplined daily life that integrated personal piety, corporate life, everyday work, and the worship of God.
For more on the Puritans, the place to start is Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. Ryken corrects many of the myths about the Puritans without glossing over their faults. “The Original Puritan Work Ethic” was published in Christian History & Biography magazine and is available here.