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Christian History Home > 2006 > Issue 89 > The Original Puritan Work Ethic

The Original Puritan Work Ethic
By valuing all of life in relation to God, Puritans gave sacred significance to every activity.
Leland Ryken | posted 1/01/2006 12:00AM

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Suffering from poor health all his life, Richard Baxter preached, he said, "as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." Living daily in the shadow of eternity gave the Puritans a deep appreciation for living every moment on this earth to the fullest for God. "Promise not long life to yourselves," Baxter advised, "but live as those that are always uncertain of another day."

For the Puritans, to "redeem the time" (as Baxter put it) meant to order one's daily life in accordance with godly principles and for maximum effectiveness. One of the Puritans' favorite epithets was well-ordered. Their opponents nicknamed them the disciplinarians. The Puritans aspired to be worldly saints—Christians with earth as their sphere of activity and with heaven as their ultimate hope. Baxter exhorted his readers, "Write upon the doors of thy shop and chamber, … This is the time on which my endless life dependeth."

This approach to life resulted in three vintage Puritan traits: the ideal of the God-centered life, the doctrine of calling or vocation, and the conviction that all of life is God's.

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.

Baxter's parting advice to his parishioners at Kidderminster was to "be sure to maintain a constant delight in God." Preaching before the Houses of Parliament, Cornelius Burges admonished everyone present "to lift up his soul to take hold of God, to be glued and united to him, … to be only his forever."

For the Puritans, the God-centered life meant making the quest for spiritual and moral holiness the great business of life. "In a divine commonwealth," wrote Baxter, "holiness must have the principal honor and encouragement, and a great difference be made between the precious and the vile." Our own culture has conspired to make such holiness seem burdensome, but the Puritans found it an appealing prospect. Ralph Venning, in a book-length treatise on sin, called holiness "the beauty of earth and Heaven, without which we cannot live well on earth, nor shall ever live in Heaven."

Of course, it takes vigilance over one's actions to produce a holy lifestyle. Very tellingly, the Puritans repeatedly used such words as watching, exact walking, and mortification to describe their preferred lifestyle.

In Puritan thinking, the Christian life was a heroic venture, requiring a full quota of energy. "Christianity is not a sedentary profession or employment," wrote Baxter, adding, "Sitting still will lose you heaven, as well as if you run from it." The Puritans were the activists of their day. In a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons, Oliver Cromwell crossed out the words wait on and made his statement read "who have wrestled with God for a blessing."

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."

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