The Puritans never conceived of work apart from a context of service to God and man.

A job should be a job, not a death sentence.” “Jobs are demeaning. You walk out with no sense of satisfaction.”

“One minute to five is the moment of triumph. You physically turn off the machine that has dictated to you all day long.”

So said three of the 133 workers interviewed by Studs Terkel for his book Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (Pantheon, 1972). Terkel’s 589-page book confirms that our society is suffering from a work crisis. The opening paragraph of Terkel’s introduction suggests the extent of the crisis: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents … about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.”

One of the commonest responses to the work crisis is to blame the Puritans for our plight. The phrase “Puritan work ethic” is used to cover a whole range of current ills: the workaholic syndrome, drudgery, competitiveness, worship of success, materialism, and the cult of the self-made person. It has become such an axiom that the Puritans started all this that we may be shocked to learn that the so-called “Puritan work ethic” is in many ways the opposite of what the Puritans actually believed about work. For the past three centuries Western civilization has been dominated by a secularized perversion of the original Puritan work ethic.

The Puritans bequeathed four attitudes toward work that should be welcome to any Christian today. To profit from the Puritan example we need only to be open-minded enough to allow the Puritans to speak for themselves. For completeness we will also refer to the Reformers, to whom the Puritans were much indebted.

1The Puritans declared the sanctity of all honorable work. In doing so, they rejected a centuries-old division of callings into “sacred” and “secular.” The earlier views held that work done by members of the religious profession was “sacred,” with all other work bearing the stigma of being “secular.”

The cleavage between sacred and secular work can be traced all the way back to the Jewish Talmud. The same division became a leading feature of medieval Roman Catholicism. The attitude was formulated already in the fourth century by Eusebius, who wrote, “Two ways of life were given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living.… Wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone.… Such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other, more humble, more human, permits men to … have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion.… And a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them” (Demonstratio Evangelica).

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It was Martin Luther who, more than anyone else, overthrew the notion that clergymen, monks, and nuns were engaged in holier work than housewives and shopkeepers. Household tasks, writes Luther, have “no appearance of sanctity; and yet these very works in connection with the household are more desirable than all the works of all the monks and nuns” (commentary on Genesis 13:13).

The English Puritans followed the Reformers on this point. William Tyndale typifies their attitude when he writes that if we look externally, “there is difference betwixt washing of dishes, and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God, none at all” (Parable of the Wicked Mammon).

This Puritan rejection of the dichotomy between sacred and secular work has far-reaching implications. It judges every honorable job to be of intrinsic value, and integrates every vocation with a Christian’s spiritual life. It makes every job consequential by regarding it as the arena for glorifying and obeying God and for expressing love (through service) to a neighbor.

The most important aspect of this attitude is that it sanctifies the common. In a particularly memorable passage Luther comments, “Our natural reason … takes a look at married life … and says, ‘alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed …, labor at my trade?’ … What then does the Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels.… When a father goes ahead and washes diapers … God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling—not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith” (The Estate of Marriage).

“Our Savior Christ,” adds Latimer, “was a carpenter, and got his living with great labor. Therefore let no man disdain … to follow him in a … common calling and occupation” (sixth sermon before King Edward VI).

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For the Puritans, all of life was God’s. Their goal was to integrate their daily work with their religious devotion to God. The Puritan divine Richard Steele asserts that it is in the shop “where you may most confidently expect the presence and blessing of God” (The Tradesman’s Calling). According to Calvin, “Paul teaches that there is no part of our life or conduct, however insignificant, which should not be related to the glory of God” (commentary on 1 Corinthians 10:31). John Milton, in his famous Areopagitica, satirizes the businessman who leaves his religion at home, “trading all day without his religion.”

2 Another mighty affirmation the Puritans made was that God calls every person to his or her vocation. Every Christian, they said, has a calling. To follow it is to obey God. The important effect of this attitude is that it makes work a response to God.

For the doctrine of vocation the Puritans were once again indebted to Luther and Calvin. “The apostle Peter,” Luther states, “wants to remind everyone in particular to attend to his occupation or office and, in discharging it, faithfully to do whatever is demanded of him. For, as Scripture teaches in many places, no work is nobler than obedience in the calling and work God has assigned to each one” (sermon on 1 Peter 4:8–11).

The Puritans made this doctrine of the calling a major doctrine. Perkins comments, “A vocation or calling is a certain kind of life, ordained and imposed on man by God, for the common good.… Every person of every degree, state, sex, or condition without exception, must have some personal and particular calling to walk in.”

One effect of the Puritan concept of calling is to make the worker a steward who serves God. Work, in this view, ceases to be impersonal. Its importance, moreover, does not lie within itself; instead, work becomes one of the means by which a person lives out his or her personal relationship to God.

Richard Steele views work as a stewardship when he writes, “He that hath lent you talents hath also said, ‘Occupy till I come!’ Your strength is a talent, your parts are talents, and so is your time. How is it that ye stand all day idle?… Your trade is your proper province.”

To work in one’s calling, in the Puritan view, is to work in the sight of God. Cotton Mather asserts, “Oh, let every Christian walk with God, when he works at his calling, act in his occupation with an eye to God, act as under the eye of God.”

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Another practical result of the doctrine of Christian calling is that it leads to contentment in our work. If a Christian’s calling comes from God, we have a reason to accept our lot that the unbeliever lacks. “Nothing is so bad,” Luther writes, “but what it becomes sweet and tolerable if only I know and am certain that it is pleasing to God” (The Estate of Marriage). In his commentary on Psalm 128:2, he writes that “the world does not consider labor a blessing. Therefore it flees and hates it.… But the pious, who fear the Lord, labor with a ready and cheerful heart; for they know God’s command and will.”

And Cotton Mather encourages us to believe that “a Christian should follow his occupation with contentment.… Is your business here clogged with any difficulties and inconveniences? Contentment under those difficulties is no little part of your homage to that God who hath placed you where you are.”

To sum up, the Puritan ideal of calling viewed work as the response of a steward to God, and taught contentment with one’s task. These ideals are admirably captured in John Cotton’s exhortation to “serve God in thy calling, and do it with cheerfulness, and faithfulness, and an heavenly mind.”

3 Another great gift the Puritans gave was a true estimate of the motivation and goals of work. On this point we especially need to distinguish between what the early Puritans believed and what has passed for three centuries as the “Puritan work ethic.” From the time that Benjamin Franklin uttered his worldly-wise proverbs about wealth as the goal of work, to our own century when industrial giants have claimed that their success was proof that they were God’s elect, our culture has viewed work primarily as the means to wealth and possessions. This secularized work ethic has been attributed to the Puritans, and especially to Calvin; it has become an axiom that the Puritan ethic is based on wealth as the ultimate reward of work, and prosperity as a sign of godliness.

But is this what the Puritans really believed? The rewards of work, according to Puritan theory, were spiritual and moral; that is, work glorified God and benefited society. Luther said that “work should … be done to serve God by it, to avoid idleness, and to satisfy His commandments” (sermon on the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer). Elsewhere he adds that “all stations are so oriented that they serve others.” Calvin says in his commentary on Luke 10:38 that “we know that men were created to busy themselves with labor … for the common good.”

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William Perkins asserts, “The main end of our lives … is to serve God in the serving of men in the works of our callings.… Some man will say perchance: What, we must not labor in our callings, to maintain our families? I answer: this must be done: but this is not the scope and end of our lives. The true end of our lives is to do service to God, in serving of man.”

Spiritual and moral rewards should also govern one’s choice of vocation, according to Baxter. “Choose that employment or calling,” he writes, “in which you may be most serviceable to God. Choose not that in which you may be most rich or honorable in the world; but that in which you may do most good, and best escape sinning.” Elsewhere Baxter writes that in choosing a trade or calling, the first consideration is “the service of God and the public good, and therefore that calling which most conduceth to the public good is to be preferred.”

The counterpart of this emphasis on the spiritual and moral rewards of work is the frequent denunciation of people who use work to gratify their selfish ambitions. Contrary to what many think, the idea of the self-made person did not appeal to the Puritans, if by “self-made person” we mean the person who claims to have been successful by his own efforts and who ostentatiously gratifies his materialistic inclinations.

“ ‘Every man for himself, and God for us all,’ ” writes Perkins, “is wicked, and is directly against the end of every calling.” Luther speaks slightingly of people who “do not use their talents in … the service of their neighbor” but “use them only for their own glory and advantage.” Latimer says regarding wealth that “we may not do as many do, that greedily and covetously seek for it day and night” (sermon, February 21, 1552).

Did Calvin and his followers regard work as the means by which people earn their own success and wealth? It is commonly asserted that they did, but I look in vain for substantiation of the claim. Calvinism does not teach an ethic of self-reliance, as our modern work ethic does; it is instead an ethic of grace. Whatever tangible rewards come from work, this viewpoint says, are the gift of God’s grace.

Calvin even denies that material success is always the result of work. It is Franklin, not Calvin, who has the confidence that “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” In his commentary on Psalm 127:2, Calvin writes, “Solomon … affirms that neither living at a small expense, nor diligence in business will by themselves profit anything at all.” Luther, in commenting on the same text, writes, “You must, of course, labor—but the effort is futile if you do nothing but labor and imagine that you are supporting yourself.… Labor you should, but supporting and providing for you belongs to God alone.”

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In his exposition of Deuteronomy 8:17–18, Luther comments, “When riches come, the godless heart of man thinks: I have achieved this with my labors. It does not consider that these are purely blessings of God, blessings that at times come to us through our labors and at times without our labors, but never because of our labors; for God always gives them because of His undeserved mercy.”

It is true that the Puritan lifestyle, a blend of diligence and thrift, tended to make people relatively prosperous. The important thing, however, is how the Puritans looked upon their wealth. The Puritan attitude toward wealth was that it was a social good, not a personal possession.

Hugh Latimer states, “For God gave never a gift, but he sent occasion at one time or another to show it to God’s glory. As if he sent riches, he sendeth poor men to be helped with it” (sixth sermon before King Edward VI). Latimer also believed that “the poor man hath title to the rich man’s goods; so that the rich man ought to let the poor man have part of his riches to help and to comfort him withall” (fifth sermon on the Lord’s Prayer).

Instead of regarding success as a sign of God’s approval or of their own virtue, the Puritans were much more likely to look upon prosperity as a temptation to forget God. In this attitude they are remarkably like Jesus in the New Testament. A marginal note to Genesis 13:1 in the Geneva Bible speaks volumes: Abraham’s “great riches gotten in Egypt hindered him not to follow his vocation.” Benjamin Colman writes, “God’s blessing a people obliges them to be religious, and yet how often is prosperity a means of a people’s irreligion.”

The Puritans never conceived of work apart from a spiritual and moral context of service to God and man. President Richard Nixon’s Labor Day message of 1971 probably sums up the popular conception of the Puritan work ethic, but, if so, it is an inaccurate picture: “The ‘work ethic’ holds that labor is good in itself; that a man or woman becomes a better person by virtue of the act of working. America’s competitive spirit, the ‘work ethic’ of this people, … the value of achievement, the morality of self-reliance—none of these is going out of style.” I hope that I have shown that the Puritans would not have accepted such a work ethic. Their ideals were obedience to God, service to humanity, and reliance on God’s grace.

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4 The final inheritance the Puritans bequeathed was a sense of moderation in work. They tried to maintain a middle position between the extremes of laziness on the one hand and slavish addiction to work on the other.

At one point the modern interpretation of the Puritan work ethic is correct: the Puritans scorned idleness and praised diligence.

Luther writes, “God … does not want me to sit at home, to loaf, to commit matters to God, and to wait till a fried chicken flies into my mouth. That would be tempting God” (exposition of Exodus 13:18).

While condemning idleness, the Puritans admired diligence in work, not so much because it was inherently virtuous as because it was God’s appointed means of providing for human needs. Baxter writes, “It is action that God is most served and honored by.”

Some ask if the Puritan ethic does not lead inevitably to the workaholic syndrome. My answer is no, because the Puritans balanced their diligence with definite curbs against overwork. If today we cannot conceive of diligence without overwork, this is an index to how far we are from the very idea of moderation.

The Scottish divine Robert Woodrow writes, “The sin of our too great fondness for trade, to the neglecting of our more valuable interests, I humbly think will be written upon our judgment.” In a day when moonlighting and multiple incomes for families have become a rule, we might benefit from listening to the advice of Richard Steele when he writes that a person ought not to “accumulate two or three callings merely to increase his riches.”

The goal of the Puritans was moderation. To work with zeal and yet not give one’s soul to his or her work was what they strove for. John Preston expressed it this way: “You might meddle with all things in the world and not be defiled by them, if you had pure affections, but when you have an inordinate lust after anything, then it defiles your spirit.”

Such, then, was the Puritan doctrine of work. It found literary expression in the great Puritan epic, Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton incarnates the Puritan attitude toward work in his portrayal of Adam’s and Eve’s life of perfection in the garden. He repeatedly emphasizes that work in Paradise is not only pleasant but also necessary, and to emphasize the latter is “the most strikingly original feature of Milton’s treatment” of paradisal life, as J. M. Evans recently pointed out.

There is no better summary of the Puritan doctrine of work than these words of Adam to Eve in Book IV, lines 618–20:

Man hath his daily work of body or mind

Appointed, which declares his dignity,

And the regard of Heaven on all his ways.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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