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. ...

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