The Puritan Work Ethic[i]
You have likely heard of the “Puritan Work Ethic.” Unless you have been actually read the original source material – the sermons and the books the Puritans themselves wrote – as opposed to what has been written about them — you almost certainly have a wrong idea about what the Puritans thought of work. There are a few accurate works concerning the Puritans, but far more writing about the Puritans – particularly on the matter of work – is slanderously bad, unfair and untrue. Here is an example from a professor at Norte Dame:
The doctrine of predestination kept all Puritans constantly working to do good in this life to be chosen for the next eternal one. God had already chosen who would be in heaven or hell, and each believer had no way of knowing which group they were in. Those who were wealthy were obviously blessed by God and were in good standing with Him. The Protestant work ethic was the belief that hard work was an honor to God which would lead to a prosperous reward. Any deviations from the normal way of Puritan life met with strict disapproval and discipline. Since the church elders were also political leaders, any church infraction was also a social one. There was no margin for error.
There are so many things wrong this statement it is hard to know where to begin.
Here’s one from Stanford:
The Puritan (or Protestant) work ethic is a work ethic that was based on the moral values of hard work. It meant that working hard entailed giving service to God. It implies, albeit by inference, that the harder one works, the more moral one is. Hence, having been raised to believe this, some people feel guilty if they are not working hard all the time. It is as though hard work were equated with being a good person, and furthermore, if one works hard enough, one will in all likelihood have a positive result not only in the moral arena, but also in the more mundane, worldly one.
The Puritans are routinely libeled by academics – even at large well respected universities. These two quotations are comically untrue. In fact, the Puritans roundly condemned people who worked just to make money; who worked so hard as to damage their relationships with men and God. No Puritan would believe that your wealth proved that you were godly. No Puritan would have even understood what it meant to work hard to become predestined. Puritans believed soundly in the doctrine of assurance: Thus the statement that no believer knew whether he were saved is nonsense on silts.
Puritans worked for one purpose: To glorify God by being of service to other men. Making money to support oneself was a good and necessary part of being of service to one’s family. However, being rich was never an end in itself. Working to merely make money would be a sin to a Puritan. As William Perkins wrote:
They profane their lives, and callings that employ them to get honors, pleasures, profits, worldly commodities; etc., for thus we live to another end than God hath appointed, and thus we serve ourselves, and consequently neither God nor men.
Making a lot of money merely meant that you had an obligation to care for more people – particularly the poor – with your wealth. Wealth was not bad, but the love of money was the root of kinds of evil.
Part One: A Christian man works to glorify God by serving men.
William Perkins explains that all things were created to give God glory. Men were created to give peculiar service onto God. However, after the Fall, men seemed to be unable to glorify God. Yet God was able to secure glory from men despite their sin. There are four basic elements of what men must be before God:
1. Men must acknowledge God as sovereign and be willing to serve God as such.
2. Since men were created be sociable, men must be of service to others.
3. To be of good to others, men must belong some place – in some calling in which they can be of service to others. Even Adam –before the Fall – was called to a particular work.
4. A man should use his given calling in a holy manner, pursuing his calling in “faith and obedience.”
Ryken explained that “the Puritan concept of calling is to make the worker a steward who serves God. God, in fact, is the one who assigns people to their tasks. In this view, work ceases to be impersonal. Moreover, its importance does not lie within itself; work is a means by which a person lives out his or her personal relationship to God” (27).
Yet there are offenses which do come:
1. There are those who have no particular calling in which a man does good for others. For example, there were those in the Roman Catholic church – such as monks or wandering friars – who were not good use to society at large. Other such people would be vagabonds who simply refused to work and sought to live off of the labor of others.
2. There are other men who have a calling and yet do not fulfill “the main point ….honoring God in the service of men.”
As can be seen from this introduction, a man’s work was not something which was separate from or annexed or spiritual life – his religion. Neither was religion something which occupied Sunday and yet which had no bearing upon work. All of one’s life was an integrated life before God. Neither saying prayers on Sunday nor building a wall on Monday were more holy or spiritual than the other. Painting a barn for pay was a religious duty to give glory to God by being of service to men. William Tyndale said that if we look externally “there is a difference betwixt washing of dishes and preaching the Word of God; but as touching to please God, none at all.”
This means that when thinking of a doctrine of work, it needs to be put into the context of the doctrines of grace: original sin, irresistible grace, predestination, perseverance of the saints. A Christian at work was a Christian who happens to be making shoes at that moment to the glory of God. A Christian soldier was a man being of service to his countrymen by fighting in a war – and thus was giving glory to God in being a soldier. A butcher was no less godly in his work and was no less engaged in the worship of God than a pastor on Sunday morning delivering a sermon.
A. There is no secular/sacred distinction
There is an idea which gained great development during the Middle Ages and which still has some weight among Christians today: Religious tasks are more holy than secular tasks. Even to make the statement is to support the idea. The concept of sacred/secular does not properly derive from the Bible. When God creates Adam and puts Adam in the Garden of Eden God gives Adam the task of taking care of the Garden. The words which are used to describe Adam’s work are the same verbs which are used to describe Levites working in the Temple.
The sacred/secular distinction was an idea which developed among the religious Jews who did not rightly love their Lord. We can see some of this attitude in the interactions between Jesus and the religious groups such as Pharisees and Scribes and Priests. This concept gained even more development in the years which followed. There are prayers recorded by the Jews in their religious writings of the next few centuries which speak of how much better it was to be a “religious” worker than a secular – worldly – worker.
This idea gained great development over the next hundreds of years. As Reformation progressed, this idea of sacred/secular came under scrutiny and then was eventually rejected as unbiblical by the Puritans.
Unfortunately, I have seen this very idea present even in this church. When I left the vocation of being an attorney and came on staff as a pastor, I had people tell me that now I was working for the Lord. While it is true that I ultimately work for the Lord — it is equally true that I worked for the Lord when I was an attorney. When I spoke with a client or answered interrogatories or went to court I was called to serve God in the exact same degree as when I teach a Sunday School Class, counsel a married couple or pray in a hospital.
B. Godliness as our primary concern
1. The doctrine of work is an element of our religious life. Indeed, George Swinock the Puritan pastor in his massive book A Christian Man’s Calling refers to all our life as religious and our religion as our primary concern. We moderns tend to dislike the word “religion,” perhaps because we don’t want someone telling us what to do. But Swinock thinks that a regulated life, a religious life is a good and necessary thing.
He develops this idea from the basis of creation: All things were created by God for a purpose. Human beings were created with reason and the ability to worship God: that is, human beings were created with a religious ability – indeed a religious necessity. The most unreasonable thing a man could do would be to ignore God:
“Indeed, atheists are but beasts shaped in the proportion and dressed in the habits of men. It is impossible for a man to manifest more want [lack] of reason than in wandering from God ….” (3)
2. Since a rightly religious life accords with true reason, the Christian will be able to live rightly in the midst of the world – no matter what problems arise. The Christian will not be trapped by the snares of the world: “Like the moon at the full, being fixed in heaven, they can keep their course, though dogs bark at them here on earth” (4).
3. If we see our creation and end rightly, we will not snared by this world. This is how Swinock puts it:
How greedily do men grasp the smoke of earthly vanities, which will wring tears from their eyes, and then vanish into nothing!
Who can sufficiently bemoan it, that man, who is capable of and created for so high an honor and so heavenly an exercise, as to serve his Maker here and to enjoy him hereafter, should all his time, like a hog, be digging and rooting in the earth and not once look up to heaven in earnest, till the knife is put to his throat that he cometh to die….
Thus silly are many men; how do they cark and care, toil and moil for this world, which they must leave forever! They waste their time and strength to increase their heaps, when on a sudden all perisheth and themselves often with it.
Reader, if you are one of those moles who live in the earth as their element, carking and caring chiefly how to exalt self and please flesh, answer God these four questions …. (13)
The four questions have been provided to you for your discussion.
3. The question of how I see God, myself before God and the myself in the world, will directly affect how I see and perform my work. If I see myself as created with reason and gifts which make it possible for me to glorify God and enjoy him forever, if I see God as the God of everything in this world and my life, then I will see my work as a necessary element of my life before God. If I think little of God, then I will think little of God in my work and my work will become an end in itself.
4. Therefore, my theology will directly affect the way in which I perform my work.
5. If my theology is right, my work will be an opportunity to grow in godliness, to discipline myself for godliness, and to give glory to God. Thus, any work can be useful, glorious, joyful because it has an eternal dimension.
6. Swinock writes:
“Godliness is an errand about which man is sent into the world; now, as faithful servants, we must prefer our message before our meat and serve our master before ourselves” (37). Thus, must we live.
No matter what job we have, no matter what vocation we pursue our real business is the business of godliness:
“Because he makes it [godliness] his business, his minds runs much upon it, that wherever he is, he will be speaking somewhat of it, if occasion be offered, whereby he comes now and then to meet with such bargains as tend much to his benefit; so the Christian that makes religion his business is industrious to improve all opportunities for the furtherance of his general calling” (42).
This does not mean that in doing my work I ignore my buying and selling or painting or building or writing. Rather, I make God a party to all my work:
“If he – a godly man – be buying or selling he is very willing that God should be a witness to all his bargains; for he prayeth to God as if men heard him and he tradeth with men as if God saw him. His shop, as well as his chapel, is holy ground” (42).
“Godliness is whole in his whole conversation” – that is, everything he does (43).
C. How to see the whole of life
1. Our work here has a very peculiar quality when see through an eternal lense. On one hand, all the work which I perform in this world is bound to perish. God will destroy the world and the direct physical results of all my work. Yet, I am called upon to perform this work to the glory of God knowing that it will come to nothing. Miller describes the Puritan dilemma as follows:
Urian Oaks concludes his sermon on providence with an injunction which was constantly delivered from New England pulpits: “labor to be prepared for disappointments.” Put beside this was another instruction which was equally recurrent through the sermons of Puritan ministers: “as the things and objects are, great or mean [low], that men converse withal [have dealings with]; so men are high or low spirited.” Take these two rules together – on one hand, expect nothing but disappointment in this life, on the other, to cultivate a high-spirited frame of mind of mind by converse with the highest objects of contemplation, and between these two poles the daily life of the Puritans oscillated. . . . [This was] the Puritan synthesis: the fallibility of material existence and the infallibility of the spiritual, the necessity for living in a world of time and space according to the laws of that time and place, with never once forgetting that the world will pass, be resolved back into nothingness, that reality and permanence belongs to things not as they appear to the eye but to the mind. 
2. Therefore, we need to see our work as not an end in itself, but as a means to the only end of this life: To glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Everything is an occasion for godliness or sin. Every moment is of crucial importance: there are no unimportant moments. Thus, work – which occupies the majority of our waking hours (or should) is of fundamental importance. We will constantly be tempted to
a. Take work too seriously, forgetting that all our labor and our wealth will be destroyed.
b. Take work too casually, forgetting that all our labor and our wealth belong to God and must be used for his glory.
3. Since work was a calling from God, an opportunity for godliness, it could be susceptible to sin’s effects. As Thomas Hooker wrote (298-299) on the effects of sin:
It brings a curse upon all our comforts, blasts all our all blessings, the best of all our endeavors, the use of all the choicest of all God’s ordinances: it’s so evil and vile, that it makes the use of all good things and all the most glorious, both ordinances and improvements, evil to us.
Thus, problems which could arise from work: excesses, laziness, covetousness, would the result of sin infecting work – not something inherent in work. Work was given before the Fall and thus was a good thing in and of itself. Idleness was condemned, because it was injurious to the one who was lazy, the society which was deprived of the other’s labor, and the glory of God.
Part Two: A Christian man has a particular calling
John Cotton, Christian Calling
Doctrine: A true believing Christian, a justified person, he lives in his vocation by his faith.
What is means to say that a Christian lives in his vocation by his faith:
A. Faith draws the heart of a Christian to live in some warrantable calling; as soon as ever a man begins to look towards God, and the ways of his [God’s] grace, he will not rest till he find out some warrantable calling and employment:
1. It is a natural result of coming to know the Lord, that a man desires to enter into some suitable/warrantable calling.
2. To be a warrantable calling:
a. The calling must be for the good of the public – not merely myself.
b. The man must have suitable gifts [given by God] to pursue the calling.
c. God has providentially provided the means by which a man may actually pursue such a calling.
B. A Christian depends upon God to increase the gifts useful to his calling.
1. And then if God do breathe in his gifts, he depends not upon them for the acting his work, but upon God’s blessing in the use of the use of his gifts.
2. The strongest Christian is never more foiled then when he goes forth in the strength of gifts received and his own dexterity.
C. Having the conviction that in serving God, a Christian serves men; and in serving men, a Christian serves God.
1. So that this is the work of every Christian man in his calling, even then when he serves man, he serves the Lord; he does the work set before him, and he does it sincerely and faithfully
a. as one who must give an account
b. With a heavenly and spiritual sight of the world, using the world as if it were not. 1 Cor. 7:31.
2. Richard Baxter wrote:
Choose that employment or calling 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 the most good, and best escape sinning.
D. You must be willing to do all things required of your calling: even those things which are least dignified or most dangerous: “there is no work too hard or too homely for him”. Faith remembers what degrading work we were willing to do for sin and Satan and thus is willing to do anything given by God.
1. In doing your work, you must be willing to cast all of your cares upon God.
a. Worry about the success
b. Worry about the danger.
c. Worry about the injuries which you may receive.
E. Receive all the success in your work with moderation.
F. Resign your calling into the hand of God. If God calls an end to your employment in some area – whether in a temporary manner of in a permanent manner – a Christian willingly takes it as from the hand of God.
1. This contrasts with men of this world: “A man that in his calling hath sought himself and never looked father then himself, he never comes to lay down his calling, but he think it is his utter undoing.”
2. Not only will you be confident of God’s acceptance, no man can lay a charge against you for wrongdoing in your calling.
1. It is evidence of infidelity – lack of true Christian faith — that you lack any calling. 1 Tim. 5:8. This does not refer to a man who cannot find work. This is a man who will not work. “If thou hast no calling, tending to public good, thou art an unclean beast.”
2. Choose a proper calling for you:
a. Use effort to find a calling – it takes work.
b. Only pursue a calling which you can understand and perform.
c. Only pursue a calling which you can obtain and maintain by proper means.
d. Only pursue a calling which you in which you will cheerfully labor for God.
3. Always remember the proper end of your calling, so that you lay it down when God calls you to something else: whether an end of work or an end of life.
4. Remember that no matter what your calling – even if it is something which the world does not honor – that “it was a lively work in the sight of God, and so it will be rewarded when thy change shall come. Many a Christian is apt to be discouraged and dismayed if crosses befall him in his calling, but be not afraid, let this cheer up thy spirit, that whatever thy calling was, yet thou camest into it honestly, and hast lived in it faithfully, your course was lively and spiritual, and therefore you may with courage look up for recompense from Christ.”
[i] The material for this discussion came primarily from George Swinock, A Christian Man’s Calling, which is found in the volumes 1 -3 of the collected works of George Swinock, published by The Banner of Truth. I also used material from Perry Miller’s introduction the chapter entitled, “This World and the Next” in The Puritans, rev. ed., eds. Perry Miller & Thomas H. Johnson, vol. 1, particularly the introduction to the section entitled, “This World and the Next” and two sermons included in that section, Thomas Hookers, “A True Sight of Sin” and John Cotton’s “Christian Calling.” I used the outline of “Christian Calling” as the outline for the second portion of this paper. Other important sources for this information came from William Perkins, A Treatise of Vocations, 1603, and Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory and Worldly Saints by Leland Ryken – particularly the chapter entitled “Work.”