With Thanksgiving just around the corner, encouragement may come from an unexpected source: the Puritans.
Often misunderstood and perennially maligned, the Puritans—tested first by religious persecution and later by the elements in their primitive surroundings—grew not into the fuddy-duddy party-poopers of modern history books, but into a tenacious and stalwart people. They developed by sheer necessity one of the most highly defined and well-honed work ethics in history. If anyone knew a trick or two about surviving hard times, they did.
Defined primarily by their religious separation from the Church of England, the Puritans (not surprisingly) had a view of work in which God looms large. Living according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which states that "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," the Puritans believed that all of life, including their work, was God's, and, as such, infused with purpose and meaning. They saw hardship not as a sign of failure, but as a path to growth and maturity, a mind-set that kept them from the kind of work-related despair seen in today's news.
Reformer and forefather of much Puritan theology, Martin Luther, in his doctrine of vocation, taught that God gave each individual an occupational "calling." Man's vocation was not seen as impersonal and random, but as from a loving and personal God who bestowed each individual with natural talents and desires for a particular occupation. This thought further deepened the Puritan's sense of purposefulness, fortifying him in difficult times.
Much like modern work is separated into white and blue collar, 17th-century tradition held that sacred occupations (like priest or monk) trumped secular ones (like farming or blacksmithing). The Puritans, however, rejected such a distinction. Holding to "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10), the Puritans sanctified the common, believing that all work, however lowly, if done for the glory of God, was good. Christ Himself "was not ashamed to labor; yea, and to use so simple an occupation," said Puritan Hugh Latimer. The farmer's plow became his altar, his tilling an act of service to God every bit as holy and valuable as the priest's, reminding the unemployed that temporarily taking a step down in pay or status does not equate to failure.
Long before the days of therapists and career coaches, the Puritans learned how to cope with depression. They scorned idleness, believing it was indeed the devil's workshop, bogging down the body in inertia, and leading to brooding. Luther had promoted the opposite, a life of diligence, saying "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." Long before endorphins were discovered, the Puritans knew that moving and tiring the body in manual labor (even if that labor is the unpaid kind that paints the house and organizes the garage) proved a talisman against a host of mental ills. . .
More than just an annual turkey fest, the Puritans gave America a pedagogy of work and an attitude toward life that upsets the modern notion that a person's occupation equals his value.