The Puritan Doctrine of Sacred Work – Part 1

Four Aspects of the Puritan Doctrine of Sacred Work

From their European reformation roots until their eventual fading in New England, the Puritans were known as hard workers. Leland Ryken is correct in his assertion that, “Western civilization has been dominated by a secularized perversion of the original Puritan work ethic.” A right understanding of the Puritan doctrine of sacred work has not been lost because of a lack of sources. Work and its sacredness was a frequent topic of Puritan authors but has been forgotten through the neglect of an increasingly secular work force. This is a great loss since the Puritans had a highly developed understanding of the sacred aspect of work. Even among Christians, the modern American concept of work is increasingly reduced to the mere creation of wealth to be spent on oneself. The Puritans rejected a sacred-secular dichotomy. In order to effectively accomplish that they developed a doctrine of sacred work. That doctrine sought to bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular, finding a way to infuse the spiritual into even the most mundane labor. There are four main aspects to the Puritan understanding of sacred work: calling, reward, service to the community, and moderation. These aspects come together to form one complete doctrine of sacred work.

Sacred Work

For the Puritans all of life was the Lord’s and there was no distinction between sacred or secular parts of their lives. “Their goal was to integrate their daily work with their religious devotion to God.” This was considered a new development because for centuries the church had upheld the notion that sacred work was done only by the clergy. All other work was secular and in some way less important and less pleasing to the Lord. Martin Luther was one of the first to assert the idea that regular manual labor could be done unto the Lord in a  sacred way. It was a revolutionary concept. He wrote, “When a maid cooks and cleans and does other housework, because God’s command is there, even such a small work must be praised as a service of God.” Further, “Seemingly secular works are a worship of God and an obedience well pleasing to God.” Calvin added his weight to the argument by writing such things as:

It is, no doubt, an old error, that those who withdraw from business, and devote themselves entirely to [the] contemplative, lead a Angelical life. . . we [however] know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God, than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage.

The purpose of such language was not to devalue Christian ministry, but to elevate the status of common work. The concept took firm root and later is explained in a clear and systematic way by William Perkins in his Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men. “In the Puritan ideal,” writes Hugh Martin, “the sharp distinction between sacred and secular was abolished and man was called to glorify God in every human activity and in the right use of all material possessions. Ordinary daily life was thus taken within the scope of religious service and idleness or wastefulness became sinful.” For the first time in the history of Christianity the dignity and value of common work was insisted upon and the non-clergy was given a real way to serve God through their daily work.

The Puritan understood himself to be living in the midst of a lost and dying world. Puritan minister John Bunyan presented the world as a place called ‘Vanity Fair’ in his allegory,  Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan writes, “Now, as I have said, the way to the Celestial City lies just through this town where the lusty [Vanity] fair is kept; and he that will go to the city, and yet not go through this town, must needs to go out of the world.” The Puritan did not seek to escape the world, but to sanctify all aspects of life by living as unto the Lord in the midst of the world.  Dod writes, “Whatsoever our callings be, we serve the Lord Christ in them. Though your work be base, yet it is not a base thing to serve such a master in it. They are the most worthy servants, whatsoever their employment be, that do with most conscionable, and dutiful hearts and minds, serve the Lord, where he hath placed them.” This was a tremendous shift from the Thomistic emphasis on the penal quality of labor, and particularly manual labor. Instead of labor being done as a means of penance / punishment, it came to be understood as a positive aspect of sanctification. Puritans such as Perkins worked to forge a strong link between justification and sanctification so as to provide an evangelical foundation for social stability and responsibility. By placing daily labor in the realm of sanctification, work took on a spiritual quality. If the work was done with excellence and honesty, it could be understood as being done for the glory of God. This renewed concept mixed the world and Christian living in a difficult way that had to be held in proper balance. John Cotton addressed this precarious mix, “There is another combination of virtues strangely mixed in every lively holy Christian, and that is diligence in worldly business and yet deadness to the world; such a mystery as none can read but they that know it. Though he labor most diligently in his calling, yet his heart is not set upon these things.” Work is not an end, but a means to the end of glorifying God.

Understanding work as a creation ordinance was another important aspect of the Puritan doctrine of sacred work. There was a common Puritan emphasis on God’s placement of Adam in the garden of Eden to work the garden (Gen 2:15). Adam was not there simply for his leisure. Baxter writes, “God has commanded you some way or other to labor for your daily bread, and not live as drones on the sweat of others only. Innocent Adam was put into the garden of Eden to dress it; and fallen man must ‘eat his bread in the sweat of his brow.’” In Genesis 3:19 the Lord clearly states that a part of the curse of sin upon the world is that, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground.” The Puritans understood that after the fall of man difficulty and hardship was added to labor as a part of God’s curse. The Puritan relationship between pre and post fall work is summarized by Murray, “The curse is not the curse of labor; it is the pain and hardship connected with the labor and the frustration that man will encounter by reason of the curse upon the ground.” The command and desire to work has been with humanity since creation and is a good thing. Work in a fallen world is more difficult and frustrating but can still be satisfying and done to the glory of God! 

Next week we’ll look at the first of the four aspects of scared work – Calling.

May all that we do each day be done unto the glory of God,

Pastor Vic

  1. Throughout this paper the title Puritan will follow the definition given by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd- Jones writes, “What are the marks of the Puritan? What are the differences between the Anglican and the Puritan? Let us never forget this, that they were all protestants, and that until towards the end of the 16th century they were virtually all Calvinists…They were all Protestant, all Calvinist, and all believed in a State Church. What then was the difference [between the Anglican and Calvinist]? The real difference was, that though they were all Protestants, the Anglicans always had ‘a Catholic undertone.’” [D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1987), 255-56.] Beginning with William Tyndale and continuing through those calling themselves Puritans in pre-revolutionary England, post-revolutionary England, and New England will be considered. Martin Luther and John Calvin will also be considered because of their positions on work, even though they are not usually considered Puritans.
  2. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 23.
  3.  Ibid., 25.
  4.  Ibid., 228, note #3.
  5. Ibid., 228, note #3.
  6.  John Calvin, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 16, Translated by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 142-43.
  7. Hugh Martin, Puritanism and Richard Baxter (London: Camelot Press, 1954), 168.
  8. R. E. O. White, Christian Ethics (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1994), 200.
  9. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (Norwalk: Easton Pres, 1979), 103
  10. Charles H. and Katherine George, The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation: 1570-1640 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 130.
  11.  Ibid., 132.
  12.  William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, The Courtenay Library of Reformation Classics, vol. 3, Introduced and Edited by Ian Breward (Abingdon: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), 443.
  13.  Ryken, Worldly Saints, 35.
  14.  Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, vol. 1 (Ligonier: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990), 115.
  15.  All scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001)
  16.  John Murray, Principles of Conduct; Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 82.

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