The Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century England transformed the theological landscape of Christianity in the Commonwealth, but it was not just a reform of theology and doctrine. The English Reformation permeated every facet of society, including the theology of work and vocation. English Evangelical clergy reiterated two main arguments regarding work and vocation, arguments which were transferred to the Puritan work ethic in the 17th century, both in England and in its American colonies: (1) all space is space sacred, and (2) diligence is an essential Christian virtue.
All space is sacred space
The Reformation principle that all space is sacred space was an application of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine that affirmed that every Christian is accountable to God and has equal access to him and to the scriptures. The doctrine emphasized that all Christians have equal worth and dignity in the sight of God. Accordingly, evangelical clergy during the Protestant Reformation consistently preached that all geographic and material spaces, all vocations, all roles, and all spheres in which believers operated were sacred and important to God.
“Even the most seemingly menial task could be holy to God and must be done with a holy attitude.”
In the end, no job or calling for believers was trivial or insignificant. Even the most seemingly menial task could be holy to God and had to be done with a holy attitude. All vocations, insofar as they related to biblical principles and had moral value, had equal dignity and worth in the eyes of God.
This teaching was a radical departure from late medieval Roman Catholic teaching which emphasized the disparity between clergy and laity. From a Protestant point of view, the work of a shoemaker could be just as pious as the calling of a preacher. Serving her children as a mother could be just as noble as prosecuting criminals as a lawyer. Evangelical clergy taught their respective congregations that the barrier between the “sacred” and the “secular,” which the medieval Church had erected, was non-existent.
No vocation too humble
Evangelicals have submitted and taught two practical applications of the principle of the sanctity of all work and all calling. First, all Christians were to “enter” or “respond to their calling.”1 “Entering” his vocation encompassed loyalty to his employer and accompanying duties in the workplace. Faithful work was to be done primarily for the love of the Lord, but evangelical ministers also reiterated the principle of working for the love of neighbor. They held that a person’s vocation, whatever it was, served and benefited the community both socially and economically.2 Moreover, the ministers reminded the faithful to be content with their vocation and the work that God has provided for them.3
Evangelicals have made another application of the principle “all space is sacred space” in regard to one’s work and vocation. They argued that since God cares deeply for all vocations and all work and vocation is sacred, prayer should be made for all in their respective vocations. Many Reformation prayer books, such as that of Thomas Becon A flour of divine prayers (1550), contained prayers for magistrates, soldiers, sailors, travelers by land, lawyers, merchants, landlords and mothers.
In his prayer book, Becon offers a general prayer for all Christians to pray, that they “all walk according to [their] vocation in your fear.4 In these prayer books, evangelicals paid special attention to mothers. Mothers were encouraged both by sermons and implicitly by the wording of prayers that their domestic work was “pious.” These gospel prayer books implicitly taught English society that all spheres were sacred and worthy of praying to God. No vocation was too humble to seek His blessing for the work.
Call for ‘Earnest Diligence’
English Evangelicals felt that since all vocations and activities were holy in the eyes of God, it was incumbent on believers to diligently pursue their vocation. Diligence, with its corresponding virtues – self-discipline, self-governance, and perseverance – was an indispensable Christian virtue in the ethos of the English Reformation. There was no place for idleness in the Christian ethic.
In fact, the sin of idleness was perpetually condemned in sermons and the printed gospel tracts. It was considered a “carnal and perverse” sin.5 It was the “good[l] spring and ro[o]you of al[l] vice.”6 For the slaves of idleness, their sin amounted to “offering[ing] sacrifice, not to God but to the devil.seven A pattern of idleness in the life of a professing Christian seriously cast doubt on his conversion. Laziness was incompatible with biblical Christianity. It was consistently included with lists of other sins that incurred the wrath and judgment of God – murder, adultery, theft, treason, witchcraft, blasphemy.8
One of the reasons why diligence and idleness were addressed so frequently and so zealously in catechisms and gospel sermons was the context of growing poverty in urban areas in England, especially London. Evangelicals observed that much of this poverty was due to men’s idleness.
Diligence was an important theme in English gospel printing, and it was emphasized to all audiences, regardless of age or status. Children learned the value and benefits of diligence from their parents at a young age through household catechesis. Early Gospel catechisms and virtue manuals emphatically encouraged young people to be diligent, “takynge payne with all thyne industry”, while shunning “slouthe and over much sle”.[e]eg.9 In his catechism, William Perkins urged children and adults alike to ‘work and play’, but also reminded Christians that diligence was ‘nothing and is of no use, unless God gives his blessing yet’ .ten
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in his definition of true preaching, explained that the purpose of the evangelical preacher is in part to teach his parishioners “to honor and worship Almighty God, and to serve Him diligently, each according to its degree.[e]status and vocation.11 English ministers regularly made biblical applications in their sermons to those of specific vocations. “Serious diligence” about one’s “business” was the call and the mindset of all true Christians.12
Early American work ethic
How did the reformist vision of vocation influence future generations of Protestants? Seventeenth-century English Puritans were heirs to the Reformation and imbibed the intellectual and practical theology of their Reformation ancestors. The Puritans and Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic to the New World carried with them the Reformist view of work as a sacred mission and a sacred privilege. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), for example, articulated the Puritan ethic of responsibility and self-reliance, that all men should “love” and “love” their vocation, for it is “a blessing of ‘have a calling’. [vocation].”13
John Cotton (1585-1652) elevated all vocations as glorifying God equally, encouraging his fellow Boston settlers to “embrace” and accomplish even what might be considered the most mundane or menial task.14 True faith, he argued, was not ashamed to do such work, because that work was sanctioned and given by God. Cotton laid down the biblical model of the washing of his disciples’ feet by Jesus.
Early American settlers applied these biblical principles to their respective jobs, establishing what would be known for generations as a strong work ethic and high level of individual responsibility. This partly contributed to the flourishing of American colonial society, especially in its economy and education.
Establish the work of our hands
The English Reformation view of work and vocation can serve as a healthy model for us today. Persistent, disciplined, excellent work for the glory of God is noble and virtuous. There is dignity in every vocation and in doing one’s task, however seemingly mundane, while depending on God to bless the outcome. God calls us to do all things, including our work, with excellence and joy for His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). Idleness, laziness and lack of responsibility are sins to be confessed and repented of.
“Everything is futile without God and his blessing. But when God blesses our work and our vocation, it will not be in vain.
Moses petitioned God on behalf of the congregation of Israel in Psalm 90:17 to “firm the work of our hands.” This statement humbly acknowledges total dependence on God for all success in the work. Unless He blesses and uses our skills, our time management, our education, and our employment opportunities, we will not prosper (Psalm 127:1). Everything is futile without God and his blessing. But when God blesses our work and our vocation, it will not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). In fact, the work we do for God’s sake will have spiritual and eternal value (Matthew 25:14-30).
As with Reformation evangelicals in England, we too can cultivate a willingness to do all things wholeheartedly for our Lord (Colossians 3:23), asking Him to “make us diligent and happy in the works of our calling.” “.15