This article shows that the desire of the Puritans to be of service to God in all things can serve as advice on how to deal with idleness and unemployment.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2010. 2 pages.

Idle Hands: Some Puritan Advice for the Unemployed

Steve Lee, of Denver, Colorado, is familiar with the despon­dency that unemployment brings. Laid off a year ago from a medical-sales position, he admits that depression hit just a few months into his unemployment. “All I could think about was how bad the economy was and how unlikely getting a new job as good as my old one would be,” he said. With tips like “start exercising” and “try to stay hopeful,” cyber-counsel for the fifteen million cur­rently out of work rings hollow at best, leaving those thigh-deep in unemployment wondering where to turn for practical advice.

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-spoilers 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.

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 mindset 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 sense of purposefulness, fortifying him in difficult times.

Much like modern work is separated into white and blue collar, seventeeth-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” (Eccl. 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 a holy and valuable act of service to God, 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.

Contrary to the misconstrued Victorian concept of Puritan­ism, an idea C.S. Lewis calls “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” the original Puritans, serious as they were, embraced not only hard work, but the pursuit of joy. Lewis, opposed to this inaccurate view of the Puritans, would agree with writer Richard Bernard, who said Christians “may be merry at their work, and merry at their meat.” Thomas Gataker wrote that Satan was the one who would try to convince people that “in the kingdom of God there is nothing but sighing and groaning and fasting and prayer,” but the truth was that “in his house there is ... feasting and rejoicing.” The Puritans pursued joy, the very antith­esis of depression, even in the midst of hardship, believing they were firmly in God’s hand, not forgotten and never forsaken.

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. A man’s worth, the Puritans might advise the unemployed Steve Lee, lay in his service to God and to his fellow man, not in titles or financial portfolios. Rather than seeing life as a series of random events, the Puritan’s belief in providence imputed a profound sense of a loving God’s purpose for him, a purpose that left very little room for despair.

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