The Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century England transformed the theological landscape of Christianity in the commonwealth, but it was not solely a reform of theology and doctrine. The English Reformation permeated every facet of society, including the theology of work and one’s vocation. The English evangelical clergy reiterated two primary arguments regarding work and vocation, arguments that were transferred to the Puritan work ethic in the seventeenth century, both in England and in its American colonies: (1) all space is sacred space, and (2) diligence is an essential Christian virtue.
All Space Is Sacred Space
The Reformation principle that all space is sacred space was one 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 stressed that all Christians have equal value and dignity in the sight of God. As a result, evangelical clergy during the Protestant Reformation consistently preached that all geographical and material spaces, all vocations, all roles, and all spheres in which believers operated were sacred and mattered to God.
“Even the most seemingly menial task could be holy to God and was to be performed with a holy attitude.”
Ultimately, no work or vocation for believers was mundane or insignificant. Even the most seemingly menial task could be holy to God and was to be performed with a holy attitude. All vocations, insofar that they were tethered to biblical principles and had moral value, had equal dignity and value in the sight of God.
This teaching was a seismic shift away from late medieval Roman Catholic teaching that stressed the disparity of the clergy and the laity. From the Protestant perspective, work as a cobbler could be just as godly as a preacher’s vocation. Serving one’s children as a mother could be just as noble as prosecuting criminals as a lawyer. The evangelical clergy taught their respective congregations that the barrier between the “sacred” and the “secular,” which the medieval church had erected, was nonexistent.
No Vocation Too Humble
The evangelicals submitted and taught two practical applications from the principle of the sacredness of all work and vocations. First, all Christians were to “walk in” or “answer to their vocation.”1 “Walking in” one’s vocation encompassed faithfulness to one’s employer and attendant duties in the place of employment. Faithful labor was to be done for the Lord’s sake primarily, but the evangelical ministers also reiterated the principle of working for the love of one’s neighbor. They contended that one’s vocation, whatever it was, served and benefitted the commonwealth both socially and economically.2 Additionally, ministers reminded congregants to be content with their vocation and the work that God provided them.3
The evangelicals made another application of the principle “all space is sacred space” in regards to one’s labor and vocation. They argued that since God was deeply concerned about all vocations, and since all work and vocations were sacred, prayer should be made for all people in their respective vocations. Many Reformation prayer books, like Thomas Becon’s A flour of godly praiers (1550), contained prayers for magistrates, soldiers, mariners, travelers by land, lawyers, merchants, landlords, and mothers.
Within his prayer book, Becon offers a general prayer for all Christians to pray, that they all would “walke accordinge to [their] vocacion in thy feare.”4 In these prayer books, the evangelicals gave special attention to mothers. Mothers were encouraged both through sermons and implicitly through the wording of the prayers that their domestic work was “godly.” These evangelical prayer books implicitly taught English society that all spheres were sacred and were worthy of prayer to God. No vocation was too humble to petition his blessing for the work.
Call to ‘Earnest Diligence’
The English evangelicals reasoned that since all vocations and activities were holy in God’s sight, it was incumbent on believers to pursue their vocation with diligence. Industriousness, with it is corresponding virtues — self-discipline, self-governance, and perseverance — constituted an indispensable Christian virtue in the English Reformation ethos. There was no space for idleness in the Christian ethic.
In fact, the sin of idleness was perpetually condemned in evangelical printed sermons and tracts. It was considered a “fleshly and perverse” sin.5 It was the “wel[l] spring and ro[o]te of al[l] vice.”6 For those enslaved to idleness, their sin was tantamount to “offer[ing] themselves a sacrifice, not to God but to the devill.”7 A pattern of idleness in a professing Christian’s life brought into serious doubt 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 reason why diligence and idleness were addressed so frequently and zealously in evangelical catechisms and sermons was the context of increasing poverty in urban areas in England, particularly in London. The evangelicals observed that much of that poverty was due to idleness among men.
Diligence stood as a prominent theme in English evangelical print, and it was stressed to all audiences, regardless of age or status. Children were taught the value and benefits of diligence from their parents at a young age through catechesis in the household. The earliest evangelical catechisms and manuals of virtue emphatically encouraged youth to pursue diligence, “takynge payne with all thyne industry,” while also fleeing “slouthe and over much sle[e]pe.”9 In his catechism, William Perkins exhorted children and adults alike to “labour and toyle,” but also reminded Christians that diligence was “nothing and availes not, unlesse God still give his blessing.”10
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in his definition of true preaching, explained that the evangelical preacher’s aim was in part to teach his parishioners “to honor and worshippe almighty God, and diligently to serve hym, every one accordynge to their degre[e], state, and vocacion.”11 English ministers regularly made biblical applications in their sermons to those of specific vocations. “Earnest diligence” about one’s “business” was the call and mindset for all genuine Christians.12
Early American Work Ethic
How did the Reformation view of vocation influence future generations of Protestants? The seventeenth-century English Puritans were the inheritors of the Reformation and imbibed the intellectual and practical theology of their Reformation forbears. The Puritans and Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic to the New World transported with them the Reformation view of work as a sacred trust and holy privilege. Cotton Mather (1663–1728), for example, articulated the Puritan ethic of responsibility and self-governance, that all men should “love” and “like” their vocation, because it is “a blessing to have a calling [vocation].”13
John Cotton (1585–1652) elevated all vocations as equally glorifying to God, encouraging his fellow colonists in Boston to “embrace” and perform even what might be considered the most mundane or menial of tasks.14 True faith, he contended, was not ashamed of accomplishing such work, because that work was sanctioned and given by God. Cotton posited the biblical model of Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet.
The early American colonists applied these biblical principles to their respective jobs, establishing what would be known for generations as a sturdy work ethic and a high level of individual responsibility. This, in part, contributed to the flourishing of American colonial society, particularly 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 any vocation and in performing one’s task, no matter how seemingly mundane or menial, while depending upon 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.
“All is futile without God and his blessing. But when God blesses our labor and vocation, it will not be in vain.”
Moses petitioned God on behalf of the congregation of Israel in Psalm 90:17 to “establish the work of our hands.” This statement humbly acknowledges utter dependence on God for any success in work. Unless he blesses and uses our skills, time management, education, and job opportunities, we will not prosper in them (Psalm 127:1). All is futile without God and his blessing. But when God blesses our labor and 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 the evangelicals in Reformation England, we too can cultivate a disposition of doing all things heartily for our Lord (Colossians 3:23), asking him to “make us diligent & happy in the workes of our vocation.”15
Thomas Becon, A flour of godly praiers (London: John Day, 1550) STC 1719.5, sig. J4r; Robert Crowley, The voyce of the laste trumpet (London: Richard Grafton, 1549) STC 6094, sigs. B4v, B7v, D3v, D6r. ↩
Brian L. Hanson, Reformation of the Commonwealth: Thomas Becon and the Politics of Evangelical Change in Tudor England (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019), 41, 128. ↩
Thomas Lever, A fruitfull sermon made in Poules churche at London (London: John Day, 1550) STC 15543, sig. G5v; William Turner, A new booke of spirituall physik (Emden: Egidius van der Erve, 1555) STC 24361, sig. B7r. ↩
Becon, Flour of godly praiers, sig. J4r. ↩
John Hooper, An oversight, and deliberacion upon the holy prophete Ionas (London: John Day and William Seres, 1550), STC 13763, sig. B8v. ↩
Thomas Becon, The governance of vertue (London: John Day, 1566) STC 1727, sig. L6r. ↩
William Perkins, An exposition of the Symbole or Creed of the Apostles (Cambridge: John Legatt, 1595) STC 19703, sig. I2r. ↩
John Bradford, A sermon of repentaunce (London: S. Mierdman, 1553) STC 3496, sig. D7r; John Bradford, The complaynt of veritie (London: John Day, 1559) STC 3479, sig. C2v; John Bradford, Two notable sermons (London: John Awdely and John Wight, 1574) STC 3500.5, sig. B5v; Hooper, Oversight, sig. K8v. ↩
Anonymous, The schoole of vertue and booke of good nourture for chyldren (London: William Seres, 1557), STC 22135, sigs. A6r, A3r. ↩
William Perkins, An exposition of the Lords praier in the way of catechisme (Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave, 1593), STC 19701, sig. E1v. ↩
Thomas Cranmer, Certayne sermons, or homelies appoynted by the kynges Maiestie (London: Richard Grafton, 1547) STC 13640, sig. A2v. ↩
Becon, Governaunce, sig. B3r. ↩
Cotton Mather, Winter meditations: directions how to employ the leisure of the winter for the glory of God (Boston: Benjamin Harris, 1693), sig. I3v. ↩
John Cotton, The way of life (London: M.F., 1641), sig. Ee7v. ↩
John Bradford, A godlye medytacyon (London: William Copland, 1559) STC 3483, sig. A7v. ↩