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.
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.