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Puritans’ Progress


Dr. Jay Worth Allen

In early May 2010, Diana and I lost our Nashville home, car, clothes, furniture, recording equipment, PA equipment, a number of musical instruments, plus a bunch of personal keep-sakes and accounting papers to the flood that ravaged Middle-Tennessee.  But thanks to the grace of the Lord we have a roof over our heads in our building we own in Hardeman County, and we still received some resources from our songs (which at this point is 120 days past due) and other writings and artistic pursuits, so we’re not left in the dispirited shape of some.

That being said, the loss of home, furnishings, friends and income did give us a burst of the blues.  And not the twelve-bar Robert Johnson kind, but the, “how bad the economy is blue funk despondency kinda blues . . . yada, yada, yada.”  Not being collective plebeians who go with simpleminded tips like, “start exercising to relieve stress” or “try to stay hopeful” - that new cyber-counseling kind of  internet blog froth I hate.  I’m reluctant to exercise in good times - no matter how liberating I’m told it would make me feel - so even a noble tête-à-tête on the subject was out.  But, being an avid reader, I found, while looking through our massive collection of books, some encouragement, of what I feel is worthwhile encouragement for the millions of out-of-work, out of home and family mortals.  This is encouragement which will hopefully not ring hollow, encouragement which won’t leave those thigh-deep in hopelessness wondering where to turn for practical advice, encouragement which comes 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-poopers of modern history books, but into a tenacious and stalwart people.  By sheer necessity, they developed 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.

Defined primarily by their religious separation from the Church of England, 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 mind-set 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’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 preacher, priest, or monk) trumped secular ones (like farming, blacksmithing or homemaking).  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.  This puritanical sweaty antidote although, does not consist of a tri-weekly sweat on a stationary bike at the local gym.  It’s productive, rather than theoretical effort, which produces the cure.

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.”  Lewis, further debunking the myth that Puritans never had fun, said “bishops, not beer, were their special aversion.”  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.  The Puritans might advise the unemployed and the hopeless that a man’s worth is to, “lay your service to God and to your 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 every man, a purpose that left very little room for despair.

I do hope this little historical treatise helps any and all who are in job-loss, home-less, low-spirited despondency.  It helped us.  Realizing the Puritans went through starving days, lonely nights, loss of families, etc. and came out winning in the end because of their trust and belief in the Providence and grace of the living God, made both Diana and I all the more single-minded, unwavering and resolute to keep going.  I hope you, my dear reader get this same unction.


Puritans’ Progress
Published:  16 August 2010 on Freed In Christ! blogsite.

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