Puritans & Work Ethic

Today I read a blog post entitled “Worry Isn’t Work” by Dan Pallotta that made some good points, but also included some points which really irked me.

Pallotta wanted to say that it’s not necessary to equate working hard with punishing oneself, and that self-criticism and anxiety would end up hurting productivity. I think these are good points. However, it’s unfortunate that Pallotta wrongfully blamed the Puritans’ work ethic for causing people to over-worry about their productivity. Ironically, he pointed out, by quoting historian Perry Miller, that “without some understanding of Puritanism… there is no understanding of America.” It is ironic because Pallotta shows much misunderstanding about Puritans and history in general. At one point, he claimed that, because the Puritans burned witches at the stake (this is not true historically — burning of witches never took place in American history) that we should discredit the Puritan work ethic as anything worthwhile (which shows both a misunderstanding of Puritan work ethic and also a gross logical fallacy).

Many people think that because Puritans are very self-deprecating about their own sins, they think that Puritans are guilt-ridden people. By extension, Puritan work ethic was somehow misunderstood to see work being motivated by guilt, and that Puritans believe in working hard to gain wealth and good moral standing (for example, read this, which claims the Puritan work ethic is an “archaic religious belief”). But what is the real Puritan work ethic?

Most ideas in history were a response to the ideas that before them, whether it’s disagreement or refinement. The Puritans were no different. What is the historical context here? Before the Reformation, the only valuable work was seen as religious work in the church. Martin Luther changed this view by saying that all work done in Christian faith is pleasing to God. Later, John Calvin expanded the term “calling” to apply to one’s work.

What the Puritans did was they built upon Luther’s and Calvin’s ideas by stating that everyone has a calling to a vocation. So the Puritans bring work to a more central place in one’s life, and they emphasize working hard and living life to its fullest. However, to the Puritans, work is not an end, but merely a means. The goal of the Puritans is to live a God-centered life, and since God-centered-ness implies achieving their God-given calling, they work hard. In other words, their work is not driven by guilt, but driven by fulfilling the meaning of their lives in God.

I’ve actually done some studies about Puritans in the past, and I must say I really appreciate how they are intensely serious about aligning their beliefs and their actions. They also contributed to a lot of profound intellectual and artistic/poetic work in American history. Sadly, Puritans are also sinful humans, and some of them also committed some gross atrocities in American history, such as the Salem witch trials, slave trade, and abuse of Indians, and these things caused many people to discredit them totally. But we must not distort history nor forget the valuable lessons we can learn from the great Puritan ideas.

For further reading:
“The Original Puritan Work Ethic” by Leland Ryken
“Work Ethic, Protestant” in the “Complete Book of Everyday Christianity”
“Who Were The Puritans?” by J. Glenn Ferrell
Jesus Made In America by Stephen Nichols
The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective by R. Paul Stevens