It is well known that early Methodism flourished most among the new working and middle classes – the artisans and entrepreneurs who were rising up above their formerly lowly status in the ancestral class system, in which for example Anglican priests were members of the upper class, and wielded disproportionate social as well as religious authority in the towns. It was the newly discovered mobility that allowed them to rise through industry, frugality, and investment of their time, talents, and treasures that also allowed them to question and challenge the Anglican religious establishment. Such people naturally gravitated to the fervent, warm-hearted, and freeing message of Wesley’s “born-again” religion and its free, democratic organization in small groups and mutual aid societies.
Methodism itself was in many ways entrepreneurial, and so it shouldn’t surprise that it enjoyed good relations with business such as the mining companies of Cornwall. Many of Wesley’s early converts were miners and other workers. The Wesleyan message, meetings, and organizations gave confidence to the people working in the mining businesses, and helped those who led the businesses to do so in ways that made their communities more healthy. Numerous mine captains were also Methodist preachers who communicated to their communities the powerful messages of respectability and self-improvement, thus helping to ensure that Methodism became the most relevant religious institution for laborers and the working class – far more so than the Established Church of England. Continue reading
While Wesley (1703–1791) claimed that Christians ought to preach repentance often and politics rarely, except when necessary to defend the king, he was actually not shy about expressing his political and economic opinions. Those opinions were typical of an upper-middle-class, Oxford-educated clergyman, but that did not mean he was unconcerned about the problems of English society.
One of his responses was to issue scathing indictments of those who profited off of others. His tract “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” for instance, claimed that the poor were hungry because of the influence of “distilling, taxes, and luxury.”
He also tried to help. Continue reading
The Reformed tradition
Calvin elaborated on the Lutheran doctrine of vocation, freeing people to pursue the vocations of their choosing rather than to remain in a single “social standing” as the more conservative Luther had counseled. The Calvinist Puritans developed the idea of the sacred importance of economic work in ways that prepared the ground for the flourishing of capitalism: as Weber argued, obedience, diligence, delayed gratification, and other “ascetic” virtues were transferred in Puritanism into the world of work, and resulted in the creation of tremendous wealth.
Puritans often condemned the pursuit of money and goods for their own sake. Their “work ethic” was never about money-making. But “it opened the way to a career in business, especially for the most devout and ethically rigorous people.” Leland Ryken describes the Puritan idea of calling as including “the providence of God in arranging human tasks, work as the response of a steward to God, contentment with one’s tasks, and loyalty to one’s vocation.”
Wesley and the industrial revolution
The next great change in Christian attitudes to economic work came with the industrial revolution, which was already ramping up in the time of the great 18th-century preacher John Wesley, when the commercial virtues of the Puritans and the new capitalist habits of long-term investment began to create the industries and factories that would drive Western economic growth in the centuries to come. Continue reading
For the Reformers, as for the early church, the primary meaning of the term “calling” remained the call to Christian discipleship and community. But as Stackhouse says, for Luther and the rest, “to think that vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were signs of spiritual superiority seemed to them to be moral and spiritual pretense. In fact, living and working one’s ordinary station in life with a heart renewed by the love of Christ, and showing forth there a pattern of life that glorified God and served humankind, enacted a more faithful life of prayerful discipleship.”
The Reformers made this insight into a social reality by closing the monasteries, confiscating their property for the public good, and finding marriage partners for the monks and nuns (famously, Luther’s own wife, Katherine Von Bora, was an ex-nun). And as for the privileged spiritual status of the priesthood, Luther emphasized that every husband, wife, peasant, and magistrate was just as much a priest (in status and ability, if not in function) as the clergy. Continue reading
Friend Phil Harrold at Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh asks (in the comments area of this post), “What are your top picks for books on Christian faith and vocation?” Here’s my off-the-cuff answer:
If you are willing to do some selection, a great sourcebook is Callings, by William Placher. Steve Garber’s new Visions of Vocation is more involved, but also more narrative – likely especially appealing/useful for millennials or at least younger Christians. It may be too long to read for a small group study – more a resource book or something for a leader to read and choose from judiciously.
God at Work by Gene Veith is a slim volume that might be helpful. Lester De Koster also has a slim volume, from a Reformed perspective: Work: The Meaning of Your Life. The Acton Institute series of short videos, For The Life of the World, is very good – an absorbing experience that should generate a lot of conversation. Also best for millennials, but accessible for all ages. It comes with a study guide and may be purchased in many forms, including download, or even rented.
If you have this question still in early 2015, I highly recommend a two-part video documentary I’m working on (helped secure funding for, and have had a hand in scripting and editing): Going On Vocation. It is advertised on the back cover of the Christian History magazine Vocation issue, which is another excellent resource for such a group as yours. Click the link in the preceding sentence for a full-color downloadable pdf of the issue; if you go to the main level of www.christianhistorymagazine.org you can also find it in online flipbook format under “back issues.” They can also be purchased hard copy in “bulk” – including smaller orders. Continue reading
Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328)
Continuing the current series on work in the history of Christianity, a snapshot from the Middle Ages . . .
The contemplative vs. the active life
A key moment in Christian thought about economic work came in the 6th-century papacy of Gregory the Great. Gregory was a monk, and remained one during his papacy—the first pope to do so. He had been taught to value the contemplative life more highly than the active life. He was devastated when called out of his monastery and into the flood of administrative duties he had to perform as pope. His ensuing spiritual crisis led him to a view that the active life of service to others was not indeed an unwelcome and spiritually damaging distraction from the contemplative. Rather, he saw that in order to become truly spiritual, one must move not only away from the distractions of the flesh to reach the spirit, but also back from the heights of the spiritual life to the concerns of bodily life.
For Gregory the active life is the life of service to others (which is what all work is still ultimately about). So it is inherently important and godly. But second, he understood that our work lives are a mess – as is the entire economic realm. It is heir to all the pain and frustration that came to us by the Fall, which cursed all our work with thistles. So in the midst of the service to others that we do in our work, every one of us encounters the intractable sinfulness of humanity. At work not only the sins of others, but our own sins are revealed, and we realize every day that we need the power of God in order to get anywhere in dealing with other human beings.
So Gregory concluded that one needed, yes, times of contemplation, but also times of action, both in order to love the neighbor and fulfill the Matthew 25 mandate and also to drive us back to prayer, where we bring those frustrations and the awa2reness of our own sinfulness back to the Lord. So economic work, properly understood, becomes for us a sanctifying thing, as iron sharpens iron. It drives us to our knees, making our times of prayer all the more transforming. Continue reading
Christian views of work, before and since the Reformation
Having laid a biblical basis for thinking about work, I’d like to take us now on something of a whirlwind tour through some of the different ways the historical church has viewed work, vocation, and economics.
Is there a theological tradition, rooted in Scripture and passed on through the ages of the church, that affirms “secular,” even menial economic work is part of a larger picture of God-given vocation?
In a word, yes.
Of course, in the New Testament God’s primary call to the church is to preach and disciple. Yet, says Max Stackhouse, “many passages also recognize that people have earthly obligations, and the calling is closely identified with one’s responsibilities in life, which one is to fulfill dutifully.” Continue reading