Christians Who Changed Their World

The Reformation and Work I


Glenn Sunshine

So far in this series, we have looked at the impact of the Reformation on marriage and private life, education, and science. In this article, we need to return to a theme we have seen in connection with private life and education: the priesthood of all believers. This idea, which was central to Luther’s thought, was critical to breaking down the sacred/secular divide, and thus changed much of the structure of European life.

The new emphasis on the priesthood of all believers brought with it a new appreciation of the value of work. As was the case with science, Protestant contributions to this area were firmly anchored in the historic Christian tradition, though by the time of the Reformation, the clergy and elites had largely forgotten the positive view of work taught in the Scriptures and in earlier centuries in the church. Thus, in order to understand Protestant contributions to the theology of work, we need to look at the Bible, church history, and shifting cultural attitudes toward work.

Work and the Bible

In the ancient world, work was seen as toil and drudgery, fit only for slaves and the lower classes. The elites believed that superior people should not engage in physical labor or production; instead, they should spend their time contemplating beauty and higher things, an idea that led them straight down the road to hedonism.

The main exception to this outlook in the ancient world was the Jews. Genesis said that God labored and rested, and that was the paradigm for our labor and rest. If God worked, if He labored and produced the world, then how could work be bad?

Further, when God created Adam and Eve, he gave them work tending and protecting the Garden of Eden. God had begun the process of Creation; now He gave to humanity as His regents in the world the right and responsibility to complete the creation by building culture. Work thus predates the fall into sin and thus is an intrinsic good, not a necessary evil.

Work only turned into drudgery as a result of God’s judgment on sin, and since we are all living with the consequences of that judgment, it is no wonder that in the classical world work was seen as toil, tedium, and drudgery. The Jews, however, knew better from Genesis and argued that God’s purpose in the world right now, which He shared with the Jews, is tikkun olam, to repair the world. Work is thus intended to have a redemptive purpose, in Jewish thought.

Monasteries and Water Wheels

Early Christians picked up on this biblical understanding of work, and so, for example, St. Benedict put into his Rule provisions for monks to engage in regular productive labor as part of their spiritual discipline. The early monks also recognized that while work was good, drudgery was bad and a result of the Fall; since Jesus came to redeem us from the effects of the Fall, they believed that it was important to find ways to redeem labor. They realized that human labor was too valuable to waste on things that could be done in another way—by animals or, even better, by machines. And so monasteries were the first to deploy water wheels to do the kind of mindless, repetitive work that was the essence of drudgery.

The Romans knew about water wheels, but they never built them: They had slaves to do the work, so why put in the capital investment? The monasteries had not only good practical reasons to build the wheels but also a theological commitment to making work meaningful and effective. And so Irish monks in the seventh century were building both vertical and horizontal water wheels powered by tides. From there, the technology spread to England.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, there were 6,000 water wheels in that kingdom; a century before, there had been less than 100. Continental Europe also saw a tremendous increase in the number of watermills from the 11th  to the 13th century, leading to a virtual industrial revolution in medieval Europe.

Water wheels were first used for grinding grain, but they were soon adapted to other purposes. They were used in sawmills, fulling mills (an essential step in the production of woolen cloth), and eventually in paper mills; they operated bellows in furnaces for smelting iron, and both bellows and trip hammers in smithies; they powered suction pumps to pump water out of mines. And where moving water was not available, medieval engineers developed windmills to do the same kinds of work.

All this capital investment did not come simply from the idea of increased efficiency and production, but also from the theological commitment to the goodness of work and the desire to eliminate as much as possible the drudgery caused by the Fall.

Medieval Guilds

The value of work was also recognized by the medieval craft guilds. These craftsmen consistently strove for excellence in what they did and saw their work as a way of honoring God. It is easy for us today to overlook the skill of medieval craftsmen. We assume that we are much better at production today, with our advanced technologies and materials. But this is not actually the case. We build for obsolescence, expecting things to wear out and planning to buy replacements when they do. In the Middle Ages, they made things to last. It was not unusual, for example, for fine clothing to be passed down through multiple generations, since it did not wear out.

Or take the example of the blue set of the Unicorn Tapestries in the Cloisters, the branch of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that specializes in medieval art. The blue Unicorn Tapestries were made in France in the 1400s. They tell the story of the hunt of the unicorn. The tapestries have a dark blue background with a floral pattern woven into it. Over the centuries, one of the tapestries got damaged, and in the early 1900s it was restored. You can tell which one it is at a glance, because the restored section at the bottom has a brown background rather than blue and the finish on one of the sleeves is too shiny. Yet when it was restored, the colors and finish matched. The modern dye could not hold its color for a century, but the medieval colors are true nearly 600 years later.

Elite Opinion

Despite the guilds, however, much of the emphasis on the goodness of work would dissipate over the Middle Ages, especially among those in positions of power and authority. The clergy saw themselves as above the laity because they engaged in “spiritual” work, and the nobility in much of Europe thought it was beneath them to engage in production or commerce; in fact, “living nobly” meant living off rents and income from land that you owned but that was worked by others. As late as the 18th century in France, engaging in commercial activity could jeopardize noble status or block a wealthy commoner from entering the ranks of the nobility.

Restoring the Goodness of Work

The Protestant emphasis on the priesthood of all believers helped restore the dignity and sanctity of mundane, secular work. The clergy were not considered above the laity, at least in principle: All were priests and equal before God. This outlook led to a new understanding of vocation. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin vocare, meaning to call. A vocation is a calling.

In medieval (and, to a large extent, modern) Catholicism, having a vocation meant one thing: You had a call from God to join the clergy. There simply were no other callings. In contrast, Protestants argued that any non-sinful profession could be a legitimate calling from God. Just as all believers were priests, all also had callings for the different stages of their lives.

Further, since God created all things and Jesus is Lord of all things, any work can be and should be done for the glory of God. The earth is the Lord’s, and so when we work with the resources He created and provided for us, we are engaged in a sacred activity. Once again, the sacred/secular divide is broken down, freeing up the Protestant world for a new theological appreciation of economic life.

The reformation of work was part of a larger vision of the role of Christians in the world promoted primarily by the Calvinist Reformation. We will return to that topic in the next article.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


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