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John Cotton

(3 posts)

Sacred and Secular

The Puritans were known as a hard-working people. Even today, when the words “puritan” and “puritanical” are meant as insults, one hears references to the “puritan work ethic.” Few, however, understand the motivation for that ethic, which stemmed from a conviction that Jesus was Lord of all of life. Leland Ryken writes: To understand Puritan attitudes toward work, we must take a look at the background against which they were reacting. For centuries it had been customary to divide types of work into the two categories of “sacred” and “secular.” Sacred work was work done by members of the religious profession. All other work bore the stigma of being secular. This cleavage between sacred and secular work can be traced all the way back to the Jewish Talmud. One of the prayers, obviously written from the scribe’s viewpoint, is as follows: I thank thee, O Lord, my God, that thou hast given me my lot with those who sit in the house of learning, and not with those who sit at the street-corners; for I am early to work and they are early to work; I am early to work on the words of the Torah, and they are early to work on things of no moment. I weary myself, and they weary themselves; I weary myself and profit thereby, and they weary themselves to no profit. I run, and they run; I run towards the life of the age to come, and they run towards the pit of destruction. The same division of work into categories of sacred and secular became a leading feature of medieval Roman Catholicism. The attitude was formulated already in the fourth century by Eusebius, who wrote, Two ways of life were given by the law of Christ to his church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living. . . . Wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone. . . . Such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other, more humble, more human, permits men to . . . have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests as well as for religion. . . . And a kind of secondary grade of piety is attributed to them. This sacred-secular dichotomy was exactly what the Puritans rejected as the starting point of their theory of work. —Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Academie Books, 1986), 24. The Puritans, following the lead of Luther and Calvin, believed that all honest labor was holy. The differences between sacred secular were extrinsic only. The most common, menial labor was intrinsically as valuable and God-glorifying as the most honored vocations, including preaching. According to Hugh Latimer, This is a wonderful thing, that the Savior of the world, and the King above all kings, was not ashamed to labor; yea, and to use so simple an occupation. Here he did sanctify all manner of occupations. —Ibid., 25. The Christian faith of the laborer was believed to sanctify the most humble calling. John Cotton wrote: Faith . . . encourageth a man in his calling to the homeliest and difficultest. . . . Such homely employments a carnal heart knows not how to submit unto; but now faith having put us into a calling, if it require some homely employment, it encourageth us in it. . . . So faith is ready to embrace any homely service his calling leads him to, which a carnal heart would blush to be seen in. —Ibid. This was the puritan’s view of every activity. Ryken continues: For the Puritans, all of life was God’s. Their goal was to integrate their daily work with their religious devotion to God. Richard Steele asserted that it was in the shop “where you may most confidently expect the presence and blessing of God.” The Puritans revolutionized attitudes toward daily work when they raised the possibility that “every step and stroke in your trade is sanctified.” John Milton, in his famous Areopagitica, satirized the businessman who leaves his religion at home, “trading all day without his religion.” . . . The Puritan goal was to serve God, not simply within one’s work in the world, but through that work. John Cotton hinted at this when he wrote, A true believing Christian . . . lives in his vocation by his faith. Not only my spiritual life but even my civil life in this world, and all the life I live, is by the faith of the Son of God: He exempts no life from the agency of his faith. And Cotton Mather said, A Christian should be able to give a good account, not only what is his occupation, but also what he is in his occupation. It is not enough that a Christian have an occupation; but he must mind his occupation as it becomes a Christian. With the Puritan emphasis on all of life as God’s, it is not surprising that a late seventeenth-century pamphlet entitled St. Paul the Tentmaker could note that the Protestant movement had fostered a “delight in secular employments.” —Ibid., 25–26.
continue reading Sacred and Secular

The Puritans and Money

The Puritans, as we have seen, were industrious, hard-working people. This has led some to paint them as avaricious, materialistic capitalists. It is true that they were capitalistic, and it is them we have to thank (and thank them, I do) for American free enterprise. But it is not at all fair to call them greedy and materialistic. Their view of wealth was much the same as their view of work: that it was ordained by God, and therefore good in itself.    In affirming the goodness of money, the Puritans found it necessary to defend the legitimate aspects of money against its detractors. William Perkins did so in a sermon an Matthew 6:19-20, in which he listed what Christ did not forbid: Diligent labor in a main vocation, whereby [a person] provides things needful for himself, and those that depend on him. . . . The fruition and possessions of goods and riches: for they are the good blessing of God being well used. . . . The gathering and laying up of treasure is not simply forbidden, for the word of God alloweth herefor in some respect. 2 Corinthians 12:14.    The puritans had no guilt about making money; to make money was a form of stewardship. . . . [Richard Baxter wrote]: If God show you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another way (without wrong to your soul, or to any other), if you refuse this, and choose a less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and you refuse to be Gods steward. In the broader context of Baxters writing on economics, this call for efficiency and productiveness is simply evidence of common sense and a strong sense of wishing to be a good steward of Gods gifts. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Academie Books, 1986), 58. Likewise, the Puritans defended the concept of private property:    The Puritans defense of private property was an extension of their belief in the legitimacy of money. William Ames wrote that private property is founded not only on human but also on natural and divine right. Elsewhere Ames wrote that there is justice in the lawful keeping of the things we have. when John Hull, one of the first merchant princes of Massachusetts, lost his ships to the Dutch, he took consolation in Gods providence: The loss of my estate will be nothing, if the Lord please join my soul nearer to himself, and loose it more from creature comforts. but when his foreman stole his horses, Hull took the view that I would have you know that they are, by Gods good providence, mine. Ibid., 59. While the puritans believed that hard work was godly, and that the success gained thereby was good, it did not follow that success was an automatic sign of godliness, or that poverty was a sign of wickedness.    If godliness is not a guarantee of success, then the converse is also true: success is not a sign of godliness. This is how the Puritans understood the matter. John Cotton stated that a Christian equally bears good and evil successes as God shall dispense them to him. Samuel Willard wrote, as riches are not evidences of Gods love, so neither is poverty of his anger or hatred. Samuel Hieron said that just as many of Gods beloved servants do feel the smart of poverty, so even the most wicked . . . have a large Portion in this life. Ibid., 60. The Puritans believed that wealth was often a temptation and the cause of spiritual downfall. Yet they did not make a virtue of poverty.    The puritans did not idealize poverty as something to be sought. Contrary to Catholic monastic theory, the Puritans theorized that poverty is no sure way to avoid temptation. Richard Baxter commented: Poverty also hath its temptations. . . . For even the poor may be undone by the love of that wealth and plenty which they never get: and they may perish for over-loving the world, that never yet prospered in the world. Ibid., 61. Further, the puritans believed that poverty existed to display Gods glory, both through the impoverished, and through the wealthy.    The Puritans also rejected the ethic of unconcern that is content to let the poor remain poor. In their view, poverty is not an unmitigated misfortune, but it is certainly not the goal that we should have for people. The rich man by liberality must dispose and comfort the poor, said Thomas Lever in a sermon. God never gave a gift, preached Hugh Latimer, but he sent occasion at one time or another to show it to Gods glory. As if he sent riches, he sendeth poor men to be helped with it. Latimer even went so far as to say that the poor man hath title to the rich mans goods; so that the rich man ought to let the poor man have part of his riches to help and comfort him withal. On the subject of poverty, then, the Puritans taught that it is sometimes the lot of godly and that it can be a spiritual blessing. It is not, however, meritorious in itself, and poor people require the generosity of people who have resources to help them. Ibid.
continue reading The Puritans and Money

The Puritans on Faith and Reason

The church has always had its anti-intellectual element: people who are drawn toward the mystical, treating faith as blind following, or those who elevate zeal above knowledge. The Puritans had no time for such thinking. For them, faith and reason were not contradictory, but complementary. In the seventeenth century, radical Protestants in England known as sectaries kept up a running attack on the Puritans and others who extolled the value of education and the importance of reason. Their counterparts in America, known as the antinomians, created such a disturbance that the Puritans finally banished them to Rhode Island. One of the antinomians asserted his preference in preaching with the comment, I had rather hear such a one that speaks from the mere motion of the spirit, without any study at all, than any of your learned scholars, although he may be fuller of Scripture. The Puritans overwhelmingly defended the cause of learning and the faculty of reason against such attacks on the mind. For the Puritans, zeal was no substitute for knowledge. John Preston declared, I deny not but a man may have much knowledge and want grace, but on the other side, . . . you cannot have more grace than you have knowledge. Richard Baxter believed that education is Gods ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace, and ought no more to be set in opposition to the Spirit than the preaching of the Word. John Cotton claimed that although knowledge is no knowledge without zeal, yet zeal is but a wild-fire without knowledge. The sectaries and antinomians pictured faith and reason as antagonists. The Puritans rejected the perennial attempt to belittle reason in religious matters. Faith is grounded upon knowledge, said Samuel Willard; though God be . . . seen by an eye of faith, yet he must be seen by an eye of reason too: for though faith sees things above reason, yet it sees nothing but in a way of reason. John Preston wrote that divine grace elevateth reason, and makes it higher, it makes it see further than reason could, it is contrary indeed to corrupt reason, but to reason that is right reason it is not contrary, only it raiseth it higher: and therefore faith teacheth nothing contrary to sense and reason. John Cotton called reason an essential wisdom in us, and William Hubbard, our most faithful and best councilor. The Puritans faith in the authority of the Bible did not lead them to belittle reason as unimportant. Cotton Mather made the profound comment that Scripture is reason in its highest elevation. Harvards first college laws required that students be able not only to read the Scriptures, but also to resolve them logically. A hint of what this entailed is suggested by Richard Baxters description of instances when Christians must use their reason: We must use our best reason . . . to know which are the true Canonical Scriptures . . . , to expound the text, to translate it truly . . . , to gather just and certain inferences from Scripture assertions; to apply general rules to particular cases, in matters of doctrine, worship, discipline, and ordinary practice. William Bridge sounded the authentic Puritan note when he wrote that reason is of great use, even in the things of God. Thomas Hooker was eulogized by his colleague Samuel Stone for making the truth appear by light of reason. Given the forces of anti-intellectualism at work in their own religious milieu, the Puritans could have slipped into a disparagement of reason. Instead they remained defenders of reason and knowledge. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Academie Books, 1986), 161162.


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