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Sacred and Secular
Church History · Cotton Mather · Hugh Latimer · John Cotton · John Milton · Leland Ryken · Richard Steele · Worldly Saints

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:

img   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,

imgThis 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:

imgFaith . . . 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,
imgA 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.]
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The Puritans and Sex
15 Comments · Alexander Niccholes · Augustine · Church History · John Milton · Leland Ryken · Papism · William Ames · William Gouge · William Perkins · Worldly Saints

We all know, don’t we, that the puritans hated sex and considered it to be exceedingly sinful. After all, that is what “puritanical” means, isn’t it? Well . . . maybe not. According to Leland Ryken, that attitude belongs to the Roman Catholics, particularly during the middle ages. Rome taught that sex, although less sinful for some than the alternatives, was always sinful, not in the act itself, but in the driving passions and resulting pleasure. This view was held by no less than our beloved Augustine, who commended married couples who abstained from sex!

The Puritans rejected that attitude wholeheartedly, and made no secret of their opposing view. Ryken writes that “When a New England wife complained, first to her pastor, and then to the whole congregation, that her husband was neglecting their sex life, the church proceeded to excommunicate the man.” [Worldly Saints, 39.]

imgCatholic doctrine had declared virginity superior to marriage; the Puritan reply was that marriage “is a state . . . Far more excellent than the condition of single life.” Many Catholic commentators claimed that sexual intercourse had been the resultof the Fall and did not occur in Paradise; the Puritan comeback was that marriage was ordained by God, “and that not in this sinful world, but in paradise, that most joyful garden of pleasure.”
   . . .
   Given the Catholic background against which they wrote and preached, the Puritans’ praise of marriage was at the same time an implicit endorsement of marital sex as good. They elaborated that point specifically and often. This becomes clearer once we are clued into the now-outdated terms by which they customarily referred to sexual intercourse: “matrimonial duty,” “cohabitation,” “act of matrimony,” and (especially) “due benevolence.”
   Everywhere we turn in Puritan writing on the subject we find sex affirmed as good in principle. [William] Gouge referred to physical union as “one of the most proper and essential acts of marriage.” It was Milton’s opinion that the text “they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) was included in the Bible
imgto justify and make legitimate the rites of the marriage bed; which was not unneedful, if for all this warrant they were suspected of pollution by some sects of philosophy and religions of old, and latelier among the Papists.
William Ames listed as one of the duties of marriage “mutual communication of bodies.”
   So closely linked were the ideas of marriage and sex that the Puritans usually defined marriage partly in terms of sexual union. [William] Perkins defined marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh.” Another well-known definition was this: Marriage
is a coupling together of two persons into one flesh, according to the ordinance of God. . . . By yoking, joining, or coupling is meant, not only outward dwelling together of the married folks . . . but also an uniform agreement of mind and a common participation of body and goods.
   Married sex was not only legitimate in the Puritan view; it was meant to be exuberant. Gouge said that married couples should engage in sex “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully.” An anonymous Puritan claimed that when two are made one by marriage they
may joyfully give due benevolence one to the other; as two musical instruments rightly fitted do make a most pleasant and sweet harmony in a well tuned consort.
Alexander Niccholes theorized that in marriage “thou not only unitest unto thyself a friend and comfort for society, but also a companion for pleasure.”
   In this acceptance of physical sex, the Puritans once again rejected the asceticism and implicit dualism between sacred and secular that had governed Christian thinking for so long. In the Puritan view, God had given the physical world, including sex, for human welfare.

—Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Academie Books, 1986), 42, 43–44.

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