Richard Steele was a Puritan minister in the mid-seventeenth century, but his work The Religious Tradesman is what you might consider a “lost classic.” Even in 1747, eighty years after its initial publication, Isaac Watts, writing in the introduction, lamented that the piece was “now very little known;” it’s popularity foundering under the disadvantages of an “ancient name” and “ancient dress.”
Nearly 300 years later, we can join in Watts’s lament. Despite excellent content, Steele’s book has received very little attention among contemporary Christian readers. Hopefully this brief review can encourage a few Christians to pick up Steele’s volume and find encouragement to attend to their daily work with renewed joy and purpose.
The Goodness and Necessity of Work
Steele builds his discussion of work on the foundation of God’s sovereignty and his purposes in creation. God has endowed us with the appropriate skills and faculties and placed us within a context of “mutual dependence upon each other” (9) in which we are unable to supply all our needs and wants apart from the productive labor of others.
These needs and wants of mankind have created a vast array of necessary employments. In order for humanity to flourish, we need workers in fields related to medicine and health, but we also need those who labor in the area of property development and acquisition, clothing, and food production and supply. Beyond supplying these needs, God has also given us those who labor for the “convenience and delight of their brethren of mankind” (10).
Given God’s purpose in creation, Steele observes “That everyone who is capable of it should be constantly employed in some useful station of life, appears a truth so evident that little need be said to support it” (12). Drawing from God’s instruction to Israel concerning their pattern of weekly work and rest (six days of labor–not five!–and one day of rest; see Ex 20:9-11), Steel concludes: “In this is plainly implied, that all should fill up their time with some proper employment, from one season of religious rest to another” (14). Yes, there are those who refuse to work, but it is typically those who would “live without labor, and enjoy plenty without pains; and their unwillingness to action, and not their inability” that is the “true cause of an indolent life” (19).
Choosing a Calling
Christians, therefore, should consider well a calling that is both “lawful and suitable.” Our calling must be lawful, for only then can we expect God to bless it. Our calling must be suitable or else we cannot expect to find lasting success, nor can we expect to really bless our neighbor with our work. Given a calling is lawful, how should we choose? “If you are fitted for callings of different excellence, it is our wisdom and duty to choose that in which we may most eminently serve God and the community” (29).
In other words, when choosing a calling we should think about others before we think about ourselves. This means we should first ask in what field will we be most productive and effective, not what kind of job will make us the most happy. Although this runs counter to how most people are thinking about career choices these days, thinking first about what kind of job will be “the most fulfilling” might actually keep us from fulfilling our God-given potential. In the end, it is thinking first of how to serve others that will lead to the greatest fulfillment.
Personal Character and Conduct in Our Work
Humility is essential for our labors, and so is integrity and the unswerving commitment to always speak and act according to the truth. Earnest and constant prayer for God’s “grace and favor” should be the “breath of our souls” as we work (41). We must also act prudently in our labors, not making rash decisions that are unsupported by good evidence and a reasonable hope for success (64, 67). Although we should give our best efforts to our daily work, we must guard against our work encroaching on our spiritual disciplines so that we are too tired, to distracted, or too busy to attend to prayer, Scripture, and church (52, 78).
Faith in God through Christ must undergird and guide the Christian’s every endeavor in business. Steele warns that “God requires, and will accept and bless no such eagerness in business as unfits men for his service” (181). Therefore, personal and corporate worship must always remain a priority. When everything is kept in its proper order with Christ at the center of the Christian’s heart and life, he will then find the most satisfaction in his daily work.
Diligence should also characterize the Christians approach to work. We exercise diligence by seriously exercising our mind and bodies in our calling (73); “employing the substance of our time to our callings” (74), “laying hold of opportunities” (74), giving attention to the small things (75), and avoiding distractions (76). While Steele is careful to warn the tradesman against neglecting private and corporate worship, he also exhorts Christians to avoid the “indiscreet zeal” that keeps one from fulfilling the necessary duties at home, among friends, or in one’s business because he is too busy running from sermon to sermon (78). Such behavior may appear spiritual, but when it impinges on one’s responsibilities, it is a form of spiritual sloth, not diligence.
The Christian worker must also practice justice in his calling. Justice requires that the tradesman deal with all his colleagues and employees fairly, particularly with regard to reasonable compensation. As he deals in business with others, he conduct trade in accordance to a product’s true value, and he will seek reasonable–not excessive– profits from his labors (84-89, 99). The religious tradesman will be diligent to pay off all his debts (96), and always conduct his business according to the relevant laws (101).
In his endeavor to please his heavenly Master, the Christian worker will make truth a non-negotiable. Care for the truth will require Christians to guard their speech, but it will also require them to “perform their engagements in the time and manner they have promised” (132). Believers must also avoid the temptation to aim “at things out of the tradesman’s sphere” (153). When discontentment takes root in a Christian’s life, he might aspire to other callings, but this will make him “restless and uneasy in his present condition” (153). The remedy is to seek contentment in one’s work and avoid covetousness, which Steele describes as an “insatiable desire for riches” (155). Therefore, Steele instructs us to “Refrain your fancies, and moderate your desires, if ever would attain to this happy state of contentment” (167).
On Leaving Your Calling
While difficulty, sudden impulses, or the general inconveniences that attend our work should never serve as a ground for forsaking one’s calling, there may be good reasons for doing so. Such decisions, Steele warns, should never be taken lightly or without much reflection and advice (203). Health may keep us from our work or be the reason why we must no longer engage in the work he had conducted prior to our sickness. Age can be a legitimate factor. Significant misfortune in a particular trade may force us to embrace a new calling. And death, of course, can take a Christian from their work at any moment. For this reason, the Christian businessman will always make sure to have his house in order and see to it that his family will be cared for if, in God’s providence, he departs from them unexpectedly (210).
In all our work, we must always keep the gospel front and center. Our faithfulness to God’s Word as well as all our earthly accomplishments and productivity must be viewed in light of God’s grace in Christ. Steele concludes:
When you have done all you can in service of God, be sure to look for salvation and happiness only as the free gift of God’s grace in Christ Jesus; and not as merited or deserved by your obedience, Rom 3:24, 28; Gal 3:18, 24). Those who endeavor (either in whole or in part) to procure for themselves a right to salvation and eternal life, by their obedience to God’s commands, do seek salvation by the works of the law, and not by the faith of Jesus Christ, and will never obtain it by these means (214-15).
For the Christian, as good and satisfying as work can be in this life, it is never the means by which we establish our righteous standing with God. We are saved apart from our works and our work (Eph 2:8-9). When we grasp this truth with all our hearts, we will work with diligence, joy, and freedom.