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“Every honest calling is honorable”

Labor Day reminds us of the dignity of work


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“Every honest calling is honorable”

When I was a boy, Labor Day struck me as one of life’s great enigmas. Why would there be a holiday from school just days after glorious summer came to a cruel end? It was never that I was unhappy such a holiday occurred when it did. I was always very glad to have a Monday off, especially at the beginning of the school year.

But as a twelve-year-old, I remember thinking Labor Day was like a spiteful reminder from grown-ups of freshly remembered golden and carefree summer days of swimming, bike riding, camping, climbing trees, skinning knees, and sleeping in. It was nothing like Memorial Day, that harbinger of long summer days, with its sweet smells of smoky cookouts wafting in the air. Labor Day was summer saying goodbye, and the dreaded fall season with its homework, early mornings, nagging teachers, opaque mathematical concepts, arbitrary grammar rules, and six o’clock school-night curfews ushering me into its dark, cheerless hollows.

My grandfather used to always say, “find something to work on that you love so much, you would do it even if you didn’t get paid.” His point was that while all work has a measure of tedium and toil, work is essentially noble and dignifying. We are made to work, to produce and create, to contribute to the good of others as well as oneself. If we can find work that fits our personalities, our talents, our visions for good, and our service to God, community, and family, then we have truly found the dignity of work.

Hard work builds character, discipline, respect for others, and an understanding of the value of money. I learned the value of good, hard work as a teenager working on a landscaping crew at my grandfather’s encouragement. It was very hard work, but I remember the satisfaction I felt at the end of every day, having maintained beautiful lawns, flowers, trees, and shrubs. I also remember the exhilaration at the end of every two weeks, receiving the fruits of my $5.40/hour labor. I was rich! And I came to understand what my grandfather meant by his words of wisdom.

One of my favorite people from the past is Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). In his famous book, Democracy in America (1835/1840) he noted how Americans viewed work in contrast to his own countrymen in France. Tocqueville was an aristocrat. He had been born into a society that lurched violently and often insincerely toward equality in its great revolutions. But despite its aspirations to equality, French society was still hierarchical. Old habits and assumptions died hard in early 19th-century France.

Work also contributed mightily to public spirit, a sense of ownership of a small stake in the community.

The aristocracy still stood superior and aloof to the commoners, and thus work was viewed much differently by the French than the Americans. The aristocrats thought idleness was noble, and work was a dreariness reserved for the commoners. But American society, marked as it was by equality of conditions, venerated work. “Not only is labor not dishonorable among such a people, but it is held in honor; the prejudice is not against it, but in its favor,” Tocqueville said. Moreover, everyone in America who worked did so for money without embarrassment. The notable exception was that slaves did not work for money, and Tocqueville was repulsed by slavery because it contradicted everything that was ennobling about America.

Still, Tocqueville observed that in America, “every honest calling is honorable,” and “equality of conditions not only ennobles the notion of labor, but raises the notion of labor as a source of profit.” No aristocrat worked for money (and if anyone did, he kept it a secret). But everyone in America, even the American president, worked for money. And because all Americans worked for their income, they saw all work as a calling.

Work also contributed mightily to public spirit, a sense of ownership of a small stake in the community. Public spirit contributed to the rise of the voluntary society, in which people got together organically to advance a particular cause. Sometimes those causes were high-minded, like the anti-slavery and temperance societies. But sometimes those causes were practical, like keeping the farm-to-market roads smooth and safe.

But voluntary societies, animated by public spirit, are supported by the private money of their members. And how do the members get the money to support their causes? They earn it through their individual labors. This means that their labors went not only to their individual needs and desires but to the good of their whole societies.

Labor Day was proposed by the Congress in 1894 and signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on June 28 of that same year, just a couple of months before the end of that golden summer. Once again, we Americans observe Labor Day with the fresh memories of summer in our minds. As we enjoy our Labor Day, let us reflect on the dignity of work and the joy of creating things that honor our Creator and benefit us as a society. Let’s also enjoy the satisfaction that comes with the rewards—moral as well as financial—that attend a job well done.


John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.


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