Providence and Callings

William Perkins helped to develop the Puritan view that God uses divine interventions in Christian men’s lives, to guide them into certain career paths.[1] These careers or trades were termed “callings,” with the understanding that God draws, leads, or calls all men to work in certain jobs, by means of his Spirit, giving them certain talents, inclinations, or gifts for certain job occupations. There were a number of Biblical verses used to support this view. 1 Corinthians 7:17, 20: “as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk…let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” This was taken to mean, that once a tradesman has been firmly established in a certain career, and he feels that God has truly called him into that job category, then he should remain content and stay in that career. In order to create a sense of financial security, he shouldn’t be switching his job categories around left and right. However, arriving at certain knowledge, that God has called you into a certain trade, was kind of tricky. They didn’t rely so much on dreams and visions for confirming such job guidance, because they were Puritans, not Quakers or Pentecostals. But what they did do was rely on common sense, conscience, and observation: all in the view that God calls every man into a certain kind of trade.

The Father’s Trade

The first thing to consider was their father’s trade. It was customary for a Puritan father to apprentice his sons in exactly the same trade they made money by, whether they were a family of blacksmiths, shoemakers, or tailors. One thing is for certain: the clothing industry was apparently one of the primary industries in seventeenth century London. So, any young man seeking career guidance from God, would have probably been considering in what capacity he could make money in the clothing industry. Although there were plenty of other industries as well. Trades varied in London from confectioners, saddle makers, truckers (called porters), box makers, soap makers, grain suppliers, poulterers (chicken processors), etc. Then there were the merchants who owned small shops. All such men were called tradesmen. Trade was the word for business; and so the word tradesmen was effectively businessmen. England had these tradesmen all over its countryside, but London was the business center of its economy.


The second thing to consider was the young man’s aptitudes, skills, and inclinations. Puritan parents observed these things and sought to place their adolescent sons in a good internship where they could learn a trade by hands-on experience. The idea of sending your sons off to college to get a bachelor’s degree wasn’t part of their career launch. That was really only for the clergy and those involved in certain high-paying occupations, like doctors, lawyers, and scientists. These internships the young men were placed in were called apprenticeships and the interns were called apprentices. Everything was about developing hands-on job skills that would make them marketable and useful to make money in the business world. It was expected that Puritan parents even paid tradesmen and shopkeepers to train their sons in their business skills through indentured apprenticeship contracts. God was seen as supervising this whole process of apprenticeship; and the callings were seen to work their way out, either during or after this process.

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which was published in 1843, the young Scrooge was placed in an apprenticeship by his father at Fezziwig & Co. This shows that this tradition was carried on in England for centuries; and not only in the 1600s. The young Scrooge wasn’t sent off to college to choose a random bachelor’s degree: his father placed him in a business, and probably paid Fezziwig money to train Scrooge in certain job skills, and this was the beginning of his career launch. Scrooge, as we all know, became a very rich man; and might have eventually found his way into some classes on banking and finance, as he developed his money-lending business. However, while there is no question about Scrooge’s ability to make money, the story revealed that Fezziwig had better business ethics than Scrooge had, which is why he needed to have the vision to remind him. Scrooge’s business ethics had soured because, although his father looked after his business interests, he was a cold and emotionally detached man, and often left Scrooge alone at his boarding school during Christmastime. He didn’t have that godly, nurturing influence over Scrooge, which would have set him on the path to make money the godly way.

Identifying Your Job Skills and Sticking With It

Upward mobility within the same calling or career path was considered acceptable, and even necessary, as men eventually had families to provide for, and their financial responsibilities became more varied. But it was restless job hopping and constant career switching that was discouraged. Granted, some of this may have been seen as necessary early in the young man’s career, if he was uncertain about God’s job calling. But eventually it was to be recognized by some job skill that he is particularly good at, which other people said he was good at, and by which the young man could make decent money for himself.

Observation and common sense; and yes experimentation, but once a settled feeling had been arrived at, you were then expected to remain content and fixed in that calling; and make improvements on it. But never to reach such a discontented state, so that even though for 5 years or so, you made a good living for yourself as a grain processor, then just out of pure whims and curiosity, you decide to go back to college to become a professional astronomer. This kind of an idea would have been considered obscenely ludicrous back then. The providence of God had already demonstrated financial provision for you in your grain business, so why would you tempt God by suddenly aspiring to be an astronomer? Think of the risks: and think of the costs involved! No, they would say, remain content to be a meal-man, because God has obviously called you into this trade. Its something you’re good at: “abide in the same calling wherein you were called” (1 Cor. 7:20), would have been the pastor’s word to the man in such a career crisis. Martin Luther once quoted from the apocryphal book of Sirach 11:20-22 to support the notion: “Stand by your duty and stick to it; grow old at your work. Don’t be jealous of what sinners achieve; just stick to your own work, and trust the Lord. It is very easy for the Lord to make a poor person suddenly rich. Devout people will receive the Lord’s blessing as their reward, and that blessing can be given in a moment.”[2]

Calling had come to mean that when it has been firmly established what your job skills are, then it follows that you should not entertain double-minded thoughts of instability, and be radically changing your job category (e.g., Paul was a tentmaker, Jesus was a carpenter, Peter was a fisherman, Luke was a doctor). It was reasonable for a young man to change jobs for a while in order to discover what his calling was, but once it became evident what it is he was skilled at doing, and provided it was a career based on well-gotten gain, then he was expected to stick with it, though that career may be represented by different employers over time. Neither Christ nor the apostles are found radically switching their job categories–in other words, none are seen going from being a tentmaker, to being a blacksmith, or then becoming a soldier, and then a clothing manufacturer, and after that, a fisherman, and then a stonemason after that. Such a career would be confusing and unstable. Again, if your calling, vocation, or career has not been firmly established in a single category by the age of 30, that would be unfortunate and not an ideal goal. It is apparent that Jesus’ business calling as a carpenter had been firmly established by the time he was “about thirty years of age” (Mark 6:3; Luke 3:23).

Following Paul’s direction to slaves, employees should obey their employers with respect and reverence; and with sincerity of heart, just as we would obey Christ–and we should obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on us, but as servants of Christ, doing the job as the will of God from the heart–and to work wholeheartedly, as if we were serving the Lord and not people; because we know that the Lord will reward each worker for whatever good that they do (Eph. 6:5-8); employers are also directed to treat their employees with respect and in the fear of God–they should not threaten them; and should show no worldly favoritism to certain employees (Eph. 6:9). Idleness and laziness were constantly condemned and it was reminded that the pains derived from work are part of God’s discipline for our sins. Because Adam listened to Eve, and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God cursed the “ground”–that is, the business world–and made it so that it would be only through painful work that we will be able to make money, buy groceries, and eat our food–and that the “sweat of our brow”–or stress and anxiety–would attend our business activities. Adam’s calling was that of a farmer, but the principle of this cursedness on all employment applies to all employees who work for their food (Gen. 3:17-19). Since work is a means of God’s discipline for sin, then it makes one wonder whether retirement at the age of 65 is all that Biblical. That may possibly encourage idleness. Although retirement was part of the Puritan career plan.[3]

Upward Mobility Within Your Calling

Richard Baxter said, “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 the less gainful way, you cross one of the ends of your calling, and you refuse to be God’s steward.”[1] In other words, so long as you are staying within the framework of your calling–Paul a tentmaker, Jesus a carpenter, you a salesperson–if God shows you another employer that provides an opportunity for making more money within that same job category, and you have a good conscience about the product and the manner of dealing it out to customers–then it is in line with the will of God for you to choose the higher paying job opportunity.

Richard Steele observed that several men would work two to three jobs in order to increase their incomes, but he was reserved about the practice.[2] He viewed such men as generally lacking contentment. On the other hand, he was okay with the idea under certain conditions: 1. You are not trying to monopolize your industry, but are allowing for other people to have jobs too. 2. There is a just necessity compelling you to meet certain financial needs and make a reasonably comfortable living for yourself. 3. It should not be motivated by greed. 4. The jobs must not have conflicting schedules, nor distract you from dutifully working at each of them. 5. No job that you have by its nature should harm your neighbor, but we should love our neighbors as ourselves–we should act towards others with justice, fairness, and kindness (Mark 12:31).[3]

William Perkins said that “a man must first have some warrant and word of God to assure him of his calling, to do this or that thing, before he can do it in faith.”[4] There may even be angelic assistance in this job placement: “He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” (Ps. 91:11). But, as mentioned before, callings to a specific job vocation were framed not to occur so much by dreams, visions, and voices–but by recurrent emotional impressions and the working situations we often find ourselves in, excelling at certain skills. “Labour in a calling is as precious as gold or silver…an occupation is as good as land.”[5] Financial security was linked with remaining in the same job category throughout your whole working life. Financial miracles and supernatural provisions were part of their worldview: and the word “providence” was generally invoked whenever such divine coincidences or lucky happenings occurred.[6] But God’s providence was usually seen as working in the world of business, jobs, and apprenticeships.

[1] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory (London, England: Richard Edwards, 1825), p. 585.

[2] Working two jobs was not only supported by Steele, but also by Baxter (Chapters, p. 156), and Perkins, who said, “It is good for every man to have two strings to his bow” (Treatise, p. 54), as if to say, “It is good to have a side job to fall back on if your other job falls through for you.” He pointed to Acts 10:7 as proof: one of Cornelius’ servants was also a soldier, and so he had two jobs. There’s also Proverbs 31: the woman was both a clothing manufacturer and a vineyard manager (vv. 16, 24); and her husband was a judge (v. 23)—so their family had at least three streams of income.

[3] Richard Steele, The Religious Tradesman (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1989), pp. 158-159.

[4] William Perkins, “A Treatise of the Vocations or Callings of Men,” Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1784. Edited by Edmund S. Morgan (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003), p. 40.

[5] Ibid., p. 42.

[6] As when God provided a ram for Abraham, and he called the place, “the Lord will provide” (providence); and the time when manna and quail appeared for the Israelites (Gen. 22:13-14; Exod. 16). Providence usually comes in the form of jobs, but can also come by gifts, refunds, checks in the mail, charities, unforeseen blessings, etc. The Autobiography of George Müller is filled with many examples of providential financial miracles.

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2 Responses to Providence and Callings

  1. Sticksbrady says:

    Hey John I just want to say God bless you for everything that the Lord has for you to do and to share. My question concerning work and jobs is this: have you looked into the working class, their values, and the political side of the working class from a Christian perspective?

    • I can’t say that I have very much. These past 2 years have been the most intensive for me paying attention to Biblical economics, because I’ve been putting together a manuscript about it. Richard Steele is my hero now when it comes to this–his book “The Religious Tradesman.” I try to avoid politics as much as possible because it often leads to worldly-mindedness and criticizing the government (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; Titus 3:9; Matthew 22:17-21; 1 Peter 2:17). Christians have two responsibilities to the U.S. government: taxes and prayers. That’s it. On the other hand, politics seem to be the main way that most people are able to get in touch with economic philosophy, due to our generation not being much of a book-reading generation. We are mainly TV watchers; and it’s become easier for us to process economic values through politics and news media on the TV. That being said, there are two dominant economic philosophies in the U.S.: the capitalism of the Republican Party and the socialism of the Democratic Party. Capitalism is marked by self-interest, competition, deception, cruelty, and greed. The Bible has no role in it. The business world lives on it. Socialism in its purest form is atheistic communism like we’ve seen in Russia and China. The Democrats and the Labour Party in Britain hold to a modified democratic socialism, which means that they’re okay with living in the capitalistic system, but they just believe that the economy would be better off if the government stepped in every once in a while with economic laws to help out the struggling poor. The main concern of the democratic socialists is preventing monopolies from blossoming, preventing extortion from happening or controlling unfair wages and prices, and making sure that poor people have the government aid they need to advance themselves, because the rich are often too privileged to understand their struggles; and often take many things for granted, which would otherwise hold them back, if such things were taken away, such as higher education, medical care, food money, etc. Because of this mentality of government aid to the poor, the Democratic Party has traditionally been viewed as “the party of blue-collar America,” but things have been changing recently. –

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