Under the Eye of God: The Puritan Doctrine of Vocation for Today (Part 2)

September 24, 2014

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two part series. Click here to read Part I.

In our previous post, we considered the history, definition and discernment of the Puritan doctrine of vocation. The Puritan doctrine of vocation can teach the modern evangelical church much about living under the eye of God, particularly in the family, marketplace, government and the church. The family is the foundational unit of a godly society, according to the Puritans.[1] “Marriage was made…by God himself, to be the fountain…of all other sorts and kinds of life in the commonwealth and in the church.”[2] The Puritans high view of family naturally meant they viewed family as a vocation[3] and, its end, the glory of God.[4]

The Puritans accepted the headship of the husband and father as a biblical command which was meant for the good of the family and the glory of God.[5] The man, as husband, is called to love his wife as Christ loves the church[6], particularly exhibited in love and wisdom.[7] The man, as father, is called of God to lead, guide and care for his children in making physical provision, moral instruction and discipline.[8] A father had to provide for his children because they were unable to provide for themselves.[9] Also, every father, according to the law at the time, had to see that his children were instructed “in some honest lawful calling, labor or imployment, either in husbandry or some other trade profitable for themselves and the Commonwealth if they will not or cannot train them up in learning to fit them for higher imployments.”[10] Benjamin Wadsworth advised parents, “If you’re careful to bring them up diligently in proper business, you take a good method for their comfortable subsistence in this World (and for their being serviceable to their Generation) you do better for them then if you should bring them up idly, and yet leave them great Estates.”[11]

In the family, women were called to be wives and mothers. The Puritans taught the counterpart of the husband’s headship is the wife’s submission.[12] As one Puritan minister put it, the wife is “to guide the house and not guide the husband.”[13] The wife is “to keep at home, educating…her children, keeping and improving what is got by the industry of [her husband].”[14] William Gouge rooted submission in the command of God: “Though there seem to be never so little disparity, yet God having so expressly appointed subjection, it ought to be acknowledged.”[15]

Submission, however, did not mean, for the Puritans, that wives were of lesser dignity than their husbands.[16] Rather, such hierarchy in the family is “a matter of function and not of worth, a style of managing the family, not an assessment of personal value.”[17]“God, the first Institutor of marriage, gave the wife unto the husband, to bee, not his servant, but his helper, counselor and comforter.”[18] The husband and wife are spiritually equal with different vocations ordained by God in the context of the family.[19]

The vocation of both man and woman in the family, should God grant offspring, is to be father and mother. Parental responsibility was of utmost importance in Puritan thought. Cotton Mather said parents must “give an account of the souls that belong unto their families.”[20] As to work, parents should not expose the immortal souls of their children to apparent hazards in anticipation of possible monetary gain.[21] Rather, “let the children spend time in places where God is reverently worshipped and their day spent dwelling on spiritual matters, where the weak and impulsive nature of their children is properly restrained, and where they will be taught how to live from an eternal perspective.”[22] Parenting in Puritan thought was a vocation of stewardship, endeavoring that “their children may be more God’s children than theirs.”[23]

The more common use of the term “vocation,” at least in the modern sense, relates to one’s career or job. This was, of course, a common usage by the Puritans, too. “That everyone who is capable of working should be employed in some way is a truth so evident that little needs to be said to support it. Indeed, no one has been created to always be idle or merely busy now and then as humor or fancy inclines him. We should be occupied with the business to which we are called, not busy concerning ourselves with the business of others. The wise Governor of the universe has called everyone to a certain occupation, and will rebuke rather than reward those who are busy with other activity.”[24]

One effect of the Puritan concept of vocation is to make the worker a steward who serves God.[25] Rather than agonize over whether the content of the work was holy – though that was a consideration – the Puritan concern was that the worker perform the work he is called to as to God. Richard Baxter wrote, “Choose that employment or calling in which you may be most serviceable to God. Choose not that in which you may be most rich or honorable in the world; but that in which you may do most good, and best escape sinning.”[26]

In the present job market situation, more folks than ever are not participating in the labor force. Millenials are perpetually out of work and living at home with parents. Perhaps a reformation of vocational understanding would motivate individuals to pursue employment as a means to exercise the gifts and talents given by God in His providence. Further, exercising such gifts is a duty from God to best serve your fellow man. These two motivations would change the job market in the United States.

Some have accused the Puritans over narrowing the idea of calling to only a type of paid work,[27] but we have shown here that the Puritans viewed other legitimate stations in life as God’s vocation for that person – familial callings, in particular. Another area of the public marketplace that consumed much focus of Puritan vocational writing is government. In the “reformation of the Reformation,” John Milton’s Puritan teaching of vocation shaping legal and political theory.[28] In fact, much of the discussion of “the character of the good ruler” drew upon the doctrine of vocation.[29] The Puritan writers treated the calling of a magistrate, or government official, in a special category, that of “public calling.”[30] “God granted rulers greater, more important responsibilities than he did to the wheelwrights, joiners, and masons.”[31]

Any “good ruler” is to be an active ruler, acting decisively and timely for the good of his people. There was no room in Puritan teaching for idle or lazy rulers who did not bear the sword responsibly and justly.[32] As in all callings, the “good ruler” should exercise his vocational calling with diligence and wisdom. Much can be learned from the Puritans for government officials in modern society. All work, even government work, is to be done as unto the Lord.

Another “public calling” in Puritan thought is that of the ministry. The Puritans had a special category for the public calling of church work, but as discussed, did not treat ministerial vocations with any more noble direction than secular callings. All vocations are godly if lawful and called by God. But, the Puritan movement was led by “divers Godly and learned,” men, particularly ministers, which stood for and desired the Reformation of the church and society in accord with the Word of God.[33] Therefore, the Puritans had much to say about the vocation of minister.

For instance, Richard Baxter devoted a whole book to the discussion of a “Reformed Pastor.”[34] Even more, the minister was to lead the congregation – church polity notwithstanding – in simplifying worship from that of the Church of England, holding a regulative principle of worship.[35] The Puritan minister was to encourage and equip the laymen of the congregation to serve the congregation in the service, too.[36]

Today, ministers would do well to heed the advice of the Puritans. To minister to the flock of God is to be under-shepherd of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pastoral ministry is a call to wage war against the wolves who seek to destroy the sheep, primarily through the preaching of the Word, biblical counseling and administration of the sacraments. It is no small calling or thoughtless vocation to serve as a minister in Christ’s church.


The Puritan doctrine of vocation is a life-giving, life-affirming, life-changing doctrine. The doctrine was rescued from a minimalist understanding during the Reformation, but fully expounded by the Puritan divines. And, while being regularly focused on career, the Puritans showed that vocation is a calling by God in every station of life. The Puritans taught that God’s providence in one’s life, understood biblically, is a comfort and encouragement to pursue your vocation with joy and vigor. Further, to rest in God’s kind providence in your vocation is to trust in God’s sovereign goodness over all creation. The Puritan doctrine of vocation says, “Oh, let every Christian walk with God when he works at his calling, act in his occupation with an eye to God, act as under the eye of God.[37]Serve God in thy calling and do it with cheerfulness, and faithfulness, and an heavenly mind.[38]”


[1] Ryken, 74.

[2] Perkins, William. The Works of William Perkins (Sutton Cortenay Press, 1970).

[3] Black, J. William and Jennifer Trafton. “Called to be a Family.” Christian History & Biography 89, (2006), 37.

[4] Ryken, 73.

[5] Ryken, 75.

[6] Holy Bible, Ephesians.

[7] Ryken, 76.

[8] Ryken, 79-80.

[9] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 66.

[10] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 66; Massachusetts Laws of 1648.

[11] Wadsworth, Benjamin. The Well-Ordered Family (Cambridge, 2007), 50.

[12] Ryken, 76.

[13] Morgan, The Puritan Family, 43.

[14] Cotton, John. A Meet Help (London, 1699), 21.

[15] Gouge, William. Of Domestical Duties (Lulu.com, 2006).

[16] Ryken, 77.

[17] Ryken, 76.

[18] Downame, John. The Plea of the Poor (London, 1616), 119.

[19] Ryken, 77.

[20] Mather, Cotton. Small Offers Toward the Service of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness(Boston, 1689).

[21] Steele, 27.

[22] Steele, 27.

[23] Black, 37.

[24] Steele, 14.

[25] Ryken, 27.

[26] Ryken, 27.

[27] Marshall, Paul. “Work and Vocation: Some Historical Reflections.” The Reformed Journal, (Sept. 1980), 14.

[28] Hall, David W. and Marvin Padgett, eds. Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (The Calvin 500 Series) (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company, 2010), 36-37.

[29] Breen, T.H. The Character of the Good Ruler: Puritan Political Ideas in New England 1630-1730 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 6.

[30] Breen, 7.

[31] Breen, 7.

[32] Breen, 25.

[33] Ryken, 111-134.

[34] Baxter, Richard. The Reformed Pastor (London: Banner of Truth, 1974).

[35] Ryken, 100.

[36] Ryken, 101.

[37]Packer, J.I. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 436-451.

[38] Packer, 436-451.