When Did Work Become a Dirty Word?

If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. —2 THESSALONIANS 3:10

French explorers notwithstanding, the Spanish Empire dominated the Americas for a hundred years, shipping back enough gold to make Spain the richest nation on earth. But England had no intention of being left out. Sir Walter Raleigh journeyed to the New World and staked out a portion of land he named Virginia for England’s virgin Queen Elizabeth. His efforts faltered, but after Elizabeth’s death her nephew, James I, granted a charter for an attempt led by Captain Christopher Newport.

On April 26, 1607, three ships arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, and within a few weeks the settlers established the colony of Jamestown up the James River from the current site of Newport News. About the same time, King James also authorized a new version of the Bible, lending his name to two legacies—Jamestown and the King James Bible.

The Jamestown venture wasn’t a spiritual enterprise but a commercial endeavor. Unlike the Pilgrims and Puritans, who would cross the Atlantic a few years later to settle areas farther north, there was little Christian spirit at Jamestown. Consequently, things didn’t go well. The community was splintered by conflict, greed, drought, and disease. No strong leader emerged, and the settlers bickered like children. The water from the James River made them sick, and they were tormented by mosquitoes and malaria. They suffered attacks from local indigenous tribes.
All told, half the settlers perished during the summer and fall of 1607.

After Hunt’s death, Jamestown again deteriorated into chaos, splintered by weak leadership and laziness. Many settlers refused manual labor. They had come to dig for gold, but they had no intention of digging for crops. To make matters worse, a fire broke out and destroyed many of their huts and houses. Once again, it looked as if the colony would perish.

On September 10, 1608, Captain John Smith became leader of the Jamestown community. Appalled by the idleness of some of the settlers, Captain Smith made an important ruling based on 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” He told them, “That their late experience and misery were sufficient to persuade everyone to mend his ways; that they must not think that either his pains or the purses of the adventurers at home would forever maintain them in sloth and idleness; that he knew that many deserved more honor and a better reward than was yet to be had, but that far the greatest part of them must be more industrious or starve; that it was not reasonable that the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men should be consumed to maintain one hundred and fifty loiterers; that, therefore, every one that would not work should not eat.”

People grudgingly went to work, the death rate dropped, supply ships arrived, a well was dug, crops were grown, and the colony began to slowly establish a foothold. Although Jamestown still faced many difficult days, an important precedent had been set in the early history of America—the biblical principle of hard work.

When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians in the first century, he knew some of them were wasting their time and simply waiting around for Christ to return to earth. In 1 Thessalonians 3, he addressed the issue of idleness, reminding them that when he visited the city, he didn’t sponge off the Christians there but “worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you” (1 Thessalonians 3:8). Then he proceeded to lay down the principle that became so important to the mind-set of America—“If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”

Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in North America. Smith’s knowledge of a single principled verse of Scripture—2 Thessalonians 3:10—ushered in a work ethic that has, over the centuries, created the most industrious and productive nation in history.

R. Morgan

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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