The most obvious manifestation of the work ethic as a moral value has been in the way unemployed people have been treated since the Protestant Reformation. Whereas beggars had been tolerated in medieval society as natural and part of the normal God-given order, even glorified because of the opportunity they gave Catholics to do good deeds, they were despicable to Protestant society: “....begging, on the part of one able to work, is not only the sin of slothfulness, but a violation of the duty of brotherly love...”
The early Christian emphasis on brotherly love meant riches had value only in so much as they were used to express that love by giving to the poor. Early Christian communities are believed to have lived communally at first but even after that they were known for their charity, both to members of their own community and to outsiders who needed help. But in Protestant societies idleness was seen as a sin and the destitute were seen as being responsible for their state through their own wickedness. They argued that charity should not extend to those who were able to work for themselves.
Both Luther and Calvin condemned laziness and living off others work. Luther despised vagrants for their idleness and believed they should either be made to work or banished. Calvin proclaimed there was “nothing more disgraceful than a lazy good-for-nothing who is of no use either to himself or to others but seems to have been born only to eat and drink.”
Whilst Catholics believed in an imperfect human race in which individuals who had been diverted from a virtuous life into sin could be saved, Protestants, following Calvin, believed that sinners could not be saved and were quite different types of people from those granted grace. They deserved no compassion or charity but should be avoided at best.
There was little recognition from those who condemned beggars that many people were unemployed because of circumstances beyond their control. From the second half of the fifteenth century through to the seventeenth century economic and social changes displaced many rural workers, causing a flood of people seeking work, that was in scarce supply. In England the enclosing of the commons was one such factor forcing peasants from the land. Work provided by merchants was irregular and depended on insecure markets and there wasn’t enough work to provide for all those who wanted it.
Unemployment was also exacerbated by an increasing population throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, which resulted from an increasing life expectancy. The growth of economic activity did not keep up with population growth. As a result thousands of people were without means to support themselves. “This European-wide problem of increased population, food scarcity, and price increases combined to create a class of seemingly worthless idlers who, in reality, were people without prospects and hope.”
These people were mercilessly criticised by Luther and subsequent Protestant leaders who labelled them as idlers who wouldn’t work. They had no calling and clearly were not amongst God’s chosen. “Neither the ministers nor their secular counterparts distinguished between the poor and the unemployed, and in many instances identified both with beggary.” There was no concept of bad luck or lack of opportunity in the Protestant conception of the world. These people were poor because they were immoral and didn’t work hard enough.
In England, from the sixteenth century, people who were caught begging, or who couldn’t account for themselves as residents or having legitimate business in the town, could be whipped, forced into compulsory service or put in prison. Thomas More (1478-1535) noted that in England, those who had been displaced by the enclosures became “tramps and beggars” and were “put into prison for being idle—when nobody would give them a job, however much they want one.”
A 1531 English statute attempted to differentiate between the deserving poor who were granted licences to beg and the others who, under a 1536 statute were required to work or be whipped (and even have part of an ear severed) and be sent back to where they came from. In particular it was single able-bodied men who were considered undeserving and most frequently whipped.
Workhouses were set up for the destitute in various parts of Europe in the seventeenth century (the first in Amsterdam in 1596) to teach work skills and the value of hard work. The English Poor Laws of 1597 and 1601 made provision for children of the poor to be apprenticed out and adults to be institutionalised in work houses and poorhouses for the disabled. During the seventeenth century workhouses became a standard way of dealing with the poor, because they were cheaper than paying relief, imposed work and unpleasant living conditions on the poor and ensured that welfare was not an attractive alternative to low-paid work outside the workhouse. Some entrepreneurs even set up their own workhouses in order to take advantage of the cheap forced labour.
In Europe and America in the 17th and 18th centuries the poor unemployed were seen as defying God in their unwillingness to work. They were subject to humiliation and punishment. In Europe city gates were locked against vagrants at night. They were treated like criminals, put on chain gangs, publicly whipped and put in stocks, and branded. And if they stole food they could be executed.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century the number of workhouses increased (to some 2000 in Europe by 1776). Despite the presence of structural unemployment it was assumed by English opinion makers that “those who really wanted work could find it.” They did not deserve sympathy, compassion or charity and the workhouse conditions were purposefully harsh.
Such attitudes were perpetuated in colonial America where whipping was also used to punish idleness and preachers such as Cotton Mather (pictured) said of the unemployed: “let them starve.”
Through all of this ran a common thread. To be without work was to be an idler, a person of poor character, an ingrate of the first order. Unemployment (a term not used at this time), poverty, and vagrancy were of the same cloth. Not to work was a willful misuse of time, a denial of effort that would damage both the individual and the community. In short, a tinge of evil equated with the absence of paid labor.
Workhouses, almshouses and “bettering” houses were established in every seaport in colonial America to cope with the flood of new immigrants. They proliferated during the eighteenth century. These institutions, like the English workhouses, were “designed to be harsh” and less desirable than having a job. Some strove to “instil improved behaviour and work habits”. Puritan thought and leadership was important in shaping attitudes to the poor and unemployed in the American colonies.