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Moments from America’s History – Reflections on Labor Day

BY JEFF OLSON –

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday. Ever since, it has symbolically served to remind us of the importance and place of labor in the lifeblood of our nation. While many of us will enjoy a day off from work, there are those for whom Labor Day is just another (and perhaps busier) Monday on the job. It is for you that this article is dedicated most.

On September 5, 1892 when the first Labor Day Parade was held in New York City, it was a time that workers called attention to workplace problems brought on by the Industrial Revolution – issues such as 14-hour workdays, very low wages, and child labor. Some leaders in America, such as Samuel Gompers, saw the importance of labor through the value of the laborer, believing that the laborer was more than a mere producing machine. They wanted a better life for the American worker, which actually reflected a major part of the American dream, and they knew that part of this life should include a better work environment, reasonable work hours, and other considerations which would reflect the inherent value of those who make the wheels of our great nation turn day in and day out. Subsequently, laws supporting and protecting the American worker came to be. A good example was the first child labor law in the U.S., passed by Congress 101 years ago this week.

Labor, for many of us, amounts to little more than something that has to be done in order to survive and hopefully prosper. While this is certainly the crux of why we work in the first place, maybe a more in-depth look at Labor Day can offer a renewed and perhaps more rewarding perspective of our work – our labor. Countless moments in America’s history consisted of work – work rooted in and necessitated for the function and proliferation of the family and dependent upon individual freedom and private property rights. These were instrumental to America’s founding and her strength and duration and reflected the personal virtue, self-reliance, and initiative of her people. Some of that labor lead to technological and scientific innovation and progress, much of which improved our quality (and quantity) of life, and it propelled America to the pinnacle of economic independence and world leadership. This didn’t happen overnight nor did it even originate in America.

The greatest man who ever lived spent most of His life engaged in manual labor. The Christian apologist Justin Martyr said that during his lifetime in Galilee in the second-century, it was still common to see farmers using plows made by the carpenter Jesus of Nazareth. Evidently he did his job well and for the right reasons, exemplifying what the Bible teaches in 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17. During the Middle Ages, the guild movement grew out of the Church. It set good standards for workmanship and encouraged members to develop a strong work ethic and to take satisfaction in the results of their labor. It was through the Protestant Reformation that a vocation, whether or not one within the Church, came to be understood as an integral part of a person’s life of faith and obedience through which God could be pleased and honored. Thus the phrase, The Protestant Work Ethic.

That “Ethic” came to define much of the American character and inspired the evolvement of labor from little more than a necessity to an avenue where men and women were free to fulfill their identity and destiny; to invent, to discover, to shape, to heal, to teach, to bring order out of disorder- and yes, to take on the equally important, but often thankless mundane behind-the scenes tasks as well. In his book “The Call,” theologian Os Guinness reminds us that even the humblest work is important to God if done for His glory. Author Dorothy Sayers reminds us that “Christianity demands that all work should be done in a Christian way – Christianity proclaims that all work, all that is well done, can and should help to validate our relationship with God and may be offered to Him in worship.” She wrote that work was ‘redemptive’, not in the sense that it is a means of earning salvation, but in the sense that the incarnation of Christ has redeemed all departments of life, investing them with intrinsic spiritual value. Appropriating ourselves of the spiritual value inherent in life’s ordinary and routine things is one way that we work out our salvation.

As we approach Labor Day 2017, we can realize that it is not the absence of labor we should celebrate, but rather the fundamental personal and cultural value of labor and the worth and dignity of the laborer. Whatever work we do, provided it’s honest and credible in its purpose and beneficial in its goal, may it: be accomplished with dedication and pride, be characterized by excellence, bring respect to our family and a legacy to be passed on to future generations, contribute to success for our employer, provide strength to our community and nation, and above all else – honor and please the God who designed, created, and purposed us for it.

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