From the earliest colonial days of America, there emerged an ethic of honest labor and craftsmanship. From farmers to silversmiths and makers of furniture, household implements and tools, there was a value on both the humanity and honor of work.
Yet, by the end of the 19th century and the full development of the industrial age, somehow both work and worker had become impersonal. Laborers were not so much valued as people to be honored but often as cogs in a machine to expand production.
As with so many causes in our nation during the 19th century, from ending slavery to child labor laws or the establishment of national parks, people of faith were seeking change based on their faith and the values of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) and New Testament.
Within these texts were teachings that God created good work for people to do, that there was to be time of rest from labor and that workers were worthy of their hire.
And so it was a very purposeful act of faith that on Sept. 5, 1882, a union labor leader named Matthew Maguire set off in a carriage with Pastor Henry Ward Beacher, one of the most famous preachers in the country, from New York City Hall toward the centers of wealth. As they did so and through every cross street, bricklayers, frame makers and workers of every type joined them, until thousands of workers marched together for miles toward the city’s wealthiest corridor championing for the lives and value of workers.
Following this and into the early 1890s congregations set aside the Sunday before Labor Day as a time to celebrate and honor workers. Finally in 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed into law the designation of Labor Day as a national holiday.
This concept of honoring the laborer is not new to Judeo Christian faith traditions. A few thousand years ago the book of Proverbs taught this standard: “Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and he who guards his master will be honored (Proverbs 27:8).” Meaning that workers should share in what they have produced and those who work with integrity should be honored by their employer.
As we head through Labor Day, it is a good time to give thought to how our faith should be encouraged to interact with every aspect of our life. From the goodness of a job well done to the reminder that those who employ others or benefit from such employment should always remember that God asks all to act with justice and integrity toward both the employer and employee.
Frank Riley is the Interim Pastor at New Life Church San Jose and a Chaplain serving in the United States Navy. A resident of Morgan Hill, he can be reached at [email protected].