By Todd E. Brady
We celebrated our nation’s 243rd birthday in July, and now we celebrate those who have worked to build our nation into what it is.
While Labor Day may conjure good feelings of time off and laid back gatherings with friends and family at the end of summer, it actually is our country’s tribute to the American laborer and all that these workers have accomplished.
This federal holiday, however, was not born in ease. Nearly 140 years ago, 10,000 workers in New York marched from City Hall to Union Square, holding what some say was the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history. However, in reality it wasn’t so much a parade as it was a protest. While The New York Times headline from 1882 read, “Working Men on Parade,” many in the parade risked their jobs by participating in a one-day strike to do so.
Our Labor Day holiday emerged from what was a lamentable chapter in American labor history. In the early 1800s, manufacturing workers were pounding out 70-hour work weeks on average. Later that century, hours dropped, but people were still working long 60-hour weeks. Work was often physically demanding. Jobs were low paying. Conditions were often harsh and unsafe. In farms and factories, even young children labored.
Growing out of the 19th-century organized labor movement, President Grover Cleveland signed an act in 1894 establishing the first Monday in September as a federal holiday – Labor Day.
Today, work conditions are better than they used to be. When we work 40-hour weeks (thanks to the Adamson Act of 1916), enjoy weekends off, take lunch breaks at work, and spend quality time with our families on paid vacations, we can be thankful for yesterday’s workers and the U.S. labor movement.
Indeed, our land has “houses full of all good things that [we] did not fill, and cisterns that [we] did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that [we] did not plant” (Deuteronomy 6:11).
As Americans on this Labor Day, we look back and reflect on our benefits. As Christians, we look forward to the day after Labor Day when we will get to go back to work, for we realize that our work is a gift from God whereby we may glorify Him. In the beginning, just 46 verses into the Scriptures, we read that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Work was never a curse. Pain and sweat in work was the curse and was a result of the fall. Work itself is a gift from God.
In “Why Work?” the late English writer Dorothy Sayers asked the question, “What is the Christian understanding of work?” She replied that namely, “work is the natural exercise and function of man – the creature who is made in the image of his Creator.” She went on to say “work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”
In speaking of the sacred duty of work, Sayers wrote, “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”
On this Labor Day, let us enjoy a weekend to go shopping and have picnics, but let us also wake up the next morning and eagerly go back to work – glorifying God in the spirit of Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”
Todd Brady is vice president for university ministries and assistant professor of ministry at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.