I don’t know who coined the term “Protestant Work Ethic,” but if I could travel back in time and meet him, I’d conk him on the noggin. The joining of diligence and religion has had the unfortunate consequence of making otherwise dutiful people feel guilty for napping, relaxing, or goofing off, three pursuits essential to our happiness and well-being. I’d never heard the phrase Protestant Work Ethic until I became a Protestant at the age of 17. Prior to that, I was Catholic, so only felt guilty about sex, while being perfectly fine with dillydallying and lollygagging. In fairness to the religion of my birth, I’ve met lots of lazy Protestants. If they had a work ethic at one time, they have long since forsaken it.
Today, if you want something done right, well, and timely, you should hire a Hispanic, most of whom are Catholics. Or you could hire an Iowan. Iowans work like nobody’s business. Whatever you do, don’t hire someone from Florida if you need something done. Have you been there recently? People sitting on the beach doing nothing. Except for the politicians, who sit in Tallahassee making up fake problems to solve.
It’s been my experience that people from Indiana work almost as hard as Iowans. I’m not saying that because I live in Indiana, but because it’s true. For what it’s worth, Indiana is also home to the brightest Americans. The typical Hoosier will give you a good day’s work, then will end the day on the front porch, making sage observations about basketball and race cars.
It was a Hoosier who first said, “Work before play,” rightly emphasizing the importance of labor. More accurately, it was a Hoosier who first said it to me — my mother. I don’t know who said it before my mom, but it sounds like a saying she would invent. Being a Hoosier, my mother had sayings for everything. A school principal, she missed her true calling, which was to be an advice columnist. I would read her the letters from Dear Abby each evening in The Indianapolis News, which she would answer, and always better than Abby.
Hoosiers, despite our intelligence, are prone to wander off subject, so let’s return to the topic of this essay, the importance of labor. I’m 62 now, and started working at the age of 9, delivering newspapers six days a week. I’d like a little leisure, though my wife seems opposed to it. Whenever I sneak out to our screenhouse to lie in the hammock, she tracks me down and asks me to mow the lawn or whack the weeds. I would hire those things done, but my mom had a saying about that, too: “Don’t pay someone to do something you can do yourself.” If I’ve heard that once, I’ve heard it a million times, as has every other Hoosier, including my friend Treg Hopkins who accidentally sliced open his hand with a hatchet while pruning an apple tree, drove to town, purchased a needle and thread, and then sewed his hand up himself, saving enough money to buy 20 more apple trees.
As much as I would like a respite from the grueling grind that is my life, I don’t think it’s in the cards anytime soon. The young man working at my son’s farm took another job, and it appears I’ll be his replacement, or so I’ve been told. Sixty-two years old and baling hay, just like an Iowan. But it’s like my mom used to say: “A little work never hurt anyone.” But I say, why take the risk?
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hope series, featuring Sam Gardner.
This article is featured in the July/August 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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