Idleness: An Evil Not a Blessing—The Anglican Homilies (1563)

The Book of Homilies (published in two parts, 1547 and 1563) sets out official Anglican doctrine in its clearest and most practical form. Article XXXV of the 39 Articles of Religion describes their contents as “godly and wholesome” and “necessary for these times.”[1] The homilies were written during the Reformation to apply theology to all of life. In the extract below, the writer sets out the necessity of gainful employment. Mankind, he argues, was not made for rest, but for work, and therefore, life without work is not a blessing, but a curse. He begins with the work ordinance of Genesis:

Forasmuch as man, being not born to ease and rest, but to labour and travail, is by corruption of nature through sin so far degenerated and grown out of kind, that he taketh idleness to be no evil at all, but rather a commendable thing, seemly for those that be wealthy; and therefore is greedily embraced of most part of men, as agreeable to their sensual affection, and all labour and travail is diligently avoided, as a thing painful and repugnant to the pleasure of the flesh: it is necessary to be declared unto you, that by the ordinance of God, which he hath set in the nature of man, every one ought, in his lawful vocation and calling, to give himself to labour; and that idleness, being repugnant to the same ordinance, is a grievous sin, and also, for the great inconveniences and mischiefs which spring thereof, an intolerable evil: to the intent that, when ye … earnestly apply yourselves, every man in his vocation, to honest labour and business; which as it is enjoined unto man by God’s appointment, so it wanteth not his manifold blessings and sundry benefits.

The theme continues in the epistles:

… St. Paul hearing that among the Thessalonians there were certain that lived dissolutely and out of order, that is to say, which did not work, but were busybodies; not getting their own living with their own travail, but eating other men’s bread free of cost; did command the said Thessalonians, not only to withdraw themselves, and abstain from the familiar company of such inordinate persons, but also that, if there were any such among them that would not labour, the same should not eat, nor have any living at other men’s hands.[2]

The obligation to fulfil one’s calling extends to all able-bodied adults and to all sorts of honorable work:

But when it is said, all men should labour, it is not so straitly[3] meant, that all men should use handy[4] labour; but as there be divers sorts of labours, some of the mind, and some of the body, and some of both; so every one (except by reason of age, debility of body, or want of health, be unapt to labour at all) ought, both for the getting of his own living honestly, and for profit to others, in some kind of labour to exercise himself, according as the vocation, whereunto God hath called him, shall require.[5]


[1] Wayne Grudem, “Appendix 1: Historic Confessions of the Faith; Thirty-Nine Articles,” Systematic Theology (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 1178.

[2] 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12

[3] Narrowly.

[4] Manual.

[5] “The Sermon Against Idleness,” in Sermons, or Homilies, Appointed to Be Read in the Time of Queen Elizabeth (New York: T. & J. Sword, 1815), 438-439. Completed in 1563, the Homilies were first published as a collection of 21 sermons in 1571.