The Christian-Agrarian
Work Ethic

Dateline: 31 October 2015

The words and thoughts that follow come from an essay titled The Better Life, written by Willis D. Nutting. They are an excellent analysis of the beauty, the inherent value, and the "rightness" of autonomous agrarian work, as opposed to working as a drone in the the industrial system. 

I found this essay in The Rural Solution: Modern Catholic Voices on Going "Back to the Land."  The book is thin, but pithy. It is a clear and compelling call for Catholic families to flee the cities and suburbs and return to the land.

I have written here in the past about the Catholic Land Movement and the book, Flee To The Fields. And I have written about C.F. Marley, a remarkable man who introduced me to the Catholic-agrarian movement (my opinion of Catholic-agrarianism is expressed in my C.F. Marley essay).

The following excerpts refer to men but, of course, you can (and should) substitute the word "woman" for man, for this discussion equally applies to all of mankind.


"One of the most dismal things about the truly urban man is that he does not understand work, for he has not experienced it. Of course he knows physical exhaustion and mental drudgery; he has nervous breakdowns and high blood pressure, and he dies of coronary thrombosis—but all these things happen to him not because he works but because he does not work. This requires explanation.

For real work to be done several elements  must necessarily be present: (1) the mind conceives something to be done; (2) the hand, aided by tools, carries out the conception through the manipulation of certain (3) raw materials. The result is (4) a new creation, either something made, or some change brought about in the physical situation. 

When a man presides in this whole process—when his mind and hand work together, using his tools and his materials, to produce something which, when it is produced, is his, then he is really working. And this work is one of the greatest things man can do, both in the way of education and of satisfaction, for in it he is realizing a part of his likeness to God. Man is not only homo sapiens; he is also homo faber, man the maker. It is his nature to work. When he can not work he is restless and discontented.

In our modern world, with craftsmen almost extinct and artists an infinitesimal and professional minority, the rural home supplies almost the only setting in which a person can do work. Elsewhere the planner does not carry out his plans and therefore performs only part of what he is fitted to do. The man who toils does so by carrying out the plans made by someone else, and he performs only a mutilated function. Neither of them possesses the thing made as a result of the planning and the toil. That belongs to someone who has done nothing but furnish the money. Thus all the people concerned with the production of things are acquainted merely with isolated aspects of the work process. They are not doing what by nature they are designed to do. And as a consequence their labor is a chore, an unpleasant necessity which they indulge in as little as possible. They become abnormally interested in recreation and live for the weekend and the vacation."


"The opportunity for real, soul-satisfying work, so rare in our day, is found abundantly in rural living. Here a man can make long-range plans and can carry them out without exploiting his fellow man; for the things that he uses are things that exist to be used: soil, plants, animals, building materials, etc. he can live a whole life of work without once using another man as a mere means for carrying out his plans. And neither does he become a tool of someone else. With the materials at hand he can employ the splendid coordination of mind and hand to create something of value for his family. He can fulfill his real nature in real work. And this work is much more joyful than any mere recreation. As a matter of fact this work carries with it its own recreation, so that the man who works does not have to worry about how he is going to have his good times. The work itself is a good time even though it be hard. There is a joy in toil which the football player knows not. It is a quiet joy that comes from the knowledge that one has accomplished something, something of real value, and that the accomplishment is his own.

Around me live several men who are "homesteaders." They work in town or in school and live in the country. They spend long hours in the evenings working on their land. Their companions on the job or at school go to the movies or play poker in the evenings, but these men work at home. Their companions spend money; they save it. And when you talk with these men you come to realize that their interest, their real life, is in what they do at home. On the job they carry out someone else's plans. That is drudgery. But at home they are their own masters. They are exercising their autonomy which is necessary to human dignity. These few hours of autonomy constitute for them their real life. Their rural homes give them their one chance to be human."


Matt G said...


Thanks for sharing this. The mention of the "Protestant Work Ethic" brought this lecture to mind (linked below). In it, Andrew Fellows discusses how the Protestant work Ethic (which is a good thing) sowed the seeds of Modernity, which has now infiltrated the Church and weakened it.

I think you'd enjoy listening to this one. Here's the link:

Matt G said...

Hmm, the link got stripped out. Let me try again:

Rozy Lass said...

You do realize that if everyone returned to an agrarian lifestyle that we wouldn't have transportation, communication, healthcare, and a whole lot of other fields that make life healthy, pleasant and livable. Yes, we need farmers, and ranchers, but we also need almost every other worker also. I appreciate all the hard workers out there, not just the farmers. My husband in a retired Marine, now a school teacher; my father was a school teacher; his father was a painter/paperhanger; another grandfather owned a dry cleaning shop and was a tailor; another great-grandfather was a carpenter. I have brothers who are engineers and nephews who are in many of the trades (electricians, welders, plumbers). Unless you want to live like they did in the 18th and 19th centuries, we need workers of all kinds, and all honest work is honorable. We live in rural Iowa (though I was raised in suburban San Diego) and watch in wonder and amazement at the miles of fields of corn and beans raised here. I would not enjoy trying to raise all my own food; it would be too much work and never allow me to sew, quilt, write and enjoy travel. While I admire you in all your efforts to live the life you want, I don't wish that kind of life for everyone. Diverse specialization enhances life for the majority. Just an opinion here, from my 58 years on earth.

Herrick Kimball said...

Hi Matt—
I'll check out the link. I wonder if it is somewhat along the lines of this blog I posted back in 2006: John Calvin: Father of the Industrial revolution

Rosy Lass—
I don't have time to respond to your criticism now. But I will...

An At Home Daughter said...

I can't understand football players or any kind of athlete of that matter. They spend so much time, energy, and get paid to accomplish nothing. So they win a game, its a game and accomplishes nothing.

Good post.


Matt G said...

Herrick, I had forgotten that article about Calvin you wrote! You and Andrew Fellows are walking down the same path, but with a few differences. I'll be interested to see what you think of it.

Anonymous said...



Did you ever read "Rural Roads to Security"? You should. It's an incredible read.

Another relevant read, in times like these - "The Importance of the Rural Life: According to the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas a Study in Economic Philosophy by George H. Speltz, M.A." Fr. Speltz was Bishop of St. Cloud. He was past president of the NCRLC in the 40's or 50's.

Hillaire Belloc's another to check out, from the Catholic perspective prior to the 1960s...



tony holden said...

I'm afraid this is a simplistic argument that isn't going to carry much weight. There are scores of men and women that create, of their own accord, beautiful, hand crafted items every day. But since they used their minds instead of their hands its somehow not as worthy or noble?

There are many good points in this piece but slighting those who use their intellect is shortsighted.

Herrick, if you agree with this viewpoint then why are you using these nasty tools and world wide network to voice your opinion? Shouldn't you be sending your pieces out via the USPS? And surely you're not using the Internet to make a living, right? After all, dim witted people thought it up and created it.



Herrick Kimball said...


I think you might be missing something in the Nutting article. His definition of work is the mind and the hands working together to conceive and create something.

This is what God has done in creation and it is the kind of work mankind was created to do in God's order. Men (and women and children) find their greatest fulfillment in life when they are doing what they were created to do, which is to conceive and create.

Nutting laments that such people as craftsmen and artists, who conceive and create with their own minds and hands, are "almost extinct."

In your argument against what Nutting says, you state: "There are scores of men and women that create, of their own accord, beautiful, hand crafted items every day." Well, that is the exact definition of work as given by Willis Nutting!!

In your next sentence you then contradict what you just said by stating that, since these people who create beautiful handcrafted items use "their minds instead of their hands it is somehow not worthy or noble?""

It is impossible to use your mind and not your hands to create "beautiful HAND CRAFTED items every day."

Nutting is not slighting those who use their intellect. He is saying that unless one's work involves conceiving (intellect) and creating (handwork) together, then the work is not fulfilling (it is drudgery). He is saying that opportunities to do this kind of work in the industrial world are few and far between. He is saying that one of the best places for the legions of people stuck in unfulfilling industrial world jobs to find satisfaction and fulfillment is on a homestead, performing all the different creative tasks that go with a homestead-based lifestyle.

It is not a question of worthy and noble in Nutting's essay. It is a question of freedom, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

Your last sentence makes no sense at all. Humans who use their mind to conceive and their hands to create need tools. The idea that agrarians have something against modern tools is a common misconception. The question in the contra-industrial mind is, "does a particular tool or technology allow me to achieve freedom, fulfillment and satisfaction in my life and work, or does it promise those things, but actually lead to enslavement. That's a simplification of a big topic of discussion.

Respectfully also,


Herrick Kimball said...

For those who read this essay, and have missed my follow-up to it, please see...

Agrarian Criticism...And My Response

Christopher Hagen said...

I've discovered the Catholic Back to the Land Movement through the life and teachings of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Just so you know, there is in existence the New Catholic Land Movement led by Kevin Ford. Your musings complement his.

See here:

Anonymous said...

@an at home daughter-
"They spend so much time, energy, and get paid to accomplish nothing. So they win a game, its a game and accomplishes nothing."

They GET PAID. That's the accomplishment. IF I could get paid what they do, oh what a farm/ranch I would have and my Church would get a HUGE tithe!

- Ittai