“How the Lord loves the laborer” -Dieter F. Uchdorf
I have looked at enough census records to know that the center column—the occupation—is where much of the lives of my ancestors are revealed. While many researches take pride in a discovery of distinction—a gentleman perhaps, or a minister, doctor, or politician—I have yet to strike gold in a vein of worldly merit. Rather, as I have turned back to my fathers and mothers, I have found them laboring in the trades of the lower class as fisherman, farm laborers, gardeners, maids, and most frequently, general laborers. It is this last title of general laborer that has caused me to reflect on the merits given to the poor, unskilled, and weary. I picture the enumerator, peering up from his broad census sheet, quill poised. Occupation? Laborer. Any trade or skill? No, he says, eyes down. General Laborer, then.
What more do we know of some of our laborers? My fifth great grandfather, a farm laborer in Essex, died of “sloughing of the foot”, leaving behind ten children. My husband’s family worked in the damp fields of Northern England. Such laborers did not receive payment for their work until after their term of hire was completed. Poor and hungry, they ate raw turnips in the fields to stave their hunger.
Our laborers were not always virtuous. My third great aunt Ellen Chamberlain was brought to trial for stealing two loaves of bread. Trial notes reveal when confronted, “she then took the loaf from under her shawl and said “This is the loaf—pray, sir, forgive me.” For this she was given two months hard labor, a sentence of apparent leniency. My fifth great grandfather Ben Chamberlain was relieved from his apprenticeship in 1785 due to “disorderly behaviour and frequent absences”. Rumors abounded of drinking and ill tempers, an apparent occupational hazard of our ship laborers.
Then there were the deaths, inexplicable and beyond comprehension. My sixth great uncle was a farm laborer and father of eleven children; all of his children died in childhood save two. When my third great aunt was pregnant with their first child, her husband Edward Austin worked as a laborer in a neighboring town. While he was digging a ditch when a man nearby leaned his rifle against a tree. The rifle fell, fired, mortally wounding the young father-to-be. Most of our fathers were taken young. Looking back six generations down to my grandfather, all passed in their 30’s or 40’s with the exception of two.
And the women? What is not written can only be imagined. They suffered ill-timed relationships and abandonment, and worked as maids, nurses, and farm laborers at tender ages. Many did not rest in their old age, working as cleaning women or doing laundry.
When our Chamberlain family reached New York City in 1888, there could not have been a more obscure family with more dubious health and almost no wealth. When they arrived in Salt Lake City a few weeks later, they were taken to the Tithing Yard for needed food and supplies. It was there on a bale of hay that their infant son Robert died, a pained and mournful offering in the midst of others sacrifice. A few months later, his mother Ellen Gardner Chamberlain died from tuberculosis.
When I think of who have labored before me, I wonder, was there room for joy amidst the sodden fields and leaky roofs? Could they look up from the plough and see the mist rising, the birds gathering, and have hope? Were there glimpses of peace amidst the pain of loss? Between mending nets and cleaning fish did they look up at the same stars and feel the eyes of God?
Therefore, athrust in your sickle with all your soul, and your sins are bforgiven you, and you shall be laden with csheaves upon your back, for the dlaborer is worthy of his hire. Wherefore, your family shall live. -D7C 31: 5
Their grandson—my grandfather—was also laborer. His forearms—as wide as melons and too large for sleeves—have found a place in me. My own body and soul bears the traces and echoes of the laborer. My legs, disappointingly large yet strong as rocks, have carried my children up mountains and pushed me down miles of roads. I have inherited a strength that has given me a willingness to jump and climb and shovel and lift.
While my stomach has never soured from raw turnips, or my coat hidden bread, my blood carries the virtues and flaws of the laborer. My face reveals the crease of worry, my clothes show stains of earthly chores, my skin maps the scars of adventure and my soul the ache of every weakness. It is with the same exhaustion I fall to bed, giving prayers as apologies of exhaustion on my back because life is, well, hard. So hard that one night I reached out to my Father in Heaven in frustration, seeking relief from trial’s long shadow. Then, with a voice more of compassion than admonition, this scripture came to my mind:
Performing your labors is preparing to meet God—especially difficult, refining labors which deepen our natures toward the divine. These terms are couched in a deep compassion by One who is pained by my pain and grieved by my grief. The Lord of the vineyard aches for his laborers as they bend in the field in trial, in callings, and in every earthy adventure that tests us.
I’ll go where you want me to go.
And because we are laborers and not artisans, we have no claim on an occupation, but are rather called and refined in broad fields, taught, refined, and humbled many times over in a continuing cycle of mortal education. Like the laborer who may dig trenches, haul hay, or perhaps for a season lay bricks, we may labor for a time. As the building rises, her skill is refined with the mortar and brick, and she begins to see beauty in her work and love for her fellow workers. But she is a laborer, and before long will be called to another job, sowing seeds in the fields or pulling fish from the boats, hoping someday to glimpse the walls she built as part of a gleaming building.
When I die, don’t list my callings; just write General Laborer under my name, this title that I so tenderly share with those before me. To achieve such a distinction as this would be to have prepared myself in all things, not only to meet those who have gone before me and said, “I have done as you have done,” but also to say to God, “I have tried it all, I have finished my course.”