While many versions of this story circulate over the internet and is retold in various talks and books, its original source has been traced back to a book by Bruce Barton, “What Can A Man Believe,” published in 1927. Here are the words verbatim from pages 252-253:
The great fire of 1666 destroved the central part of London and laid a large number of its churches in ruins. It completely gutted the old St. Paul’s and made necessary the building of the present noble cathedral. This was the opportunity for Sir Christopher Wren, to whom London owes very much for what is finest in its architecture and especially in the character of its central churches. He received for his compensation a salary less than that of the American unskilled worker, but as his epitaph truly says, his work was “not for his own but for the public good,” and will keep bright his fame forever.
One morning he passed among the workmen, most of whom did not know him, and of three different men engaged in the same kind of work he asked the same question: “What are you doing?” From the first he received the answer: “I am cutting this stone.’ From the second the answer was: “I am earning three shillings and six pence a day.” But the third man straightened up, squared his shoulders, and holding his mallet in one hand and chisel in the other, proudly replied: “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren to build this great cathedral.”
These are the three ways of looking at life:
1. I am just cutting this stone.
2. I am only earning a living.
3. I am doing a small part of a great work.
I have not seen the Architect and I do not altogether understand the plan. But I believe there is a plan, so I work with good spirit in which is no fear.
Inspired by a True Event
Now that you know the real source of the story, you can confidently say that the author is not unknown or anonymous. It appears that the author is Bruce Barton, but since he wasn’t alive back in 1666, we don’t yet know for sure whether this story was factually true. No one to date has yet found an extant document from Christopher Wren about this story; it is plausible that Bruce was inspired by the true event.
We don’t have a way to verify if Christopher Wren actually talked to three workmen. We don’t have a way to verify if Christopher Wren actually heard those exact words being spoken by each of the bricklayers.
There you have it, this article was handcrafted for those who are intent on finding out the veracity of this inspiring story.