The Industrial Revolution and the Christian Family
What changes did the Industrial Revolution bring to the Christian family? Did it weaken it or did it strengthen it? Did it help the Christian family fulfill its purpose in the Kingdom of God, or did
it set it off its course in a direction which would eventually render it meaningless? Did it open up new horizons and new areas for growth and exploration, or did it shut the door to the future, laying the foundation for replacing the Christian family with something else? Was the Industrial Revolution a friend or a foe to the Christian family?
Welcome to Episode 42 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will tackle a topic in history, namely, the period of great changes in technology which started in the mid-1700s, in a few nations in Europe, and continued through the 19thcentury in all of the West: the Industrial Revolution. And, we can say, continues throughout the world today, and doesn’t seem to have stopped. You don’t have to have been homeschooled to know this much about history: in the last 200 years, the pace of technological, industrial, and economic changes has accelerated to levels unknown in previous periods of history – and least in those periods of which we have somewhat concrete data. (We don’t know anything concrete about the technological growth and levels in the years before the Flood.) I am sure I am not the only father who has been asked by his children, “Dad, how did you all live before we had the Internet and GPS and smartphones?” The world is changing at an accelerating rate. In many ways, the Industrial Revolution hasn’t ended yet. We are living through it.
As Christians who have a covenantal view of everything, however, we should be asking ourselves the question: Did all this technological change also induce a change in culture? If it did, what are the cultural changes that came with it, or were caused by it, or were encouraged by it? Perhaps the very change in technologies and production and economic action is a cultural change in itself as well? Keep in mind, when we as Christians talk about culture, we should have in mind Henry Van Til’s dictum in his book, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, that “Culture is religion externalized.” Culture, for us, is not in visible expressions like ballet performances, fashion, or folk festivals. We define culture ethically and judicially: the sum and system of beliefs (religion), concepts (ideology), and practices (economics, politics, education, family, etc.) in relation to the ultimate questions of good and evil, both for the individual and for his society and institutions. The focus here is on the dichotomy between good and evil.
Did the Industrial Revolution, then, produce cultural changes? Marxists believe that. Remember, when we talked about the “Oxymoron of Cultural Marxism,” we saw that in the Marxist system, culture, ethics, law – in short, concepts of good and evil – are entirely defined and determined by the economic base. The Industrial Revolution did produce gigantic economic changes; within a generation or two, the capital base of the Western societies was transformed immensely, both for what Marxists believe to be the “ruling class” and for the mass of ordinary people. Thus, since for Marxists changes in the economic base produce changes in the cultural superstructure, there was also a change in culture.
From a covenantal perspective, of course, it is the other way around: the economic changes happened because of an underlying culture which defined and determined everything, from the way people view time, labor, and material resources, to their practical applications of these beliefs. The Industrial Revolution was not really a revolution; it was only the practical outworking, the ripe fruit and visible expression of a true revolution that had happened centuries earlier, in the minds and hearts of men. It took a while for men to put their beliefs to work, but it eventually happened, and thus we had the Industrial Revolution.
This, however, is only an introduction to my real topic; my focus here is not the presuppositional differences between Marxism or any other modern version of secular humanism on one hand and Christianity on the other; we will talk about those in other episodes. Neither is my focus the underlying culture behind the Industrial Revolution; such a topic is immensely important and, again, I will talk about it in future episodes. My focus here is a bit narrower, namely, what changes did the Industrial Revolution bring to the Christian family? Did it weaken it or did it strengthen it? Did it help the Christian family fulfill its purpose in the Kingdom of God, or did it set it off its course in a direction which would eventually render it meaningless? Did it open up new horizons and new areas for growth and exploration, or did it shut the door to the future, laying the foundation for replacing the Christian family with something else? Was the Industrial Revolution a friend or a foe to the Christian family?
In the last several decades, an opinion has become popular among many Christians theologians and public speakers, and among many ordinary Christians as well, that the net effect the Industrial Revolution had on the Christian family was largely negative. That the Industrial Revolution destroyed the Christian family. That before the Industrial revolution the Christian family was OK, it was the real, true Christian family as it should be according to the Biblical standards – or at least pretty close to it – and then, when industrialization came, the Christian family disintegrated to what it is today. Quite a few Christians and groups today espouse that view. The main proponents of such view of the destructive role of the Industrial Revolution are the modern patriarchalists and agrarianists; but its influence goes beyond them. The website of Christian Assemblies International has an article about it, titled (note well), “Rebuilding the Family: Recovering from Industrialism.” Chuck Colson’s The Christian Worldview Journal had analysis by Robin Phillips back in 2012 about “Industrialization and Marriage,” repeating the same points about the destruction wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Allan Carlson, former president of the Rockford Institute and for a time, a leading voice in the paleoconservative movement together with Pat Buchanan, has several books on this or related topics, defending the same view, that the Christian family was destroyed or at least crippled by the Industrial Revolution.
The family, according to these folks, was united in fellowship and identity, because before the Industrial Revolution, most of the work happened within the home or close to the home. Robin Phillips claims that “
The same families lived in the same locales for generations, since the family was tied to the land. Mom and Dad usually came from the same community and therefore shared a common cultural background, values and sense of identity. Children were an asset; every extra pair of hands meant the farm could produce more food (or the craftsman more products). Mom’s domestic skills, baking, cooking, sewing, etc., were desperately needed in the home. Children worked closely with their parents from a young age. Dad worked with the sons in the fields (or at his craft), Mom with the daughters in the house. Children learned not only skills, but character and values at the same time.
Work, recreation, religion, and welfare were all family-orientated and contributed to a sense of identity and belonging. Children had both economic as well as social incentive to maintain close family ties. They inherited the land, expanding the family’s economic basis. The extended family assisted during emergencies. The sociological background therefore reinforced biblical family values.
Their solution to this evil, of course, is a return to agrarianism, a state of somewhat pre-industrial level of economy and production, and a re-encapsulation of the population into small, self-sufficient communities where, according to them, the importance of the family will be restored, and therefore we will have Christian culture once again. None of these guys ever says how such a culture will be able to compete economically against the industrial culture of today; they assume it will be “productive,” but I haven’t seen anything specific yet.
Either way, there is a very serious problem with this interpretation of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the Christian family: It doesn’t correspond to the true historical facts. Yes, we all love to have this idyllic, nostalgic view of times past and idealize them; after all, the mythology of a past Golden Age is present in every society. But such Golden Age never really existed for the Christian family in the agrarian societies before the 1800s. To start with, no matter how we look at the history of Europe before the 1800s, one thing is sure: it was a time of stagnated populations. Between AD 1000 and AD 1800, a period of 800 years, it took longer than 300 years for the population to double; mathematically, this is growth of less than a quarter of a percent a year. While some of this low rate of growth can be ascribed to wars and plagues, what is seldom realized today is that the share of families to the general population was much lower than today. That is, far fewer people – as a percentage of the population – actually got married and had children. Yes, I know, we imagine that in the Middle Ages, because of arranged marriages, almost everyone got married, but this idea misses the fact that a significant part of the men were tied to the land or to feudal obligations or servanthood, which prevented them from either finding a wife or being able to afford one. Indentured servants were generally excluded from the crude censuses of those days, and thus, we don’t have data of the men and women who could never marry. The medieval family was still not fully a Christian family; it was a transition from the pagan clannish forms. Those of better social status could afford to get married and have children, but the economic conditions did not allow for all to be so.
It is important also to note that the bright picture of happy families of children working with their parents in the field or in the home has absolutely no basis in history. Those who have any familiarity with the history of European art know one really creepy and striking characteristic of it: children are almost non-existent in medieval art. There are hundreds of art pieces from before the Reformation period, and many of them depict everyday life (including peasants working in the field), and there are no children in them. The only children in these pieces are idealized cherubim and the child Jesus, and all of them are shown with face features of grown up men. It wasn’t until the Dutch period of European art that children became popular subjects of art – but then, the Netherlands in the 1500s and the 1600s was an urban, quasi-industrial society, not localized agrarian economy.
The demographic stagnation and the total cultural lack of interest in children are not an indicator of strong families during these agrarian periods. If anything, the little growth that Europe had was in the cities, which grew faster than the countryside. The idyllic agrarian family that was a big happy fellowship of stable identity simply didn’t exist. If anything, pre-industrial Europe was a place of stagnated communities where children were at best a nuisance, and the most optimistic expectations of the future were limited to the crops next year. Read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror to get a glimpse.
The real Age of the Christian family in fact started with the Industrial Revolution. With the gathering of workers in the cities, people of lower birth were freed from the social restraints of village life, which by that time was still at least half -feudal. The population density also made matching easier; the social cohesion was much greater than in the village. Contrary to the perceptions of many today, the wages in the cities were not lower than in the countryside, nor was food scarce. To the contrary, the workers in the cities saw their incomes increase fourfold in real terms within 50 years. The cities were still crowded and hygiene and medicine lagged behind, but life was much better than anything in the countryside. This increased the share of families, and also increased the number of children to an astounding average of 6 per family. The UK conducted their first official census in 1801 – the population was about 10 million (excluding Ireland). 50 years later, it had doubled to 20 million. Another fifty years later, it doubled again to 40 million. This was a net annual growth of 1.4%, 7 times higher than the average for the previous 2,000 years.
Did industrialization lead to decline in the Christian faith in the population? Not at all. To the contrary, the 19th century will be remembered with the highest ever church attendance and participation of the working class. In England, this growth in interest to religion led to the growth of congregations both for the official Anglican church and for non-conformist movements like Baptists and Congregationalists. Same happened in the industrial centers in the United States and Germany. Charles Spurgeon’s gigantic congregation consisted almost entirely of factory workers; so popular was he among the working class, that Friedrich Engels (Karl Marx’s friend and co-author), when asked whom he hated most in life, replied curtly, “Spurgeon.” Out of these urban working classes also came the greatest impetus for the missionary movement of the 19th and the early 20th century. (Missionaries like David Livingstone started their career at very early ages, working at the textile factories.)
Ironically, during this period, the decline of interest in the Christian faith was mainly observed among the higher classes, the nobility and the bourgeois – those who could afford to work from home and have their family fellowship all the time. Where the rich never married, or experimented with debauchery, sodomy, occultism, and narcotics, the masses of factory workers married, raised children, attended churches and organized all kinds of missions, voluntary charities and mutual assistance organizations for their own – and all that while working 12 hours a day, with their children also working in the factories. If we were allowed to inspect the demographic constitution of the families who are in heaven, we may discover that the average Christian family residing in heaven at this moment has been a working family in the West in the 19th or the early 20th century. Interestingly enough, the decline of religion among the working classes came very late, and it actually coincided with the first social victories of the trade unions, namely, reduced work hours, and restrictions on hiring children in the factories. More time for the father with his family should lead to stronger families and deeper commitment, but it didn’t. If there was ever a Golden Age of the Christian family, it was the age of unimpeded capitalism of the Industrial Revolution.
Why was it so, then? And why are the modern commentators so blatantly wrong when it comes to the Industrial Revolution?
The answer must come from our understanding of the original covenant of God with man, the Dominion Covenant in the Garden, in Genesis 1:26-28: “Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” The meaning of that Covenant was obviously economics: God gave man the resources of the whole earth and commanded man to use these resources to turn them into being useful for mankind. In the next chapter (2:15), we that God put man in the Garden and commanded him to work it and protect it. That covenant has never been repealed. In his sin, Adam made it harder to fulfill his obligations under the Dominion Covenant, but the obligations remained. Man is still under obligation to use the resources of God’s earth and capitalize on them, that is, turn them to productive use for mankind.
The family, thus, was not created as an independent, central, terminal institution. It was not created to be a “fellowship.” While fellowship certainly is part of the family, it is not its central characteristic and purpose. The family was created to serve man in his task of dominion; its central characteristic is supposed to be productivity and growth, growth not simply in the sense of more children – although, more children is generally part of it (but not always) – but in the sense of increasing dominion of man over the creation. The fellowship between a man and his wife must serve this purpose; it can’t be independent of it, neither can it be reduced to pure religious spirituality. The same applies in respect to the children and their function in the family: they are supposed to be the trustees of accumulated capital, used not to focus on the past but to develop the future into more productive, and therefore wealthier civilization. Children were not expected to stay with the family and continue doing the same thing their parents were doing. They were supposed to leave their parents and find their place in the greater and greater capitalization of nature. It is for this reason God speaks of the ideal wife in economic terms (Prov. 31) and of the children as slaves, an economic term, and heirs, another economic term (Gal 4:1). It is for this reason that specialization of production started from the very beginning, with the sons of Adam and Eve (Gen, 4:2), and continued developing after that. The covenant requires growth in productivity; and growth in productivity means increasing division of labor, generation after generation. The children must not remain at the level of their parents, neither in specialization nor in output.
In pre-industrial times, this function and purpose of the family could still be fulfilled, but it was greatly hampered by the scarcity of resources. Or, more precisely, by the inability of mankind to make full use of the available resources. Time was not really an important resource; the limitations were in terms of land and tools. In order to grow and prosper, a man had to have control over large masses of land; thus, it was mainly the landed gentry in Europe that could control resources. Even with a large family, the average peasant could hardly hope to be able to grow; and in fact, more children would mean more mouths to feed over the same land, which only produced limited quantities of food. In this context of subsistence agriculture, the family’s main purpose and function – economic growth – was hampered. And thus, for all the imagined fellowship and shared identity, family didn’t matter much.
The Industrial Revolution freed production from the restraint of physical resources. The same resource now could be put to productive use better than any time before. (Think of what a piece of coal could produce in an open fire and in the furnace of a steam engine.) Smaller and smaller quantities of resources could now produce larger and larger quantities of capital and consumer goods. The frontier of man’s economic endeavor suddenly shifted. Land was not an important resource. Time was. The more time he put to work, the more he could prosper – even without too much of available resources. Man could now fulfill the Dominion Covenant in ways unimaginable before. The family could finally enter into its fulfilled purpose. It had a meaning and a purpose.
That the children didn’t spend as much time with their parents as before was not a tragedy. To the contrary, in the context of the Christian family, each child now had the opportunity to find his own purpose. Under previous economies, the society seldom had accumulated resources to afford exploration and individual attention to each child concerning his true skills and gifts. A child could have been born with the gift of an engineer, or a writer; what determined his future occupation would still be the occupation of his father. It is true that this assured a certain level of stability, but this was not the stability of growth, it was the stability of stagnation. When people are prevented – whether by circumstances or by social custom – from finding their true skills and purpose, they won’t normally be interested in innovation and growth in the field they were forced to work. The Industrial Revolution, for the first time in history, freed up resources to allow children to pursue the gifts God had put in them, irrespective of their birth. This is how David Livingstone, the son of a worker in a cotton factory, could become a hero of Protestant missions later in his life. And this is how millions of others were able to go beyond their humble origins and lay the foundation of our modern middle class. The covenant required separation from the past (Phil. 3:13) and focus on the future (1 Cor. 3:22). And it was this focus on the future that made the Christian family the strongest institution among industrial workers.
That view of modern theologians, that idyllic picture of the family before the Industrial Revolution, is based on a religion of stagnation. At the bottom of this religion of stagnation is fear, fear of change, fear of the future, deep pessimism about the human race, even in its redeemed state. And it was this fear that was the real reason for the decline of Christianity in the industrial centers of the West. The Industrial Revolution didn’t destroy the Christian family; the church did. The church got scared of the visible changes in the world. The church didn’t see in these changes the fulfillment of the Dominion Covenant to a level higher than ever before. The church adopted a pessimistic eschatology which saw the modern industrialized world as the product of Satan; and therefore assumed that the only solution is a return to earlier times of more stability, which, in reality, is stagnation. God gave us a blessing in the Industrial Revolution. We, as a church, squandered it in our fear and unbelief. It’s time to reclaim it.
The assigned reading for this week will be three articles I have written on this subject, available on ChristendomRestored.com:
As you read them, think about the true purpose of your family, and how your children should be raised in regard to their focus on the future and their expectations of their future. It is in that focus on the future where the purpose of your family lies. All your family devotions are a waste of time, unless this is cultivated in your children.
And remember in your prayers and your giving Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, a mission organization which is unique in Eastern Europe in that it preaches the comprehensive worldview of the Kingdom of God, and brings the Gospel to every area of life. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to the newsletter, and donate.