The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

IN THE LATE 1700s, Britain became the most powerful nation on earth, an empire upon which the sun literally never set. Wealth poured in from colonies abroad and revolution in industry at home. Many of the destitute rose out of poverty and became members of the middle class. The rich grew vastly richer, enjoying lavish homes and extended cruises.

However, the Industrial Revolution also created a tyrant: the modern factory. Confined within its foul, noisy, and grim atmosphere, men, women, and children toiled 16 hours a day, six days a week. People flocked to cities to find work, and they crowded into dwellings thrown together by landlords who gave no thought for sanitation or safety or human decency. Many were forced to live in the narrow city streets. Overcrowding and lack of clean water produced cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis.

Another rich source of income and human suffering was less apparent. Far from English shores, other men, women, and children were packed in ships and transported by the thousands to the Americas. There they tilled fields and picked cotton and did whatever else their masters demanded of them. They were bought and sold, bred and beaten, and put in chains if they proved unmanageable. The trade in human flesh made the good life possible for many a Briton.

Some didn’t know, and others pretended they didn’t know, about all these evils. Some argued the conditions were not all that evil. But others thought something ought to be done. They began by focusing their energies on slavery.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #53 in 1997]

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