Editor’s note: Industrialization

MACHINES TAKING THE JOBS of humans. The sudden ability for instantaneous communication across continents. People abandoning the countryside for the big city. New inventions at every turn. A growing gap between rich and poor. The world shrinking daily. 

The early twenty-first century? Yes, but those words could just as easily describe the Industrial Revolution that, over 150 years ago, began changing the social and working lives of Americans. Industry after industry developed new tools to do workers’ jobs, tools that in some cases supplanted these industries’ bedrock skills and methods and the people who had mastered them. Automatic looms—the ability to tunnel underwater—telegraphs that could send messages around the world—and eventually radio, electricity, and phonograph records. The location of work moved from the home to the factory, from the country to the city. Unprepared cities became riddled with squalid, unsafe tenements. Like a great landslide, the revolution swept away centuries of solid economic and social ground, leaving Europe and America battered and bewildered.

And Christians were right there in the middle of these economic realities. Approaches varied, of course—from the Holiness preaching, “blood-washed” singing, and homes for fallen women of the Salvation Army; to the clean, safe, and new model villages built for workers by the Quaker owners of the Cadbury and Rowntree cocoa companies; to the fight for an alcohol-free world of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; to attempts by University of Wisconsin president John Bascom to implement the Social Gospel and bring in a new society, not only through the church, but through his university. And many who might never have darkened the door of a traditional Christian church—from members of communal societies to labor unionists—sought and claimed the directing example of Jesus as they grappled with how to right a world turned upside down.

Given the centrality of the Christian message to so many efforts to deal with the Industrial Revolution, the partnership between the Acton Institute and CHI that produced this issue seems both natural and fruitful. The Acton Institute has long argued that the church needs to understand and teach social ethics in a way that values the fundamental nature of enterprise and economics, and that Christians need to be concerned to a greater degree about what conditions must be met to promote widespread human flourishing. Scripture, indeed, teaches economic wisdom, human dignity rooted in the image of God, the value of all legitimate work, the call to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and the fundamental importance of social institutions. We here at CHI agree that exploring how the church has addressed these issues in the past can only help this conversation, which has sometimes been an adversarial one.

The articles here are intentionally varied; we may not agree with, or endorse, all those who brought the resources of the Christian faith to bear on economic change. But this range of articles shows how many, many people tried to apply Jesus’ teachings to the world they lived in, during strange and confusing times. Obviously, these stories are also relevant to our own day. We also live in a time of tremendous economic and technological dislocation. We also wonder which way to turn. Let the voices in this issue help remind us that Jesus is Lord; the same yesterday, today, and forever. If we follow him, working together at an organizational level, he will see us through. CH

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #104 in 2013]

Next articles

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the Editors

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