The Family, Class, and the Industrial Revolution

The family is often under duress and assault in our society. This seems to be a fact that almost everyone recognizes, and yet people tend to look for the reasons behind it in different places. For some, the problem is the breakdown of sexual ethics and the “nuclear” family; the solution, therefore, is a return to a more robust sexual ethic and stronger marriages. For others, the problem is the lack of economic mobility and the ability to find good jobs; the solution, therefore, is to provide incentives to spur greater employment.

It would seem as if both sides would look to the 1950s as the halcyon days of the American family, albeit for different reasons: yes, the marriage was intact, but the father also probably had a decent paying job and good long-term prospects for himself and his children. But what if the foundations of the family had been shaken long before the 1950s? What if the process had begun long earlier? What if the degeneration began in the 1830s, and all because of the Industrial Revolution?

For a moment, consider the “nuclear family.” While in a sense it is the base unit that God established (Genesis 2:24), its isolation and intense focus is a more recent phenomenon, as recent as the “nuclear” power we have harnessed.

We recognize the ugliness and difficulties which come from divorce (Malachi 2:16, Matthew 19:3-9). Statistics show that whenever industrialization and urbanization increase around the globe, so does divorce in those places, no matter the previous cultural norms (Sell, Family Ministry, 52).

How can this be? Consider ancient, medieval, and even early modern societies. In those times the individual family as the primary economic unit. A shopkeeper, blacksmith, farmer, laborer, etc., would work with his family at his residence. The wife would be a business partner, and children were put to work to assist them and later to take on the trade or occupation (ibid., 54).

In this way the industrialization of the West was truly “revolutionary”. Men would go and work at the factories and be more separated from their families than before. The increase in income led to women exclusively devoting themselves to housekeeping; the modern concept of the “housewife” is therefore less than 200 hundred years old (ibid., 55).

Therefore, in days of old, leaving the family, either as a wife or a child, would be economically costly and hazardous. One would have no support system and survival was not guaranteed.

It is important to keep these things in mind when considering, for example, the “worthy woman” of Proverbs 31:10-31. Far too many Christian women are made to feel inadequate because they cannot fully “measure up” to her. But the “worthy woman” was not working a 9-to-5 job only to come home and make sure the house was clean, dinner was on the table, and the children were instructed; she had plenty of servants to help with a lot of the housework, her industriousness supplemented the family income and was not a “full-time job,” and all of it was done in the context of the household. Her husband did not go work in some office or factory; whatever his occupation, he would work quite near the family ore even within the living space. Their work life was much more holistic than what we see today, and not nearly as stressful.

The way in which those before us worked and lived also influenced how they saw their residence and the world around them. It has only been since the Industrial Revolution that the world around us was only considered a “jungle” from which “home life” was a “repose.” Family is now to be a haven of rest from the world around us, and we have greater expectations out of our family lives now than ever before (Sell, Family Ministry 56). Since we are imperfect people, and imperfect people make imperfect families, oftentimes the family cannot possibly live up to the ideal that we create and perpetuate in our lives.

The role of intimacy (non-sexual) in families is also illuminating. One of the often recognized effects of the industrial revolution has been the loss of community and the greater isolation of the family unit. The greater mobility that modern technology has allowed has led to “nuclear” families being separated by hundreds or thousands of miles from their “extended” families. For these and many other reasons, we now look more to the nuclear family for the complete satisfaction of our emotional needs (ibid., 38-39).

Again, we humans are weak. Greater expectations rarely lead to better outcomes, but instead more disappointment. Because of the greater need of emotional fulfillment, families often become explosively emotional, and thus no longer the haven of rest in a hectic world. Children often bear the brunt of this: their emotional attachments to many adults are often now limited to just mom and dad, and that can lead to difficulties down the line.

And, of course, there is the husband-wife relationship. Americans now expect that relationship to be the most important source of emotional satisfaction and support. In many instances, people expect it to do so almost exclusively. But is that the way it was designed?

This desire for intimacy also forces couples to concentrate on their relationship to such a degree that a tremendous pressure to succeed sometimes makes that success elusive. High expectations for marriage may make couples less satisfied with their marriage. Studies show that lower expectations have played a part in the degree of marital satisfaction that working class couples achieve. Housewives who do not have, nor greatly expect to have, a close relationship with their husbands, but do have close friendships with other housewives are, on the whole, more satisfied with their marriages than the wives of white-collar workers. This means that when couples are isolated from kin and community and thus more in need of intimacy in their own marriage, their marriage is at greater risk (ibid., 39).

This is not to say that wives should look everywhere but their husbands for emotional support, but it does show that just as man is not an island, neither is a marriage. We can (and often do) elevate what we expect out of marriage or our family so high that our spouses and children can just never reach our expectations.

Thus, an unspoken yet painfully evident loss which has undermined the strength of the American family, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, is the loss of true and full community. The support system has frayed. Our culture has venerated the “nuclear family,” and yet the nuclear family has rarely, if ever, been able to support itself on its own. Throughout time “nuclear families” depended on grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and other kin or “tribal” members for support. Where people once looked to family or their community, they now look to the government or to their employers. Many think nothing of packing up and moving thousands of miles from family and the only world they have known. So many have bought into the premise that the “nuclear family” is an island unto itself, and they are suffering.

While we have benefited in many ways from the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing is waning, and we are entering an “information economy.” And yet the family is still under duress. Another factor is at play, one which we rarely want to discuss in America: class.

We want to believe that America is a classless society, but there are at least three well-defined classes: the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy. As a society we like to equate middle class values with both American and Biblical values; while middle class ethics and values are laudable in many respects, we need to be careful before we wholesale identify with them, and none more than in terms of how we view receiving assistance and maintaining a support network.

One of the great values of the middle class is self-sufficiency. There’s a reason why many people believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Biblical maxim despite its utter lack of attestation, and plenty of evidence which would militate against it, in Scripture. The middle class idolizes those who “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” If you work hard, you will be able to carve out a decent life for yourself and provide a better future for your children: this is the faith of the middle class.

Ironically, both the upper and lower classes do not function under these ideals. While it is absolutely true that the lower classes often suffer on account of self-inflicted difficulties, it remains true that they suffer from systemic disadvantages and are as much an object of scorn as pity by those who are better off and must justify their prosperity. To this day, among the poorer classes, people survive because they rely on one another. You help family, no matter how foolishly they have acted, because if you do not stick together, no one will make it. One might imagine that the upper class would be best able to fence in the nuclear family, and yet the upper class maintains their wealth through networking. They cultivate their contacts and their community in their exclusive locations; they form alliances, both business and personal; they remain wealthy because they have the standing, the pedigree, and above all the contacts to make sure their wealth can be perpetuated.

It is only the middle class that carries on under the hope that one can make it on their own. While there is much that is commendable about the middle class and their ethics and values, this emphasis on self-sufficiency is beyond unrealistic; it is actively harmful to the flourishing of individuals and families.

We need to be realistic about ourselves, our spouses, and our children. God established the “nuclear family,” yes, but He did so within the context of larger families and tribes. The men of faith trusted in God and prospered, yes, but they always had a community around them; even Abraham had servants and Lot his nephew (Genesis 13:1-9). Is there much about poverty culture and wealth culture that is wrong and harmful for human flourishing? Yes, and we do well to warn about it. But middle class values are not the default in the Bible, and we need to be clear-eyed about its challenges. As human beings, we are not to be islands unto ourselves. The New Testament is clear: God has saved us, yes, but in order to participate in the body of His Son, the church (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). In that body we have the opportunity to give, but we also need to be able to receive (Acts 20:35). We can support others and receive support in return. God established the extended family as the primary support system (1 Timothy 5:8, 16); the church is to serve as another element in the support system.

Within “nuclear families” we can support and encourage one another, but that will never be enough. We must become quite emotionally intimate with the body of Christ, the church (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Why is it that we should bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)? Because we need more people close to us in our lives than just one or two!

If we are married with children, we need to have emotional intimacy as appropriate with our family members. But we also need close friends, especially within the body of Christ, who can bear part of our emotional load as we bear part of theirs, and what we expect out of our spouse and family can be more realistic.

Single people should not be punished for not having a spouse with whom they can be emotionally intimate; they have emotional needs too, and the body of Christ can meet theirs. The same is true with divorced persons and widows and widowers.

Yes, the Industrial Revolution has led to all kinds of problems and havoc with the family, and more modern trends have exacerbated them. We do well to call out the myth of the shiny, happy nuclear family for what it is: a myth. We need to do what we can with whom we have and with the resources available to us. Of great importance, however, is the community of believers. If the local church is family-like in their care and concern for all members, as God intended it to be (1 Corinthians 12:12-27), then its members can bear each others’ burdens and make modern life livable, and be a beacon of light to the world because of it. If the church decides to be a cold social club, don’t be surprised to see more marriages ending in divorce, more teenagers run screaming in rebellion, dwindling numbers, and no significant evangelistic success.

Not only can we achieve God’s intentions for families in the 21st century, we can do so while still living in the 21st century and being a great and powerful testimony to God in the community while doing so. But we can only do it when we provide the support network within the body to make it work. May we live as God’s spiritual family in Christ, welcoming those cast off in our modern system, support one another, and find salvation in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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