How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 4 of 7: The Industrial Revolution

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

The Industrial Revolution

19th Century

Sunday School in England

In 1765 James Watt improved on the earlier steam engine of Thomas Newcomen. The steam engine changed the way people worked and lived. Instead of producing goods in the home, factories emerged in new towns along rivers and near water falls. In the first 25 years of the 19th century canals, railroads, and clipper ships moved resources and products. People worked long hours for low wages seven days a week. As a result of the low wages (10 cents an hour), young children had to perform work.  There were no schools and sickness and injuries were common.

The first Sunday School started in England by William King in 1751. By 1785, there were 250,000 English children attending Sunday School. It was the only education available as public education will slowly evolve after 1850. The first Sunday School in the United States was started in Brooklyn in 1838 and Brooklyn Queens Day is still a holiday. The Sunday School movement led the way to public education in the United States and continued to increase in popularity through most of the 20th century. Even with the decline in Sunday Schools after 1975, they continued to be an important part of church ministry into the 21st century. This period also embraced the holidays of Christmas with Christmas trees and pageants of the birth of Jesus and Lent with fasting, confession, prayers, and resurrection themed sermons.

The problems of poverty, homeless, immigration motivated church groups in the United States to organize social ministries. This movement was less popular in Europe. Walter Rauschenbusch was a pastor in New York City and promoted the social gospel. The Salvation Army was organized by William Booth in London to aid the homeless and destitute. The mission is based on the call of the disciples of Jesus Christ to assist people in need.  Today they are an international organization. The Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) also began in London and promoted its evangelical mission in cities around the world. The social gospel movement was prominent with denominational Protestant churches and evangelical churches. During the civil rights movement, the social gospel evolved in promoting social justice in the United States.  The popularity of the Sunday School and social gospel ministries sparked the establishment of the parish church structure we have today in communities and neighborhoods around the world.

The Industrial Revolution also led to globalization in the name of imperialism and colonialism. As capitalist businesses acquired natural resources in other countries and looked for new markets to sell products, the Christian Church saw the need to convert people in other countries to their faith.  Missionary work first began with Ignatius Loyola at the University of Paris with the Society of the Jesus. His followers traveled throughout Europe, Africa and Asia to convert Muslims, counter the teachings of Martin Luther with the Roman Catholic faith, and eventually organizing schools.

The missionary work of the Christian Church began around 1820 in Europe with the end of the Napoleonic wars. In the United States, the missionary work before the Civil War was mostly invested in spreading the gospel with the expansion west to California. After 1850, the work of foreign missions exploded in China, Korea, India, Africa and continued on a global scale with the translation of the Holy Bible into vernacular languages. Missionary work was an opportunity for men and women to start hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Missionary work continued to increase throughout the 20th century and continues to be important to the goals of Protestant, evangelical, and Roman Catholic institutions.  

With 21st century people concerned about social injustice, are there lessons to be learned from the social ministries of the 19th century?

How did the Christian Church meet the needs of the people during this time?

Is missionary work in other countries critical to the vision of the Christian Church today or does the Church need to focus on different needs and issues?


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