June 20, 2024
History of Work

Faith And Work: The Industrial Revolution
January 17, 2007By Allistair Mackenzie


The Industrial Revolution resulted in profound changes in work patterns and the work environment. These changes were often rapid and drastic. Traditional formulas were no longer adequate to address them. During the earlier part of the 18th century, British production was still primarily based on agriculture and home industry. Hammond (1926) and Engels (1971) provide graphic descriptions of how, by the beginning of the 19th century, the moderated domination of the old proprietors had given way to the unregulated rule of industrial bosses whose survival in the fierce competition between mill and mine owners depended on the exploitation of wage labour in the interests of mounting profit on a seemingly limitless market.

The process of industrialisation marks a critical turning point in the history of work. So sweeping were the changes that resulted that it is now difficult for people even to imagine work arrangements significantly different from those which we have inherited under the regimen of industrial society. The self-sufficiency of the traditional household gave way to dependence on wage labour, which had previously been despised and strongly resisted. The locus of economic work moved from the household to the factory. While initially the hardship of the times required the involvement of women and children in factory work, as it still does in many contexts where industrialisation is still developing, eventually a family division of labour was created in which men undertook waged labour while women performed unpaid domestic work. Illich (1981) refers to this unpaid work which is the necessary complement of industrial production, as shadow work. He argues that this shadow work led to the domestic enclosure of women and to a form of alienation which, although distinct from that created by wage labour, was no less severe in its effects.

 Factory workers were also subjected to new patterns of authority, new work disciplines and new attitudes to time. Kumar (1984) notes that factory workers in 19th century Europe worked 70 and 80 hour weeks. It took 100 years for them to return to working hours equivalent to the guildsmen who were their medieval forebears. This period was also marked by a significant change in the relationship between workers and machines. As workers shifted from being the subject of the production process to adapting to the demands of large scale machines, the character of economic work was drastically transformed. Alexander Miller describes some of these challenges: By the end of the 18th century, the strong Puritan discipline had been emasculated in the interests of unregulated money-getting and adapted to become the ideology of a predatory industrialism, while the workers whom it had tutored to obedience were taken out of the patriarchial household and put to work at the machines, machines whose authority was to become as absolute as that of the old Puritan proprietors, and a good deal less considerate. It was the beginning of an enslavement. (Miller 1953: 126)

An observer says: "While the engine runs, the people must work - men, women and children are yoked together with iron and steam. The animal machine - breakable in the best cases, subject to a thousand sources of suffering - is chained fast to the iron machine which knows no suffering and no weariness." (Quoted in Hammond 1926: 208) At the same time as the industrialised world embarked on this process of rapid change, the Church began to lose influence among the working classes. Because it wanted to retain the patronage of the industrial nouveaux riches, the church did not interfere to challenge the ruthless exploitation of workers. This passivity was reinforced by the fact that the church failed to promote an ethic that would encourage workers to stand up and fight for better wages and conditions. Instead it was still promoting an anachronistic ethic of docility.

According to Tawney the church had ceased to engage in any critical analysis of the established economic order (Tawney 1938: 194-196). Miller maintains Tawney’s criticism doesn’t go far enough. It was not just an intellectual failure, but far more. And the contemporary church inherits this disaster. It has never really regained the ability to speak decisively to the concerns of workers in theory or in practice (Miller 1953: 127). In part Evangelicalism attempted to redeem the position by importing a measure of meaning and community into working-class life; but the Methodist leaders ended up at odds with the Chartists and so, according to Miller, while the "chapel" produced religious and political forces which mitigated the worst effects of industrialism (notice the connection between chapel and the industrial organisations of labour), yet in another aspect of it both the evangelical and modern missionary movements represent a diversion - a "spiritualisation" if you like - of the Reformation drive for the provisional sanctification of secular life. (Miller 1953: 127)

Historians still debate the extent to which Methodism ought to be accorded a positive role in the origins and development of working class movements (Scotland 1997: 37-38). Scotland maintains that Methodism at least taught the labouring classes a form of protest and leadership and organizing skills (Scotland 1997: 48). But organized political protest came from the radical fringes of Methodism rather than its heart. There was no strongly critical social ethic to inspire the masses to challenge the status quo. It is significant to note that William Carey, who would help to launch the modern missionary movement in 1792, was encouraged to become a cobbler because his father feared the dire effects of work at the cotton-mill. Already it seems people were despairing that British industrial life would be responsive to Christian or humane concerns. Yet Carey and others discerned the possibility of responsiveness to the Christian message among people in pre-industrial societies overseas. Thus, at the same time the foreign missionary movement was advancing during the 19th century, the church on the home front was losing its influence in societies becoming ever more industrialised.

To workers who were reacting to the tyranny of machines and striving to keep their humanity intact, the church seemed to offer only well worn traditional responses. The church denounced attempts to escape through debauchery or revolution. But it failed to proclaim any other insightful or compelling interpretation of events from a Christian perspective that offered hope. Certainly there were some voices for Christian Socialism raised among the Establishment, and some elements of non-conformity had a hand in the early labour movement, but generally the picture is one of ‘the more industry, the less church,' until by the beginning of the twentieth century main-line Protestantism was largely alienated from the urban masses on both sides of the Atlantic (Miller 1953: 128).

 Gamble profiles a number of English reformers and movements associated with them, but he concludes that in spite of their prophetic activities, ‘The society in which they lived, and even the Church of which they were members, never really accepted their example' (Gamble 1991: 49). Ultimately the churches ‘failed to understand, to communicate with and to care for the working classes' (Gamble 1991: 43). According to Max Weber, ‘the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs' (Weber 1970: 182). Alexander Miller concludes that the idea of duty in one’s calling ‘survives for the middle-classes in the idea of stewardship which is the fruit of evangelicalism, but for the manual worker it scarcely survives at all' (1953: 128).

Miller makes this statement in the context of pleading for a critical restatement of the doctrine of vocation as it comes from Luther through Calvin and Puritanism. He acknowledges that the received doctrine was directed too exclusively to the relationship between a particular person and their work. The social matrix in which the work was done was taken for granted and assumed to be both wholesome and self-regulating. It was assumed that if each person worked well everyone would profit. Any warnings were directed at individual motivation and not at social issues. Proprietors were warned against the dangers of greed and ostentation. Workers were warned against sloth and envy. But the relationship between work patterns and developing social relationships and issues of social justice were not explored. Nor were these connected with faith issues or spiritual concerns. Also the high ethic of responsibility which was given its last influential formulation by the Puritan divines was developed in a way that only made sense to those in professional and middle-class occupations, and even then was interpreted much too narrowly.

The doctrine of vocation expressed in this way made no sense to the industrial worker. It implied a measure of responsibility and freedom of choice and public influence that few workers enjoyed. Hence it would be developments through the thinking of Hegel and Marx that would connect more strongly with the everyday realities of working life for industrial labourers.

Excerpt from Faith and Work - A Thesis in Pastoral Theology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, Dec. 1997 by Alistair Mackenzie. faithatwork.org.nz.            Content distributed by HisChurchatWork.org > used for non-profit teaching purposes only.


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