The Problems of Industrializing Victorian America

Victorianism in Social and Religious Life  

The turn of the century was a time of great social and political change due to the growing industrialization of society and its clashes with traditional Victorian values of the nineteenth century.  The children of that age were instilled with strong ideas of individualism in both work and the salvation of their souls. The prevailing attitude in social and economic life proclaimed the glories of the American dream: anyone who worked hard enough could find success and attain any level of financial prosperity.  Susan Curtis characterized the ideals of the time in a popular proverb: "Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost."  Therefore, anyone not enjoying a degree of success in life suffered so because he was not working hard enough. This was taken to the extreme, for even if a hard-working factory laborer could not feed his children, it was because he was too lazy to work; this was the only reasonable conclusion for this society that believed anyone could choose from birth whether or not to achieve.  Victorian attitudes permeated American Protestantism as well, as was exhibited in the stark individualism of the Second Great Awakening.  Curtis suggests that Victorian religion was based on self-mortification and observance of social decorum.  Therefore, men and women measured any spiritual exercise by the extent to which it denied oneself personal comforts and pleasures.  Ethics meant an imperative to conduct oneself in a socially acceptable manner more than adhering to a particular moral system.[1]

Value Deconstruction: Industrial America

Since the Puritans first landed at Massachusetts Bay, American Protestants enjoyed the fruit of a healthy work ethic which they believed was an integral part of serving God. Men who wished to fulfill his requirements were careful to learn shrewd, efficient work and management skills, and apply themselves to their secular calling. Good work and faithful stewardship were inherently Christian values, and Puritans saw such virtuous living pay off as they enjoyed financial prosperity and better standards of living as they built the foundations of New Englandís Christian civilization. Those attitudes remained foundational to American religious thought: Individual piety led to corporate holiness just as the hard work of the individual would without fail lead to material and financial success. This was the rule of Godís economy that had been proven by the Puritan lifestyle, and as infallible as his laws of physics.[2]

The growth of industry denied all of these hallowed truths. Curtis says that life at the beginning of the twentieth century was dominated by "an increasingly industrialized, bureaucratized, urban economy." In years past, men provided for their families by the work of their own hands. Women managed the household and raised the children. Men and women alike went to factories in search of more money for their families and the opportunities of urban life and found overwork, small wages and unfair employers. They suffered willingly, however, for as the industrial economy grew, neither farms nor cottage industry could support families as they could in the previous century. Men, women and children worked in factories not for themselves, but for the factory owners. In contrast to the individualistic work ethic that drove society into industrialization, labor was no longer individual, but cooperative, and the workers found exploitation in industry rather than personal fulfillment. The promise of industrial capitalism to bring men and women into a more prosperous and fulfilling future was not being fulfilled by the system it created and people were caught between their long-held worldviews and a rapidly changing society on all levels. Aside from industrialization, Victorian values were also being challenged by massive immigration, which brought into the country a variety of European Christian traditions that differed widely from the tenants of American Protestantism. The new discipline of higher biblical criticism and the theories of Freud and Darwin shook the structures by which Americans thought of Godís Word and his creations. The emerging American working class was hurting and confused, and their clergy scrambled for answers.[3]

Kyle Potter, March 2001
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[1] Susan Curtis, A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins UP, 1991), 75, 133.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Ibid., 7, 18.