Lecture Four

Finding the Alliance in Historical Context

We have spent some time trying to understand Simpson and his spiritual experiences but clearly Simpson cannot be understood in isolation. His own experience was shaped and formed by the religious and social environment of the late 19th century. Simpson lived in an age of transition and the Alliance was in many ways a creative response to these transitions. One might argue, with a good deal of validity, that every age is an age of transition. But the later half of the 19th century marked a change which was to transform North American society, and indeed the world in decisive ways. Industrial production and the new social and economic relationships which accompanied it brought changes we are still working out. The current suggestion that we are entering a post-industrial, information age is signaling changes as far reaching and as profound as those experienced in the early years of the 19th century. As we consider how we might take the Alliance into the 21st century, we might be able to learn something from the ways in which the early Alliance addressed the needs of the late 19th.

The world as we know it came into being during this period of rapid industrialization. Accompanying industrial production came mass movements from rural to urban areas, a revolution in transportation and communication, railways, and the telegraph, which seem rather primitive now, were great advances in their time. Between 1870 and 1900 the United States moved from a rural agricultural inward-looking society to a urbanized, industrialized society with a new appreciation of its economic power that raised interest in what was happening around the world. These changes came a little later in Canada but were fully in place by 1920. Simpson's life of active ministry began in the 1860s in a somewhat out of the way agrarian backwater in colonial British North America. By the time of his death in 1919, North America had decisively entered the world scene in World War One, a network of railways ensured comfortable year round travel and the influence of the rural Protestant vision of reality had given way to hard edged urban industrial and increasingly secular vision of reality.

British historian Peter Laslett has captured the significance of the changes that were brought by industrialization in a book entitled, The World We Have Lost.1 His thesis is that with the advent of industrial production, we lost a whole way of life; everything was changed by the processes of industrial production. This sounds somewhat melodramatic but helps us see the profound nature of the changes which were rapidly overtaking a whole society.

One of the obvious changes brought by industrialization was the manufactory - or factory production. Something as straight forward as introducing a new place of work had far reaching implications for the nature of work and of family life. Pre-industrial work was focused on small household or agricultural production. The focus of work and the place of work was the home. If you were a craftsperson, say a shoemaker, all of the activity having to do with making shoes would happen in the household and the end product would likely be sold out of the household as well. Typical pre-industrial production would take place at the back of the house which served as the workshop, the front of the house would be the store, and the family would live upstairs. Production and retail sales, family life, work life, and leisure were integrated together.

Not only did the place of work change with industrialization, the nature of work and the experience of time changed as well. In the pre-industrial world, the passage of time tended to revolve around the natural events like planting and harvesting, the rising and setting of the sun. It did not make a lot of sense to work much after the sun went down because lighting was difficult. In agricultural production, there was a natural rhythm to life. There were intensive times of work like planting and harvest when you worked all the time and other periods when there was not a lot to do. Work was something done in an integrated way as part of the family in which every member had some productive role. Without machines everything was labour intensive so everyone had a part--women, children, men.

With the coming of industrial production, all this changed. To make production more efficient, it was moved out of the household and into the factory. Increasingly work became something men did away from the home rather than something the whole family did together around the home. The experience of time began to change as well. Now work meant tending machines and machines could function twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Time was no longer experienced in the rhythms of intense work, leisure and then more intense work and so on. It had a constant level of intensity as humans were conditioned to keep pace with the machine. The nature of work changed. The way we thought about leisure changed. As a result, there developed a very distinct separation of life into public and private spheres. What was once a fairly integrated life of family, business, work, leisure, religion and community now became separated. This separation became deeper and more profound through the next century.

At this point let's try to make this somewhat interactive. The origins of our understanding of the public and private spheres go back to these changes in the early to mid-19th century. In the columns provided below type in the key components of public life and of private life under the appropriate headings. When you have finished click on "Go on!" to get my attempt at reproducing a blackboard chart. (I'm trying to stay with the Virtual Classroom motif, even if this is an independent study module.)


Carry on!