Family and home.
“I don’t care what they do in their private life… as long as they can get the job done.” A lot of people today see no problem in disconnecting their private life from their public one. But it disturbs many Christians. Rightly so. Yet believers might be contributing to this dilemma. Beginning in the nineteenth century, some Christians began to consider the family and home “the most sacred place.” What’s wrong with that?
The idea of the nuclear family as a residential unit was largely non-existent before the sixteenth century, according to McGill University architecture professor Witold Rybczynski. A private home was a luxury few could afford. Most families squatted in the squalor of emerging cities or eked out a living as farmers and tradespeople. Children were often sent away at a young age to live and work with others or they stayed and contributed to the workforce along with unrelated servants or apprentices.1 In this agricultural age, homes were the building blocks of society, a nation’s economic engine. But the rise of science, technology and the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution would change all that.
The biggest change churning out of the Industrial Revolution was women staying home while men went to work in dark and dangerous factories. The English poet William Blake (1757-1828) captured this convulsion in his famous poem, “The New Jerusalem.” It’s an ode to “England’s pleasant pastures” being blackened by the soot spewing from “these dark Satanic Mills.” Bring me my charriot of fire! wrote Blake, calling Christians to build the New Jerusalem on “England’s green and pleasant land” – not in the cities.
In this new world, the home became a sanctuary rather than a building block. “From the 1830s on, moral reformers argued that the family home was a key to a Christian life. In a crass and stormy world, fathers would carry out the grubby business of earning money, and mothers would make the home a refuge where the family could pray and grow spiritually,” writes Alexander von Hoffman, an historian and specialist in housing and urban affairs as well as a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies since 1997.2 It was during the Industrial Revolution for example that men began to describe their work as a “job” – an old English word for “criminal activity.”3
Many American churches piggybacked on this peculiar view of dividing home from work. Sociologist Robert Bellah calls it “the cult of domesticity” that sprang up as Christians considered their home a “sacred place” while work was something that men put up with.4 This made religion a significantly privatized experience writes Bellah.5 Home became “a haven in a heartless world” as nineteenth-century reformers thought that urban boarding houses and apartment buildings lacked the sort of privacy and purity needed to raise children well. In this setting, Christians carved out a private life disconnected from the public one.
“The prospect of possessing one’s own house,” wrote George B. Emerson in 1871, “and that a pleasant one, with a garden and trees, and room for the children to play, in safety, must be a strong motive with any man to regularity, good conduct, and economy.”6 Emerson (1797-1881) was the first principal of the first English High School in the United States and a distant cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He believed that the home was “the most sacred place for man and for woman, and especially for children” because it developed the Victorian virtues of “truthfulness, industry, order, frugality, reverence, purity, and self-control.” The home became more sacred than other places except church.
This doesn’t have to be the end of the story. In the ancient Judeo-Christian faith, home and family matter but they’re not the most sacred place. Scripture talks about patterns more than places. “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:4-7). A walk characterizes the sacred, not four walls. Designating our homes and churches as havens in a heartless world overlooks the reality that God is everywhere. Every place can be sacred.
The good news is that over the last forty years Christians have highlighted the sacredness of marriage and the home. Why not highlight the sacredness of what most people do for most of their waking hours – work? Why not start small groups specifically for people in the workplace, such as educators, artists, investors, and business professionals? Until Christians recognize that every place can be a “sacred place,” we’re furthering the disconnect between the private and public life. Then when friends say they don’t care what others do in their private life, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.
Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea (New York, NY: Penguin, 1987).
2 Alexander von Hoffman, “Home Values Are Down, and Not Just at the Bank,” Washington Post, July 20, 2008; B01.
3 C. f., Andrew Kimball, “Breaking the Job Lock,” Utne Reader, January/February, 1999, Vol. 35: 24-28.
4 For more on this important trend, see Carl Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 26-51; Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151-74; Richard Sennett, Families Against the City: Middle Class Homes of Industrial Chicago, 1972-1890 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970); and Kirk Jeffrey, “The Family as Utopian Retreat from the City: The Nineteenth Century Contribution,” Soundings 55 (1955):21-40.
5 Robert Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1996).
6 Alexander von Hoffman, “Home Values Are Down, and Not Just at the Bank,” Washington Post, July 20, 2008; B01.