John Calvin
Father of The
Industrial Revolution

Dateline: 25 November 2006

For the past twelve years I have been compiling information for a book that, God willing, I will write one day. It will be a book on the subject of work.

Such a book will not make me much money. It will be, like my most recent book, “Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian,” a book that I feel I must write and self-publish for reasons other than personal gain. So my book on work is upcoming, but not before I produce a few more how-to volumes.

This blog is, however, not about a book I hope to write someday. It is about something that I “uncovered” in my research into the subject of work. Namely, that John Calvin, the 16th century Christian theologian, challenged long-held beliefs about the subject of work and, by so doing, I believe John Calvin became the “Father of the Industrial Revolution.”

Such an assertion is something of a paradox. That’s because I think John Calvin’s theology was God-honoring, edifying, and generally good. It led to the founding of America (See my previous post here: “John Calvin: Father of America”) and the spread of Christianity. But I do not feel so warmly about the Industrial Revolution. The more I understand about what the corporate-industrial machine has done to the home, family, church, and God’s Earth, the less I like it.

That isn’t to say I think life was perfect before we had modern dentistry and other beneficial technological advances. What I’m saying is that something very, very good was lost when industrialism destroyed the agrarian culture of this nation. I think we need to see and understand what was lost and how it was lost (the root causes) so we can better order our lives.

That is why I embrace the concept of Christian agrarianism. I see it as a way of reclaiming home, family, and church from the destructive influence of our industrialized culture. But I’m getting ahead of myself… let’s first look at John Calvin and the subject of work…

Prior to Calvin, work was not considered a good thing. It was something the lower classes did. Anyone who was anyone didn’t do physical work. They lived lives of leisure and contemplation. They devoted themselves to music and poetry and literature and art. Such was their "higher calling." The lower classes did not aspire to much beyond their laborious lower class callings. That is something of a simplification, but it is, in a nutshell, the way it was.

Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers of 16th century Europe challenged all that. They postulated that work, physical work, was good, that God created man to work, that all men, regardless of their position in society, were called to work, that there was dignity in work, and that work was a form of worship. This teaching is best summed up in the term “Protestant work ethic.” It started with the Reformation Protesters. It started with John Calvin.

In my library I have the book, “The Work Ethic in Industrial America: 1850-1920.” Chapter One is titled, “Work Ideals and the Industrial Invasion.” Here are a couple quotes from the chapter:

“The taproot [of the new work ethic in America], as Max Weber suggested long ago, was the Protestant Reformation. Universalizing the obligation to work and methodizing time, the Reformers set in motion convictions that were to reverberate with enormous consequences through American history. At the heart of Protestantism’s reevaluation of work was the doctrine of the calling, the faith that God had called everyone to some productive vocation, to toil there for the common good and His greater glory.”


“Protestantism extended and spiritualized toil and turned usefulness into a sacrament. Zwingli’s benediction put the point succinctly: In the things of this life, the laborer is most like to God.”

Brought to American shores by the Pilgrims, Puritans, and Quakers, and applied to the fertile and resource-rich new land, the Protestant work ethic bore tremendous fruit. America was a place where a common man, through his diligent efforts, could not only do well for himself and his family, he could, through his tithes and offerings, build the church. Advancing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ was the original driving force behind the Protestant work ethic.

All of that is, in my opinion, good and right. But something went wrong. The Protestant work ethic had proven it would elevate quality of life. Unbelievers adopted the work ethic without the Protestant worldview. And, I'm sure, many Christians were led astray by the love of prosperity and the "good" things is brought. When the Industrial Revolution started to power its way onto the world stage, it was fueled by the Protestand work ethic.

Industrialism was embraced by the northern states beginning in the early 1800s. By the mid 1800s it was about bring revolutionary change to America . As the northern culture became more industrialized and wealthy, it started to move further and further away from its Christian-agrarian roots. The southern states had a different mindset. The southern culture rejected industrialism and held to it’s agrarian forms. This was a recipe for disaster. The rise of industrialism and its political self-interests led to a clash between the industrial north and agrarian south. Such was the original genesis of hostilities that led to the Civil War.

I know you and I were taught in government school that the Civil War was all about slavery. Well, it was not about slavery at the start. It was about a clash of cultures, agrarian vs industrial. Slavery became a central issue later in the clash. The Industrialized north won the war. The industrialized north instituted radical political and cultural changes.

My point here is that John Calvin’s Biblical theology of work changed the world. It changed it in a good way. But the seeds of his theology, improperly applied to work and business, fed the Industrial monster. As a result, America has gradually but surely moved away from its Christian roots. It is ironic, but that is what happened.

Can this industrial evolution that is taking us precariously close to cultural self-destruction (and that is exactly what we face) be averted? I think so. I pray so. The more important question is how do we stop the cultural decline before it leads, as it inevitably must, to the destruction of the nation?

The answer is found by going back in history—back to where we came to a branch in the road and went the wrong way. Back to before the Industrial Revolution, when people lived together and worked together and worshiped together in community, when families worked together and cared for each other (the family economy). In short, I believe we must go back to Christian agrarianism. It is the starting point for cultural renewal. It is the beginning of restoration.

If someone has a better idea, I’m open to hear it.


Xpi said...

"'The taproot [of the new work ethic in America], as Max Weber suggested long ago, was the Protestant Reformation.'...My point here is that John Calvin’s Biblical theology of work changed the world. It changed it in a good way."
[17] So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.
[18] A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
[19] Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
[10] For the love of money is the root of all evils...
SOMEHOW, the interior life became disconnected from work; a perversion of the doctrine of sola fide. Works, for Calvin were seen as the proof of faith and justification not the cause thereof. But I believe the mystery is deeper than Calvin taught, so that while, as Calvin says scripture has Abraham justifed fifteen years before Issac's birth so that therefore it could not be the sacrificing of his son that justified him, Calvin passes over the teaching of Christ that even as a man thinks, so he is; that the desire and unwavering resolve to do is concomitant with the moment of grace when God commands or invites. This is sola gratia for God works both the will and the way, but not sola fide for at the same time as God commanded Abraham, Abraham was ready to obey and in spirit believed and obeyed all possible revelations of God even though Issac was not yet born. Even as a toddler resolves to walk, his parent lovingly supports him. Man is not quite dead (ag. total depravity) but the natural powers he posseses have all been given to him by the same God Who strengthens him by grace when he seeks to exercise this gifts.

Ezekiel Mossback said...

As "Dad" seems to indicate, this article overlooks some things about Calvin, and about pre-calvinist medieval culture.
Monasticism was long the embodiment of the biblical theology of work, and of anthropology. Benedictine monasteries, with a life of "ora et labora" were the center of village and regional life. Even though most people werent themselves monks, the economy was ordered around the monastery and parish.
With the rebirth of connections to the wider world, mercantilism and finance changed the orientation of the economy. It was no longer community oriented, but more abstract. This began a shift to statism and nationalist thinking.
Calvin was just one of a long line of "reformers", the most articulate example of which was Joachim of Fiore and the Spiritual Franciscans who sought to universalize the monastic (agrarian) way of life.
The problem with Calvinism is that it denies the sacramental theology that was the foundation of monastic life. By denying the sacraments that are the living presence of Christ joining in with all creatures, Calvin made Christianity an abstract, determinist system. Calvin began the mechanistic view of the world that led, bolstered by Descartes, to the manipulative approach of the industrial revolution.

Anonymous said...

You have a lot of things backwards although you are correct that there is a tie in.

The question you have to ask yourself is this. Over the many thousands of years of human civilization, why didn't we have an Industrial Revolution already?

By rights, the Romans should have discovered electricity and created an Industrial Revolution. They certainly had the need for machines like a backhoe, for their road building and civic structures. But, they didn't. And I believe the reason is Christianity.

Unlike all the other major religions, with the possible exception of Islam, Christians are taught that it's our right to dominate the world, to remake it in our image. You would never hear an American Indian, for example, say that we need to build a Hoover Dam. Their mantra was being one with the world, with getting along with Nature, not trying to change it.

In order to change it, we needed to learn how it worked.

In my view there is little surprising that just about all the famous historical scientists came out of Christian backgrounds.

Christianity produced a society of people who were dissatisfied with their lot in life and were told that Heaven gave them the right to create a Heaven-on-Earth if they could just figure out how to do it. Jesus said life would be wonderful if we loved our enemy, he didn't say life would be wonderful if we loved the Earth and wanted to make sure all the little bunny rabbits had a nice place to live.