Many of modern man's most cherished ideas were first thoroughly developed and widely held during the 19th century. The two most obvious are the scientific hypothesis of Evolution and Freud's theories of psychology, but there were many others—a deep trust in the power of technological progress to improve the lives of people and even in some sense to save them first took firm root in the middle of the century, for instance.
Perhaps the most unsettling idea that began to take shape between 1801 and 1900 was that which suggested human beings deserve material wealth and the leisure time to enjoy it. This isn't quite the message of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (authors of The Communist Manifesto), but Communist doctrine is, at least in its purest form, concerned with the material satisfaction of all strata of society.
It was during the 19th century that people began to turn more and more from rural employment and occupations toward city jobs, largely in the form of factory shift work. Now their income was the result of fulfilling specific tasks during specific periods of each day, and in their free time there was nothing to do but spend the money they'd earned—no cows to milk, no vegetables to pick, fewer meals to make wholly from scratch.
Poverty was still a problem, and most of the urban workers made far less than was equitable, but what were workers supposed to do once their shift was over and they'd gone home? Whether it was innocent or vile, they really only had one choice: to entertain themselves. Or so most of them seemed to think, filling the bars, theaters, rec halls, and coffee shops of the cities with reckless abandon and throwing down their cash for shows or booze.
Church leaders had a hard time controlling their congregations. There were frequent revivals across the Western world, calling for men and women to give up the bottle and other destructive vices, and to come to church for spiritual formation. But the churches became less and less full, both because fewer people saw any reason to attend, and because the faithful found the new legalistic human-centered preaching unpalatable and unbiblical.
So Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution and Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams were really just heirs to the growing naturalism, codifying things people already seemed to believe as evidenced by their behavior. If God wasn't real, where did people come from but from lesser life forms? And if the soul was an invention of theologians, where did our motivations and impulses come but from deep within our unconscious minds?
These were questions churchmen found it increasingly difficult to answer. And, on the heels of the Enlightenment skepticism of the 18th century, a growing number of professed Christian theologians began publishing treatises and books explaining the non-supernatural origins of the so-called Word of God, the fallacies and untruths found within its pages, and the silliness of supernaturalism and orthodox Christian doctrine.
It wasn't so much that these men had a particular vendetta against Christianity, at least not any more than anyone who rejects the Gospel as true and powerful and life-changing; it was simply that they'd been duped along with everyone else to believe this world is the only world, and that God is an idea rather than a person or entity.
In the end, Friedrich Nietzsche (definitely not a churchman in any sense) made the observation that everyone had been toying with, and formally proclaimed God to be dead. Where was he, after all? Man had accounted for all things through the doctrines of naturalism, and in Communism they had even developed the hope of human salvation, moral and material betterment through collective effort.
How did these ideas develop? How did the West go from generally churched and at least theist to atheist and materialist? The most basic answer is that, with the breaking up of the state churches as forms of political power came the disillusionment of many who attended those churches, so that they realized the benefits they were looking for at church could be found elsewhere.
If church is only a place to go because you must, or because there is something to be had from association with it or its leaders, then once you no longer have to go there and the clergy are therefore no longer powerful, you'll stop going. It's a pretty simple equation, really, and most people were able to figure it out quickly. So any doctrinal, ideological, or moral influence the church once had was dissolved, and people turned to humanism.
There were still Christians around, of course, but it stopped being politically expedient to call yourself a Christian, so the many who were not stopped filling the pews. Those who did put their faith in Jesus Christ soon realized they needed real biblical teaching, and they flooded the few places it could be found, untainted by humanism and materialism.
All this sounds pretty bleak, no doubt, but there were reasons to rejoice even in the increasingly dim 19th century. Two of the greatest Christian heroes of all time were active during this period, both of them Englishmen, and both of them fervently devoted to the true Gospel, its dissemination, and the cultivation of disciples.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon stayed in England, preaching at his huge Metropolitan Tabernacle to thousands of eager listeners, many of whom were starved for biblical preaching. He'd begun his career as a pastor at the tender age of 18, but till his death at the age of 57 he never stopped preaching and the fire of holy devotion never stopped burning within him.
His contemporary Hudson Taylor was early consumed by a desire to bring God's Word to China, and began medical studies at the age of 18 to prepare for missions work. There had been missionaries to the East before Taylor, but few worked as tirelessly or with as much sympathy for the people to whom he witnessed and preached as him.
Christians know and believe the Holy Spirit is active in every age, turning men's hearts from their own self-absorption and sin to true communion with the Holy Trinity, and men like Spurgeon and Taylor prove this was so even in the darkness of the 19th century. Men will always run from the Father, and they will always invent new ways of doing so, but He will always have His way and effectually draw all those He calls.
In our own 21st century, in so many ways the direct result of ideas taking shape in the 19th century, we are to be no less vigilant in our spread of the Gospel and our devotion to righteousness and theknowledge of God. The ideas of naturalism and materialism have become thoroughly entrenched, but the power of theGospel is greater than any human philosophy, and is our only hope in this or any other age.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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