The Christian Home in Victorian America,1840-1900

by Robert L. Griswold

Volume VII, Number 2
Winter, 1988

The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900. Colleen McDannell. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)

Colleen McDannell's fine book, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900, adds important new insights to our understanding of domestic ideology in nineteenth-century America. Without question, the most original feature of her study is a sustained comparison between Protestant and Catholic concepts of domesticity, a comparison long overdue and one McDannell performs admirably. In the wake of McDannells's study, historians can no longer casually assume that domestic ideology was simply a Protestant phenomenon. Catholic moralists worked out their own variant, one that shared important features with Protestant domesticity but one that differed in important ways as well.

The emergence of nineteenth-century domestic ideology has been thoroughly analyzed by a variety of scholars. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, the home was becoming a center of social interaction directed by women.1 This transformation of the home was just underway when the American Revolution politicized women's traditional domestic sphere. Women's mundane domestic tasks were now elevated, modernized, and ideologically tied, via the concept of Republican Motherhood, to the future of the country. Mothers now had the responsibility to rear virtuous, republican-minded sons and daughters who would insure the future success of the republic. To do so required a measure of education and an understanding of the malleability of the child's character.2

What brought domestic ideology to full fruition, however, was not the Revolution but the decline of the corporate household economy and the emergence of nascent industrialization, a process that increased the formal separation of men's and women's worlds. Men's work, especially among the urban middle class, became increasingly separate from the home while married women's lives became increasingly home-bound and distant from the world of wage labor.3

In the midst of such change, an ideology of domesticity began to emerge that reflected middle class fears of disorder. Beset by changing economic, demographic, ethnic, and class relationships, the middle class responded with a series of female dominated revivals and reform associations that helped forge the ideology of domesticity. In these reform groups, women tightened the religious bond between mothers and children and carved out more expansive responsibilities for mothers. What remained was to shift the moral responsibilities and the exalted view of mothers and children that developed in the associations to the domestic sphere itself, a shift that came with the mid-century emergence of an industrial, heterogeneous, increasingly individuated society and the consequent retreat of the middle class into the private safety of the home.

Beset with new anxieties, the middle class transferred the new standards of social purity, self-control, sexual continence, and temperance - first developed in the associations of the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s - to the private sphere, there to become the special province of mothers who provided a shelter from the "storms of democratic liberty." The home and the women therein now had high moral purpose: while men dominated life in the marketplace and monopolized legal and political power, women reared virtuous, morally sound children and tried to create an island of calm amidst the strife and contention of the world beyond the home.

The origins of domestic ideology, then, can be traced to the social changes that accompanied the emergence of proto-industrial and then industrial society in the years after 1800. To this analysis McDannell adds little, but such is not her purpose. What she succeeds in doing is to deepen our understanding of the role religion played in shaping assumptions about Victorian domesticity. Religious sentiment was at the very heart of domesticity, and we can thank McDannell for charting the features of both Protestant and Catholic visions of Christian homelife. By examining the architecture, rituals, artifacts, and modes of authority of Protestant and Catholic homes, McDannell illuminates entirely new dimensions of nineteenth-century domesticity.

The originality of her work is especially evident in her analysis of "Domestic Architecture and the Protestant Spirit." The Christian spirit resided not only in the hearts of the inhabitants but in the very beams of the house. Architectural critics believed that properly planned homes would inspire filial and fraternal affection and foster sound morality in the family. To accomplish such worthy goals, architects designed homes that clearly demarcated husbands, wives, and children's areas; in so doing they gave concrete expression to the separation of men's and women's spheres characteristic of the wider society. Likewise, porches, verandas and large lawns separated the family from society but in a way that did not entirely cut it off from proper neighborliness. Most important, the Gothic Revival of 1840-1870 made explicit the connections between domestic architecture and a religiously inspired domesticity. Combining the naturalism, emotion, and sentiment of the Romantic movement with a successful effort to de-Romanize Gothic architecture, architects designed homes meant to inspire Protestant devotion and high morals, a desire most evident in Catherine Beecher's design of a house that could be quickly converted into a church.

The home, in short, became a sacred symbol that helped mediate between public and private, nature and culture, young and old, and men and women. McDannell's analysis of the last of these mediations was especially insightful. The ideal home physically embodied the cultural assumptions of domesticity. Women and men lived in different spheres, and the good Christian home ideally reflected and reinforced this separation. But the author is quick to point out that most writers and architects gave scant attention to another important opposition - the relationship between work and leisure. The home may well have been a place of quiet and repose for men; for women, however, it was fundamentally a place of work. One gender's oasis of calm, after all, may well be the other's place of employment. Significantly, only Catherine Beecher emphasized the importance of the home as a workplace and sought ways to make women's housework more efficient and productive, a fact in keeping with those who portray Beecher as a domestic feminist.

McDannell is on to something important here, but she chooses not to expand the point. Gothic revival architecture reflected middle-class fears and aspirations and male desires, but it had little to say about the day-to-day content of women's lives. Certainly there were special rooms for women and children; admittedly the Gothic house "portrayed feminine virtues by its cozy nooks, bay windows, and delicate bargeboard carvings"; but in the last analysis these nods to feminine sensibilities could not obscure the basic inattention to women's domestic work responsibilities. With the exception of Beecher's work, the idealized domestic designs of most architects met the needs of men better than those of women. Only later in the century would feminist architects finally turn to the design of homes with truly liberating possibilities for women.4

The Gothic cottage and the religious artifacts that filled it were financially out of reach for most Catholic immigrants, but they, too, ultimately constructed an ideology of domesticity, one that emerged almost fifty years after its Protestant counterpart. The delay, McDannell suggests, can be attributed to the slow development of a Catholic middle class. By the last two decades of the century, however, the Catholic middle class began shaping its own variant. Just why Catholic domesticity developed is of less interest to McDannell than the shape it took, and her comparison of Catholic and Protestant domesticity is the strongest part of her book.

Without question, Catholics shared with Protestants some key values: both saw the family as the key to social order and emphasized the importance of proper morality, order, and religious sentiment within the home; each agreed that appropriate work for women must not take them beyond the domestic sphere. So, too, both viewed the purchase and display of Christian artifacts as symbols of refinement and class respectability. But just why such convergence occurred is not clear. On the one hand, McDannell suggests that Catholic domesticity grew out of the real needs of the Irish in modern urban America. Migrating from rural villages, the Irish found middle class values useful in coping with industrial life: "Middle-class domesticity supported an industrial lifestyle of promoting order, division between work and leisure, and consumerism". On the other hand, the author suggests, somewhat implausibly to this reader, that Irish domestics - working in Protestant homes that enshrined the values of order, piety, purity, punctuality, reliability, discipline, and submissiveness - simply transported such values to their own domestic lives once they married. Quite clearly, a thorough study of the origins of Catholic domesticity remains to be done.

To McDannell, however, such issues are less important than an analysis of the many ways Protestants and Catholic conceptions of the home diverged: even if Catholic domesticity was in some important ways derivative, the ideology ultimately reflected distinctive Catholic and Irish assumptions and ideals. Catholic domesticity, for example, was more adult-centered than the Protestant version. Inspired by religious doctrine and high rates of child labor, Catholic writers placed adults, not children, at the center of home concerns. In fact, they decried the child-centered nature of Protestant domesticity and the baleful impact such devotion had upon proper lines of authority and family bonds.

This emphasis on authority carried over to male-female relations as well. The Catholic version of domesticity, McDannell tells us, was more patriarchal than the Protestant variant. Again, she has raised a provocative point she chooses to leave uncharted, but her suggestion throws into sharper relief the entire debate regarding the impact of domesticity upon women. One school contends that domesticity was a prison for women, "an intricate chain of myths" that left women standing on a pedestal, bereft of real power.5 Other scholars, however, reject this position and argue that domestic ideology - despite its contradictions and paradoxes - helped support women's claims for domestic equality, fueled women's struggle to redefine male behavior, speeded the shift to companionate family relationships, and legitimated women's involvement in missionary, charity, school, temperance, and anti-prostitution campaigns. McDannell's evidence suggests that this second interpretation may be the more accurate. Catholic ideologues certainly saw Protestant domesticity as a threat to male power: "Catholic writers," contends McDannell, "took pride in asserting their support of the patriarchal household over and against what they perceived as an increasingly feminized Protestant culture. Their promotion of the patriarchal nature of the home came into direct conflict with the general cultural understanding of women's proper sphere". Either Catholics were totally misinformed or Protestant domesticity helped to erode the foundation of patriarchal power.

These different perspectives on patriarchal power had complex origins. Among nineteenth-century Protestants, fathers still had priestly functions to perform within the household. Unlike Catholics who looked askance at home worship, Protestant writers supported prayer, Bible reading, and hymn singing at home, and ideally such observances would be led by fathers. And yet mid-century Protestants acknowledged that women were the driving force behind home religion: they set the tone for piety in the home; they saw to it that men performed their religious duties; they took over for the many fathers too indifferent or too busy to bother with religion. By the last third of the century, Protestant writers acknowledged the feminization of the church, extolled the religiosity of women, and made family religious instruction the province of mothers.

Catholicism, by contrast, underscored men's patriarchal power within families. Catholic writers like Orestes Brownson, for example, vigorously supported patriarchal power and dismissed American Protestantism as "a religion of gush" in need of masculine vigor. Catholic novelists, for their part, extolled the manliness of priests and lampooned the effeminacy of Protestant ministers or the brutality of Calvinist tyrants.

These attitudes grew out of distinctive aspects of Catholic culture. In part, the Catholic call for paternal leadership in home religion was a cry against "traditional Irish codes of masculinity". Irishmen's love for the camaraderie of the of the pub or their tepid commitment to the church might be overcome by calling men to the home - or at least to acceptable ethnic, benevolent, and religious associations - but in a way that reaffirmed, not undermined their patriarchal authority. McDannell here suggests a topic worthy of more research: domestic ideology had the power to redefine men, but the process may have been markedly different within the two faiths. Among Protestants, domesticity may have feminized men and reduced their patriarchal powers and prerogatives; among Catholics, the Christian home may have altered male social life without in any way diminishing male power.

Catholics and Protestants disagreed not only about men's roles in the home but also about women's responsibilities as domestic guardians. Protestant attitudes have been well documented by a host of scholars, and McDannell ably restates the maternal basis of Victorian Protestantism. God's fearsome qualities gave way to an emphasis on mercy and kindness, and women - innately imbued with the virtues of self-sacrifice, devotion, piety, and nurture - became God's emissaries on earth. In women resided moral power and natural religiosity; they had the power to redeem their husbands and sons; they had the ability to save society from its sins. As women's grip on Protestantism became more secure, religious education, home prayer, and even Sabbath observance became increasingly mother-directed and child-oriented.

Although Protestant and Catholic conceptions of Christian domesticity and maternal influence began converging as the century came to a close, Catholic women's situation was not identical with that of Protestants. Catholicism continued to maintain a rigid, hierarchial, patriarchal structure. Unlike Protestant ministers, Catholic priests had no need to ally with women in order to assume moral power. Consequently, as McDannell carefully explains, the moral leverage of Catholic women did not equal the power of Protestant women; moreover, the centrality of the Catholic Church to lay life drew power away from the family and "overwhelmed effort at informal, individual family worship and instruction". Finally, Catholic writers remained comfortable with the image of women as Eve, an image most Protestants had begun to question almost a century earlier: Catholic women's claims to virtue, therefore, were undercut by the suspicion that they were more susceptible to evil. Not until the end of the century did Catholic moralists adopt the Protestant assumptions that women were the key agents of redemption for their families.

This theme of Protestant and Catholic convergence is never fully developed, but it appears at several different points in the book. Greater affluence and access to middle-class occupations, an emphasis on maternal instruction, and promotion by Rome of the sanctity of the home eroded the traditional emphasis on church-related rituals and shifted emphasis to family piety and domestic instruction. No sooner was the convergence underway, however, than a host of forces - demographic, educational, sexual, occupational, and feminist - challenged the legitimacy of domestic ideology. How Catholics and Protestants differed in their response to this challenge remains to be written, but McDannell has succeeded in establishing the agenda for research into this important question.

McDannell's work is the first systematic analysis of Catholic domesticity, and for that reason alone the book deserves attention from all readers interested in the history of women and family life. But the author has also succeeded in showing why the study of religion - broadly conceived so as to include home architecture, domestic rituals, house ornamentation and artifacts, and styles of domestic leadership - is essential to understanding the cultural forces that sometimes drove Victorians apart but ultimately helped bring them together.


1Carole Shammas, "The Domestic Environment in Early Modern England and America," Journal of Social History, 14 (Fall 1980): 3-24. 

2Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary War Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston, 1980), 197-98, 243: Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, 1980), 47, 204-210, 227-229, 283-287. 

3My discussion of the emergence of domesticity has been shaped most forcefully by Mary Ryan's Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge, 1981). go back

4Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes (Cambridge, 1981). 

5Barbara Berg, The Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism: The Woman and the City, 1800-1860 (New York, 1978), p. 75