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Topic: Eikon

A Cultural History of Fatherhood & Its Retrieval

June 8, 2021

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Eikon.

Over the past few years, voices in the evangelical world have decried the emasculation of men in the West, particularly within the Church. This concern has been laid at the foot of gender confusion and the rise of a militant feminism. But it strikes me that the central issue for men in the Western world is not so much emasculation (which seems to assume a Darwinian concept of life as struggle), as the diminishment of fatherhood and the loss of male friendship. These are huge topics. Allow me to tackle the first here, and the latter in a future column.

Over the past two centuries, there has been a steady recession of the social role of fatherhood. Fathers have either gradually moved or been moved from the heart to the margins of family life. Overall, the cultural story of fatherhood in the West has been essentially downhill since the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But at the outset of the long eighteenth century, fathers were regarded as primary and irreplaceable caregivers in the family.

The central role that fathers played in the nurture and flourishing of their children can be seen in five distinct ways:

(1) Throughout the eighteenth century, child-rearing manuals were generally addressed to fathers, not mothers.

(2) Until the early nineteenth century, when there was a divorce, it was the established custom to award the custody of children to their fathers.

(3) Throughout this period, it was fathers, not mothers, who were the chief correspondents with any children who lived away from home.

(4) Fathers were regarded as the primary influencers of the marital choices of their children and were responsible for the entry of children, especially sons, into the world outside the home.

(5) And most importantly, fathers had the primary responsibility for what was seen as the most essential of parental tasks: the religious and moral education of the children. As a result — rightly or wrongly — it would be the father who was praised or blamed for the eventual outcome of a child’s life.

Running an eye over this list, it does not require sociological smarts to realize that there has been a fundamental contraction of the concept of fatherhood in the past 300 years. Industrialization and the emergence of the modern economy led to the physical separation of home and work (though this current pandemic may well reverse this trend in part). No longer, as the neo-Freudian thinker Alexander Mitscherlich (1908–1982) once put it, could children typically acquire skills “by watching one’s father, working with him, seeing the way he handled things, observing the degree of knowledge and skill he had attained as well as his limitations.”[1] The absence of the father for much of the day led to a steady feminization of the domestic sphere.

Accompanying this radical change were a fistful of new ideas about the nature of gender and family life. Childhood, for example, came to be seen as a special stage of life that women were designed to supervise. Their nurturing capabilities were seen in distinct contrast to the outside world that was the sphere of men. As early as the 1830s, child-rearing manuals, now more often addressed to mothers, began to deplore the father’s absence from the home.

Of course, this contraction of the paternal sphere did not impact the Western world uniformly, yet the overall trend of the nineteenth century is clearly toward the shrinking of fatherhood. “Paternal neglect,” warned a New England pastor in 1842, was causing “the ruin of many families.”[2] By the twentieth century, many men were looking outside the home for the meaning of their maleness. In the words of David Blankenhorn, “masculinity became less domesticated, defined less by effective paternity and more by individual ambition and achievement.”[3] The fatherhood of men was reduced to one role: that of breadwinner. And this was challenged by the increasing number of women entering the workforce after World War II.

In fine, an eighteenth-century father would not recognize his counterpart in the twenty-first West. Our pressing challenge is to retrieve true fatherhood — and in this way rediscover a key element of masculinity.

Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin serves as Chair and Professor of Church History & Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also Professor of Church History at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario. 

[1] Alexander Mitscherlich, Society Without the Father: A Contribution to Social Psychology, trans. Eric Mosbacher (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & World, 1969).

[2] Cited David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 14.

[3] Blankenhorn, Fatherless America, 15.

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