The Industrial Revolution changed many aspects of daily life for a large segment of the population in Europe, and later in North America. These changes prompted changes in religious life.
Religious institutions found new ways to carry out their old tasks: education, care for the poor, and caring for the spiritual concerns of ordinary people as they faced the challenges of life.
As spiritual leaders experimented with new forms of caring for people, some of these attempts were more successful than others, as historians Hans Hillerbrand and Martin Marty write:
The Lutheran churches in Europe in the 19th century also engaged in what they called “inner mission,” the effort to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor and downtrodden, especially those who had been marginalized by the Industrial Revolution. Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808–81) was the great organizer of this work in Germany. Under his aegis, the inner mission movement established local branches throughout Germany. Although the Lutheran churches thus ameliorated some of the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, they did not adequately address the vast demographic and social changes it had caused. The common people, therefore, became increasingly alienated from the church, which they perceived as being allied with the state.
In the city of Hamburg, Johann Wichern founded his charitable institution which still operates today, educating and feeding the poor, offering medical assistance and counseling.
Johann Wichern is also known for inventing the “Advent Wreath,” a circle of greenery laid horizontally on a tabletop, with three purple and one pink candle placed equidistant around its circumference and a white candle placed in the middle.
These attempts in Europe were parallel to efforts in England and in the United States, when Christian organizations like the YMCA and Salvation Army were likewise addressing the social needs which were caused by the living circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.
But, as noted, some efforts in continental Europe failed to gather momentum because in the mind of the public, they were linked, correctly or not, to the government. They were therefore not perceived as an authentic expression of a charitable impulse.
By contrast, the Red Cross, which was also started in Europe, was successful and spread quickly to other parts of the world. It was seen as a successful application of distinctively Christian principles to the new conditions of the Industrial Revolution.