The ever-changing family

Published 11:30 am Thursday, September 11, 2014

A new study released last week has detailed the decline of the “traditional” family.

In the 1950s, 65 percent of children were raised in households with a caregiver mother and a breadwinner father. Economists have called that nuclear family the most efficient family model, and many people today long to return to those values.

Today only 22 percent of children are raised in that environment, according to the report by the Council on Contemporary Families.

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The tradition of the nuclear family, as it turns out, is a relatively modern creation.

“The people who say this is traditional Christianity, those people don’t know their history before 1950 because the church — the overall Christian churches — were never pro-family for the first 1,500 years of existence,” says Yale professor Dr. Dale B. Martin in an online lecture series about reading the New Testament as works of ancient history.

Martin is the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale and is an expert in history of the early Christian church and the Greco-Roman world. He has a doctorate in religious studies from Yale, a masters in divinity from the Princeton Theological Seminary is a practicing member of the Episcopal Church, for those questioning his credentials as a scholar or as a Christian.

Up until the Protestant reformation, the official position of the church preferred celibacy to procreation in or out of marriage. People who could not overcome their sexual urges, the official position of the church said, were allowed to be married and have children. After children were born, it was believed that the higher virtue was to return to celibacy. The same goes for people whose spouses had died.

“When people talk about traditional family values being the traditional Christian way, they’re not talking about Christianity as it existed from the time of Jesus all the way up until about 1600,” Martin says. “And even then from 1600 up until 1950 the ideal form in Christianity was not the nuclear family but some kind of household.”

When Puritan settlers came to America, for example, their towns were organized into households that were run by a man. Under him were his wife, children, servants and other free people also connected with the household.

Adults who weren’t married were discouraged from living alone and were regularly placed into other households by town fathers.

Census forms dating back to the early 20th century also show that this form of family household was quite common here in Warren County. Even in the 1940 census, this form of household was not uncommon here.

The nuclear family that we today view as being so traditional, didn’t really establish itself until the 1950s, Martin argues.

“When people talk about that being the Christian thing, they’re forgetting the vast sweep of Christian history,” he says.

I’ll leave the theological discussion to someone else, but when it comes to history, I agree with Martin that our idea of traditional family isn’t so traditional.

Josh Edwards is a reporter and can be reached by email at or by phone at 601-636-4545.