I have two masters students who are beginning their work on biblical responses to loneliness. I did some initial research on my own and found the concept of “loneliness” almost entirely missing from theology prior to the 20th century. John Newton in a song lyric, “The Prisoner” has this image:

When the poor pris’ner through a grate

Sees others walk at large,

How does he mourn his lonely state,

And long for a discharge!

 Newton, John, and Richard Cecil. The Works of John Newton. Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824, p. 605. Loneliness here is part ofthe punishment of a criminal, but apparently not a normal human condition.Thomas Boston says that being alone will be banished in heaven:

Heaven’s happiness must needs be unspeakable, in respect of the society there. The saints going thither shall no more be in a lonely condition, but have the pleasant society of other saints perfected, holy angels, the man Christ, and God himself. The society of saints here is very comfortable, how much more the general assembly of them in heaven?

 Boston, Thomas. The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: A Soliloquy on the Art of Man-Fishing. Edited by Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 5, George and Robert King, 1849, p. 411. He seems to be arguing that heaven will be even less un-lonely than here. Samuel Rutherford writes of someone pursuing Christ while others do not:

REVEREND AND DEAR BROTHER,—Ye know that this is a time in which all men almost seek their own things, and not the things of Jesus Christ. Ye are your lone, as a beacon on the top of a mountain; but faint not: Christ is a numerous multitude Himself, yea, millions. Though all the nations were convened against Him round about, yet doubt not but He will, at last, arise for the cry of the poor and needy.

 Rutherford, Samuel, and Andrew A. Bonar. Letters of Samuel Rutherford: With a Sketch of His Life and Biographical Notices of His Correspondents. Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1891, p. 703.

But this is not loneliness. Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads gives us, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” But it was a poem about voluntary solitude who finds himself in a “crowd” of flowers. But there is no actually loneliness in the poem.

Google N-Gram for loneliness shows the word almost non-existent in the early 19th Century only to gain dramatically after 1980. There is the UCLA Loneliness Scale which can be used to measure loneliness. An article in the New Yorker summarizes the proposition from three books which have examined the history of loneliness. According to one of the authors considered, loneliness seems to be modern product:

“Modern loneliness, in Alberti’s view, is the child of capitalism and secularism. “Many of the divisions and hierarchies that have developed since the eighteenth century—between self and world, individual and community, public and private—have been naturalized through the politics and philosophy of individualism,” she writes. “Is it any coincidence that a language of loneliness emerged at the same time?” It is not a coincidence. The rise of privacy, itself a product of market capitalism—privacy being something that you buy—is a driver of loneliness. So is individualism, which you also have to pay for.”

The author referenced has a TED talk which I will give a listen to.

The article and the authors quoted all seem to make a loneliness an economic product. And that must in part be true. Economics describes why we do not live in villages nor on farms nor even in crowded tenements if we can help it. But that does not explain someone living by themselves in an apartment. What is missing from this story is marriage.

In marriage, two people live together. One is not alone. Most often (and obviously not all instances), children come along to bring more people into the house. If there are families of origin nearby (the distance of extended family is an economic question), the grandparents will be involved. The children will bring in their own friends, and so on.

Thus, it seems to me that loneliness was made possible by the economic structures, but made actual by decline in marriage A quick review of Alberti’s book on loneliness mentions the medieval monk who did not feel “lonely” even when alone, because of how he conceptualized his solitude. Likewise, Wordsworth’s afternoon of solitude was not lonely. This would add a further element of loneliness to the loss of marriage. The monk had purposefully forsaken marriage for some task, and that task involved something quite meaningful. I should also mention, that the monk did not necessarily live in any sort of isolation unless he was in fact a hermit. And even then, the isolation was likely not absolute (some early desert fathers lived some bizarre forms of isolation).

Just some initial thoughts