Heath W. Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University. His book, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, was published this month by Oxford University Press. In it, Carter credits the working people of turn-of-the-century Chicago with the advocacy and gradual success of the Social Gospel.
ECM: Your book focuses on Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when social Christianity was championed by working people rather than established clergy. In fact, the two groups were often at odds.
HWC: That’s exactly right. While many think of the Social Gospel as a creation of the middle classes, the book argues that it was in fact working people who fueled its rise in industrializing cities such as Chicago. Throughout the Gilded Age the institutional churches were anything but bastions of progressive reform. Clergy of nearly every denomination eyed the era’s fledgling working-class movements with deep suspicion and, in many cases, outright alarm.
There were a number of reasons for this. Protestant ministers enjoyed close ties—social, political, financial, and more—to Chicago’s industrial elite, which predisposed them to be skeptical of trade unionism. In the turbulent 1870s and 1880s, as the rank and file, increasingly predominated by the foreign born, repeatedly took its protest to the streets, Protestant leaders called for violent suppression of “the mob.”
The Catholic hierarchy was less prone to such nativist excesses and yet harbored deep reservations of its own about organized labor. Even as the Vatican articulated growing support for unions in encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, many a prelate worried that they might prove a gateway out of the Church and into the clutches of godless radicalism.
This tale of churchly opposition to the early labor movement is a relatively familiar one. What’s new in Union Made are the stories of printers, glovemakers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, and the like, who insisted that trade unionism was fully compatible with Christian faith.
More than that, these ordinary believers argued that God was on the side of the worker and that, therefore, those churches which had arrayed themselves against labor had in fact abandoned the true gospel. Intellectually, the clergy were inclined to reject such views out of hand, so workers devised another strategy to get their attention. Leveraging the working classes’ allegiance, they warned that they would have nothing to do with the churches unless the latter changed their collective tune on “the labor question.” Increasingly gripped by anxiety about a potentially catastrophic loss of influence, church leaders finally caved.
At the turn of the century—a generation after workers had first started preaching and practicing social gospels—denomination after denomination embraced the conservative brand of labor reform promoted by the American Federation of Labor. Social Christianity was union made, indeed.
ECM: The alignment of theology with class appears pretty stark. You document the growth and ornamentation of church buildings as wealthy industrialists began filling the coffers, as well as the practice of charging “pew rents,” which was new to me. Is it fair to say that these Gilded Age churches had “sold out” to the upper class?
HWC: That was certainly what many working people argued. There is no question that, as industrial warfare broke out across the late-19th-century United States, the Protestant elite sided almost exclusively with capital. Of course, even that way of putting it makes it sound like the two could be differentiated, when in many cases they could not.
In the book I discuss how Chicago’s wealthiest citizens predominated on Protestant church boards and vestries. In the early 1870s, for example, the First Congregational Church’s 14-member governing council boasted at least one prominent attorney, two influential physicians, two insurance moguls, two lumber tycoons, and two grain commissioners, one of whom was also the President of the Board of Trade.
The church paid its pastor, E. P. Goodwin, a $5,000 salary—more than ten times the earnings of the average worker—and there were other fringe benefits besides, including lucrative investment opportunities. One member at First Congregational, who was also a leading man on the Board of Trade, advised Goodwin to invest in his watch company rather than the mines. The pastor did so and received a congratulatory note in advance of a handsome dividend.
Given such material realities, working-class believers were hardly taken aback when someone like Goodwin vociferously opposed labor. During an 1885 streetcar strike, he vowed from the pulpit, “The police should clear the streets if they leave a corpse at every step.” His words earned “the silk stocking board of trade preacher” much enmity in working-class circles. One critic wrote to the Knights of Labor—borrowing a line from Sam Jones, a famed late-19th-century evangelist— “‘Hell is full of just such Christians as that.’”
Yet the “sold out” paradigm may oversimplify the dynamics at play in the sense that the alliance between the religious and economic elites was about more than money. They inhabited a shared social world within which it was difficult to imagine labor as anything other than dangerous and threatening.
Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.