Wealth, socialism, and Jesus

by Janine Giordano Drake

Churches in the nineteenth century were divided on how to reach those affected by the new economy

“I believe in God, the Master most mighty, stirrer-up of Heaven and earth. And in Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth, born of the proletarian Mary, toiled at the work bench, descended into labor’s hell, suffered under Roman tyranny at the hands of Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. The power not of ourselves which makes for freedom, he rose again from the dead to be lord of the democratic advance, sworn foe of stagnancy, maker of folk upheavals. I believe in work, the self-respecting toiler, the holiness of beauty, freeborn producers, the communion of comrades, the resurrection of workers, and the industrial commonwealth, the cooperative kingdom eternal.”

Congregationalist minister Bouck White of New York City proclaimed this creed from the pulpit shortly after the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. A violent standoff between the United Mine Workers and three Rockefeller-owned coal mining companies in Ludlow, Colorado, led to the National Guard setting fire to a tent city of poor miners. Around 20 protesters and their families died of burning or asphyxiation.

In the eyes of White, the fact that John D. Rockefeller continued to preach Bible classes on Sundays demanded public attention; if Rockefeller was the Christian he claimed to be, his workers would not be starving and freezing in tents while he accumulated astronomical profits. That year, with a group of likeminded parishioners, White decided to visit the oil tycoon’s upper-class Baptist church and publicly shed light on Rockefeller’s Christianity. He was jailed for disorderly conduct.

For those of means on both sides of the Atlantic, the Victorian era brought unprecedented leisure and civic opportunities. Gentlemen could afford more time to read, more money to buy books, and more furniture to put in their parlors. They had more resources to build cathedrals, sponsor missionaries, and participate in local government.

Ladies had access to a pool of servants and wardrobes that demanded many social outings. They were well educated in literature, the arts, and scientific problem solving. Some remained single and entered one of the new professions open to women, including nursing, teaching, and social work. Others married men with handsome desk jobs, recruited servants to run their households, and participated in social reform to end poverty.

Wealthy Victorian Christians cared deeply about their responsibilities to participate in government and improve their world. Church-related societies dedicated to limiting alcohol, gambling, and prostitution joined those attempting to improve safety within factories, limit child labor, improve public schools, and build public parks and playgrounds. But many Anglo-Protestant Victorians (those with English and English-American heritage) did not consider at what cost their privileges came. To them, large banks, expanding railroad systems, well-paid desk jobs, and cheap consumer goods were unmistakable symbols of progress. But for immigrants, African Americans, and white rural migrants, industrialization meant long work hours, dangerous child labor, and a sharp decline in buying power. It created unprecedented distance between classes. And it prompted bitterly competing conclusions over Christ’s teachings on wealth.

Seeking the Kingdom

Christians questioned how believers ought to approach the fact that some business owners hoarded capitalism’s rewards, paying workers as little as possible. Protestant and Catholic clergy varied widely on this question. Industrialization so split the church that different classes arrived at completely different convictions on what the kingdom of God looked like, and how to get there.

From the viewpoint of many Protestant clergy, the professional and managerial classes were the Christians, while the working classes were the mission field. From the viewpoint of workers, however, the fact that most Protestants were in the professional class was no accident. In the late nineteenth century, enterprising white Protestants took deliberate steps to form exclusive social networks: college alumni associations, college fraternities, and perhaps most importantly, professional associations.

By limiting the entrance of new professionals through licensing, exams, and professional development, groups like the American Medical Association and state bar associations sharply limited the supply of professionals relative to the demand and kept opportunities to rise to professional status out of the reach of the vast majority of upstart immigrants and African Americans. As a result, jobs available to white, middle- and upper-middle-class Protestants rapidly increased in pay and social prestige relative to those of others. The working classes, meanwhile, had valuable skills: hatmaking, shoemaking, cigarmaking, weaving, dressmaking, welding, smithing, machine-building, and dozens of other crafts. Mastery usually came about after years of apprenticeship. By the early twentieth century, however, engineers and owners of growing factories attempted to replace expensive skilled workers with efficient assembly lines.

University-educated engineers were ultimately very successful at this. They recruited skilled workers into factories and observed them. There, they gleaned trade secrets, subdivided tasks, and automated production. Engineers called this act “scientific management” and claimed it benefited everyone. The centralization of work flow allowed for the efficiency of interchangeable parts and fewer “man hours” required to produce each final object. Machines often made final goods cheaper for consumers.

But profits earned through lowered overhead usually went to factory owners, and new machines required workers to have fewer skills, which meant less pay and negotiating power for them. Worse, de-skilled work—or as it was called, “unskilled work”—meant that workers who sought to bargain collectively were more easily fired and replaced. The more that poor workers purchased cheaper goods mass produced in factories, the more they undid the value of their skills as a class.

By the early twentieth century, the American Federation of Labor grew powerful in its campaign for a bigger piece of the industrial pie. But Protestant membership grew thinner as the “unskilled” working classes grew more Catholic, Jewish, and secular. By the turn of the twentieth century, most Protestant churches in urban centers, in the Old World and the New, had emptied and closed. The Salvation Army, Holiness-Pentecostal congregations, and Socialist churches were exceptions, as were many Catholic parishes (see “Brothers and Sisters of Charity,” pp. 16–20 and “Eating bread with widows and orphans”).

In his widely read Our Country (1885), Josiah Strong (see “Meeting together for the good of the world”) described the degree to which factory journeymen were becoming a hereditary underclass from which it was difficult, if not impossible, to rise. But while this concerned him, he did not hesitate to declare that Catholics were a “peril” to the republic.

They needed to be “Americanized,” or taught literacy, democratic government, and Christianity: ”God, with infinite wisdom and skill, is training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the world’s future.” Strong’s vision was shared broadly among American and British Protestants who engaged in spreading “civilization” and the good news of Christ around the world (see “Conquest or conversion?”).

Wages and Unions

Yet another reason for the growing distance between rich and poor was the popularity among Christians of the “iron law of wages.” In the early nineteenth century, many economic philosophers, concerned about overpopulation and excessive land use, argued that employers could pay workers as minimally as possible without worry for their well-being. The demand for work would naturally check the size of the labor market. If workers were willing to work for a particular wage, that wage was necessarily just. This philosophy rationalized very low wages paid to young women, journeymen artisans, and “piece workers” who labored at home.

The iron law of wages also rationalized employers’ stubbornness with unions, seen as a barrier to industrial efficiency. Oil and steel magnates John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie maintained that they were faithful Christians and that it was fair to require 10 to 12 hours per day of work, in unsafe conditions, at less than a living wage (i.e., sufficient for the necessities of life). After all, workers were willing to perform the labor. Carnegie reflected in his famous 1889 essay, “Wealth,” that God allows for disproportionate sums of wealth so that the wealthy can more efficiently administer the bounty for all.

According to mainline clergy, the challenge of the moment was not to end capitalism but to redeem it by encouraging business leaders to offer their employees better working conditions. Moreover, many of these ministers argued, Jesus would agree that great sums of riches were not themselves sinful. Pope Leo XIII concurred in his pro-union 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum (see “Brothers and Sisters of Charity”).

Labor Churches

One of the reasons many found the growing restlessness of labor so troubling was that the labor movement’s critique of capitalism provided an alternate Christian morality to that preached in the churches of the upper classes. The most popular nondenominational churches for the poor were those of the Salvation Army and other Holiness groups, Christian Socialist Fellowships, and union-owned meeting places for workers called “labor temples.”

Unlike middle-class Protestant churches, these congregations had no dress codes, no pew rents, and no condemnation of the poor for not working hard enough. Working-class congregations in the growing Holiness-Pentecostal movement leveled all differences through the free play of the Holy Spirit.

Thousands of workers adopted labor organizations, instead of churches, as their Christian communities. The Knights of Labor opened meetings in prayer, required high standards of personal morality from all members, and spread the message that mammon plagued all the churches. Jesus, they contended, was the son of a carpenter who had preached that accumulation of riches through the toil of others was wrong.

The preamble of the Knights of Labor constitution cites Genesis 3:19, “By the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread.” Earning one’s living through work—not extorting it through rent, profit, or interest—was the only requirement for membership. Lodges, located in almost every county in the country, identified themselves as workingmen’s churches and rejected what they called “Churchianity.”

Their critique of capitalism lived on through the “Christian Socialist” movement within the Socialist Party. This popular movement emphasized that God made Jesus a poor carpenter for a reason—to show the wealthy the importance of honest labor. In Socialist newspapers, read by believers and unbelievers alike, Christian editors frequently printed the Beatitudes with modern-day references.

Bouck White, pastor at the Church of the Social Revolution in New York City, taught that industrialization was a stage in the evolution of millennial socialism. When Jesus returned, he would establish a reign of perfect peace: all profits of industry would be shared and none would be impoverished. Socialists frequently cited Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:24, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

The more Protestant and Catholic clergy in traditional churches emphasized the threat that socialism might replace Christianity, the more Christians in the labor movement emphasized Jesus’ good news for the poor. In Britain, Unitarian reverend John Trevor started eight “Labour Churches” along with the British Socialist movement. The British Sunday School Union boasted eight Socialist Sunday schools.

In the United States, George Herron, John Spargo, and W. D. P. Bliss were among many Christian ministers who spread the gospel of the coming kingdom of God as organizers in Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America. They were each members of the Christian Social Crusade and Christian Socialist Fellowship, coalitions arguing that Socialism perfected the Christian faith.

Herron claimed that Christians needed the country to elect Socialist leaders and de-privatize all industry to herald the reign of Christ. He argued that a state where individuals compete with one another effectively endorses selfishness, but in a world where all people must cooperate to earn their livings, true Christianity would thrive.

Mission of the Carpenter

In Episcopalian Bliss’s Boston-area labor church, named “Brotherhood and Mission of the Carpenter,” believers worked cooperatively for eight hours per day, sharing all costs and responsibilities in common. They met on Sundays for a Communion supper and services. Weekly Bible classes discussed Jesus’ teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

The dozens of such congregations and the precipitous rise in Socialist Party popularity in the early 1900s deeply frightened leaders of traditional Protestant denominations. The more different claims proliferated about the truths of Christ’s teachings on money, the more each sounded like a personal opinion based on one’s social position. Leaders who gathered for the Federal Council of Churches (FCC) in 1908 attempted to end this protracted public debate through the formation of a sustained council of Protestant leaders (see “Meeting together for the good of the world”).

The FCC adopted the “Social Creed of the Churches,” a small booklet distributed in mass to struggling workers. The creed endorsed male workers’ right to a “living wage” and argued that businesses ought to pay “the highest wage that each industry can afford.” Moreover, it proclaimed as a universal right “the opportunity for self-maintenance . . . to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.”

In 1919 in England, the archbishop of Canterbury’s statement “Christianity and Industrial Problems” echoed the FCC. He also demanded that the state support health care and old-age provisions if industries could not. Catholics in the National Catholic War Council issued a similar statement, saying that Christian principles enthusiastically endorsed the rights of all families to enough provisions to support themselves.

Questions and Answers

By the end of the Great War, denominational churches throughout the United States and England hoped to meet Socialist workers with compromise. They agreed that Jesus did care about the poor. They preached openly about the dark undersides of industrialization. Many middle-class, white Protestant churches expanded their charitable ministries and took notice that many fellow believers struggled under the weight of low wages and poor working conditions.

By the 1930s, Social Gospel teachings were used frequently in organizing industrial unions to secure wage workers the standards of living and job protections for which their parents fought (see “The life and times of John Bascom”). Theology born of these discussions in the 1910s formed the basis of mainline Christian unity in the civil rights and immigration rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

By the mid-twentieth century, many American workers were paid far better than they had been a century previously, and they praised the Industrial Revolution for making the “American standard of living” cheaper for all. But debates remained. The early twentieth century brought to the surface many more questions than have been answered. CH

Janine Giordano Drake is a Widener Fellow at the University of Illinois and is currently writing Between Religion and Politics: The Working Class Religious Left, 1886–1920.

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