In recent years there’s been a fresh wave of anxiety about plummeting working-class church attendance. But if our new Gilded Age is anything like the last, it may be the churches themselves that are most in need of spiritual rejuvenation.
Throughout the post-Civil War decades — the heyday of industrialization and an era marked by staggering inequality — American church leaders staunchly opposed organized labor, even as they fretted about “the workingman’s alienation from the church.” The two were directly connected. When prominent ministers cozied up to the wealthy, as they so often did, they fueled working-class resentment. Ordinary believers' righteous indignation comes through loud and clear in the pages of my book, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, from which I quote below.
“The poor do not believe in a Gospel that is only for the rich and from which they are excluded,” one woman exclaimed. In the eyes of believing trade unionists, the labor movement was not a threat to Christian faith but rather a way to live it out. “The Gospel of Christ sustains us in our every demand,” they insisted. Given the clergy’s persistent hostility, the real question was, “Have the working classes fallen away from the churches or have the churches fallen away from the working classes?”
In falling away from the working classes, the churches had fallen away from Jesus — a lowly Nazarene carpenter. “I know where Christ stood,” one labor leader declared. “He was for the poor. He warned the rich, he denounced force and wealth and usury. He toadied to no monopolist, he preached from no palaces, he sold no pews! He was of and for the people.” How far the churches had fallen. He went on to lament, “The spirit of Jesus is absent from the modern Church.”
No amount of charity would bring that spirit back. After all, the flaws in the nation’s economic order were systemic. However much the pious captains of industry — Carnegie, Rockefeller, and the like — gave to the destitute, it was little more than “the pouring of a little balm on the surface, while the cancer eats at the heart.”
Leading church leaders scoffed at this hard gospel. In 1886, one of revivalist Dwight L. Moody’s patrons, a businessman by the name of John Farwell, chided the members of the nation’s largest labor organization. Across the country, workers — fully accustomed to such condescension — took Farwell into their theological sights. One responded, “Mr. Farwell, of course, does not believe the New Testament, and the evidence of his infidelity is this, that although he is a richer man than any man that lived in Judea at the time of Christ, yet he is trying to be richer still. He is working very hard and very successfully to make himself ineligible for a place in the kingdom.”
It took a generation but at the turn of the 20th century — with the clergy’s anxieties about the fate of the wayward working classes peaking — labor finally broke through the wall of churchly resistance, as denomination after denomination issued statements in support of trade unions. Another sure sign of the sea change was the rise of Labor Sunday.
Starting in the 1890s, churches began to set aside the Sunday before Labor Day as a time for lifting up working people’s voices and experiences. Some pastors even turned their pulpits over to union organizers, who never failed to bring the fire. On Labor Sunday 1910, one Chicago painter matter-of-factly informed his Presbyterian audience, “Some of the worst enemies organized labor has are very ardent church goers.” Meanwhile, a glove maker rebuked a community of well-to-do suburban Congregationalists, saying, “You are so far removed from the life of the factory girl that you cannot understand the view she takes of life.”
Among the workers who ended up on the preaching circuit was James W. Kline, a Methodist blacksmith who, in 1913, was invited to address the clergy of the Rock River Conference. He began by reading aloud from his King James Bible. “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.”
Looking out at the gathered throng of ministers, Kline declared, “I believe that I can see the conditions of our day depicted in the fifth Chapter of James, and would like to hear a few sermons preached from that chapter,” adding, pointedly, “I have never heard an interpretation.”
More than a century on, Kline’s indictment rings all too true. Perhaps, in our own age of historic inequality, rampant anxieties about declining religious affiliation should be channeled into moral and material support for organized labor. Unions are facing unbelievably daunting headwinds today, even as study after study continues to underscore that they are the surest guarantor of economic democracy.
There can be little doubt that churches that opt to stand idly by in this moment of labor’s need are sowing the wind of injustice. Let no one be surprised if they also reap the whirlwind of working-class disenchantment. The change could start small. Imagine if this Labor Sunday worker preachers once more graced prominent pulpits across the land. Might we then have ears to hear anew the radical gospel of a certain first-century artisan, who meant it when he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”