The rise of industrial capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th century challenged nearly every concept that people used to explain the way the world worked. The proliferation of the wage system, the rise of the corporation, hyper-urbanization, and the shift from farm to factory left people questioning all they had known to be true.
Factory workers worked longer hours and made less. One in every 26 workers in the country would be injured or maimed while working. Farmers worked more, planted more, and harvested more, only to discover that they too made less. No matter how much they grew, the price for the products kept falling. African Americans had been promised freedom only to find themselves trapped in institutions meant to recreate their bondage.
Natural resources, which had one seemed inexhaustible, were on the verge of running out — trees, soil, animals, land. Filth and toxic waste poisoned water systems. The air, thick with pollution, shortened the lives of all who lived nearby.
Success seemed uncertain, while perpetual debt and perpetual poverty was certain. The world was growing more unequal. The world that most people had known was coming undone.
And yet not all Christians were not preparing for the second coming. Some believed they had to play a central role in the social transformation that was to come, so they became socialists.
Christian socialists did not shy away from class struggle. They believed it was the defining feature of the era. The growing chasm between rich and poor in nearly every facet of life from life expectancy to living conditions drew the attention of pastors, practitioners, and theologians.
Capitalism was neither a natural force nor a supernatural one. This hand was not invisible and it was certainly not the hand of God.
This was a system made by humans, but the greed was as old as Cain and Abel. This was the message of Congregationalist minister, George D. Herron in his 1890 sermon, “ The Message of Jesus to Men of Wealth.” Cain’s choice, according to Herron, “was the first bald, brutal assertion of self-interest as the law of human life — an assertion always potential with murder.” He believed that capitalism was founded on the ancient evils of self-interest and competition. Those foundations made capitalism incompatible with Christianity. He declared: “The trial in progress is Christ versus Cain. The decision to which the times are hastening us is, Shall Christ or Cain reign in our American civilization?” Christians could not ignore their responsibility.
Herron campaigned for socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. In 1901, he helped organize the Socialist Party of America. He was not the only minister to become a socialist either. One historian estimated that between 5 and 25 percent of all mainline Protestant clergy were socialist party members or voted for the party in the first three decades of the 20th century. Congregationalist minister Franklin Monroe Sprague wrote Socialism from Genesis to Revelation in 1892. John Spargo, a Methodist minister, became a socialist educator. Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister, ran for president of the United States as a socialist candidate from 1928 to 1948. Charles Vail, a Universalist minister, was an important socialist writer. African Americans, both outside and inside of the socialist party, also demanded fairer economic systems that affected other facets of life, pushing white Christians and socialists towards a “new abolitionism.”
Socialism attracted Christians because of the growing influence of the social gospel in the U.S. and its social interpretation of sin and salvation. Inequality was a social sin and Christians were responsible for addressing it. Yet the answer was not in the promise of a singular saved soul but the remaking of society to be more just. This justice had to be achieved through reforming institutions in order to create an environment of equality for everyone. Socialism, or what some called “industrial democracy,” would provide the equitable distribution of economic and electoral power.
Christian socialists were true believers in both the gospel of Jesus and socialism. They often combined the two. The interpretation of Jesus as a radical who opposed capitalism was widespread. Less so was the idea that socialism could be the foundation for a more universal humanistic religion. Norman Thomas expressed both ideas when he wrote in 1921 that “essentially the faith of radicalism is religious” and in 1936 that “socialism is the hope for all mankind.”
So where did all the Christian socialists go? They went the way of most socialists in the U.S.
Intra-party fighting over involvement in World War I caused many rifts. The popularity of the New Deal in the 1930s coopted much of socialist party’s plank and melded it to an ameliorated capitalism which drew voters and members away. Thomas criticized the New Deal as “reformed capitalism” and he meant it as an indictment of the programs, but most citizens and politicians were happy with the characterization. Post-World War II social programs minimized economic inequality among white Americans and the Cold War ushered in a second Red Scare. In addition, influential theologians turned away from Christian socialism for either its universal post-Christian aspirations or its utopianism. Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, disavowed his youthful socialism for political realism, which abandoned the notion that the government or any bureaucracy could be perfected in order to achieve social salvation.
As the century progressed, the rise of the New Right political coalition welcomed white evangelical Christians and welded them to a free-market ideology. The social gospel, while not fully replaced, lost its prominence in the pulpit. The proliferation of the prosperity gospel in the late 20th and early 21st centuries wedded Christianity to capitalism — God’s blessings were individual and material. Christ, it appeared, was markedly anti-Keynesian.
A Second Gilded Age
Today we are living in a Second Gilded Age. National and global inequality is reaching similar levels as they were in the late 19th century. Half of the world population lives on less than $ $5.50 a day. In the U.S., the top 1 percent of the population holds 40 percent of the wealth. The largest corporations in the country like Amazon and Walmart don’t pay their workers a livable wage. Pollution is on the rise and we are on the verge of an environmental catastrophe.
While they were often dismissed as utopian, Christian socialists and others believed that capitalism was a passing phase of human history. This wasn’t naiveté. There had been a time when industrial capitalism hadn’t dominated their lives, so it made sense that there could be a moment when it no longer did. Although today very few people believe that capitalism is a passing phase in human history, it is not a transhistoric, invisible force. It is not the will of God. Social programs made industrial capitalism bearable for many, though not all people, in the U.S. Those programs have been cut since the 1970s. That’s policy and not divine intervention.
Christian socialists were not afraid to talk about class struggle. In fact, it was the defining feature of society; it was the central social sin. Today, mentioning the chasm between rich and poor is often derided as “class warfare,” as a way to erase the grievances of the poor as the product of laziness and their jealousy. Class and its intersection with race must be at the center of any social or biblical analysis.
In the midst of the Gilded Age and the rise of Jim Crow, religious historian Gary Dorrien explained of Black social gospelers: “They wrung a liberating message from the Christianity of their time. They did not settle for making segregation more tolerable. They rebelled and endured, taking the long view, laying the groundwork for something better than the regime of oppression and exclusion they inherited.”
In the midst of the Second Gilded Age, we are called upon to do this today.
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