"Religion," declared Karl Marx in 1843, "is the sigh of the afflicted creature, the soul of the heartless world....[I]t is the opium of the people." Ever since his day, ideologues on both ends of the political and religious spectrums have likewise dismissed the ability of Christianity to say much to the economic struggles of ordinary people.
The only biblical word to the poor articulated by prominent Gilded Age pastors such as Henry Ward Beecher was one of condemnation. "No man in this land suffers from poverty," he pronounced, "...unless it be his sin." Not surprisingly, many working people rejected the institution represented by wealthy ministers like Beecher. One anonymous worker informed a Massachusetts sociologist in 1870 that "the church has, as an organized body, no sympathy with the masses. It is sort of a fashionable club where the rich are entertained and amused, and where most of the ministers are muzzled by their masters and dare not preach the gospel of the carpenter of Nazareth."
Yet there is another side to the historical record. While some have offered up Christ's message as a numbing narcotic, for a century and a half people of faith have been integrally involved in the efforts of working people to organize against the concentrations of wealth that Beecher lauded and Marx despised. Labor activists have repeatedly drawn from the deep wells of biblical imagery to lead the struggle for economic justice. They have been able to do so because a great mass of U.S. workers have held religious convictions that were not easily stripped away or transmuted into mindless obeisance to the power of the wealthy.
A whole generation of Gilded Age union organizers and labor agitators shared a common faith in a God who promised justice. In the 1870s the Harvard-educated Congregational minister Jesse Jones and a Methodist ship-caulker named Edward Rogers organized and led the Christian Labor Union, which for a decade spearheaded the drive for an eight-hour work day across New England. This region's most renowned labor organizer was George McNeill. While he threw himself into a variety of causes from eight-hours agitation to the Knights of Labor, in the words of historian Herbert Gutman, McNeill "rarely wrote or spoke without imparting a deep Christian fervor."
Likewise, the basic orientation of temperance leader Frances Willard could only be described, in terms of her day or this one, as evangelical Christian. Out of this commitment she condemned sweatshops and informed her followers that the real menace to society came from those who controlled "seven-eighths of the property"; in 1887 she was initiated into the Knights of Labor.
Their seething anger at the debasing of Christ's message at the hands of aristocratic ministers like Beecher kept people like Knights of Labor leader Terence Powderly and legendary agitator Mary Harris "Mother" Jones on the church's periphery. Yet both continually spoke and acted out of a Christocentric reading of their Catholic tradition. Powderly laced his speeches with references to the Sermon on the Mount; Jones pointed to God's continual presence wherever "we are breaking the chains of oppression."
Such labor leaders also repeatedly drew on Christian imagery and analyses because in doing so they reached a great mass of workers who likewise treasured such convictions. At an 1883 labor convention in Philadelphia, one observer noted that "seven-eighths of those present...were men connected with Christian churches." For men and women sweating through 80-hour work weeks, their version of Christianity was one that levelled God's condemnation on the new titans of industry, the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Jay Goulds, who ground up human lives by the thousand in their accumulation of vast fortunes. The Lord they worshipped was a common laborer like themselves. In the words of labor organizer and socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, Christ was "the homeless wanderer who sympathized and associated with the poor and lowly, and whose ministrations were among the despised sinners and outcasts."
BECAUSE OF the traditional Catholic fear both of socialism and of secret societies like the Knights of Labor, much of the Catholic hierarchy in the Gilded Age held themselves back from the struggle that caught up millions of their parishioners. Yet the leading American prelate, James Cardinal Gibbons, nudged his bishops into more open support of labor organizing. At a key point in the 1880s, Gibbons wrote a memo to the pope to dissuade him from issuing a condemnation of the Knights. Gibbons encouraged the strikes of the Knights against railroads and also that of Baltimore streetcar drivers.
More important, in 1891 Pope Leo XIII responded to arguments like Gibbons' and issued his encyclical Rerum Novarum or On the Condition of the Working Class. While this foundational statement of Catholic social thought was partly intended to blunt the appeal of socialism to the Catholic working class, in it the pope also called for decent wages and other reforms of industrial capitalism.
Such statements led a young priest, John A. Ryan, to dedicate his life to advancing a more social gospel. In 1906, he completed a doctoral dissertation titled A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects, and in 1919 drafted an ambitious statement titled The Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction. Issued more than a decade before the advent of the New Deal, the statement called for what later became the foundation for federal welfare and labor policies, including child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, subsidized housing, and labor's participation in industrial management.
The social gospel movement reshaping American Protestantism in the first decades of this century issued similar statements. While the historian Robert Craig argues that the social gospel consisted of little more than "exhortations to do good," at least some Progressive Era Protestants fleshed out the nice words. In New York the union machinist turned Presbyterian minister Charles Stelzle founded a Labor Temple that became a union meeting place. Stelzle's weekly column was carried by hundreds of labor papers. In Philadelphia, social gospel ministers toured the sweatshop district and then helped organize its inhabitants. Local settlement house worker Anna Davis raised funds for participants in a garment workers strike in 1910 and landed in jail after joining them on a picket line.
THE COLLAPSE OF the U.S. economy in 1929 shocked many more in the churches to activism. Radical words sang out in a variety of voices, including some that both church leaders and scholars have long since forgotten. An evangelical pastor in Virginia frankly declared, for instance, that "capitalism is unChristian"; another from California denounced the behavior of America's "ruling class," and urged the state to forge a new alliance with working people. These opinions appeared not in some radical socialist paper, but were published with respect and appreciation by none other than the Moody Bible Institute Monthly in 1932 and 1933.
With a vast majority of the U.S. working class either immigrant or immigrant-descended and a majority of them Catholic, the church played an integral part in the historic breakthrough of industrial unionism in the 1930s. A number of Catholics emerged as important union leaders, including Philip Murray of the steel workers, James Carey of the electrical workers, and John Brophy, executive director of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Harassed by the Right, Brophy lashed out at one heckler at a labor rally, declaring, "Yes, I am a Catholic, and because I obey Catholic teaching I go forward in my chosen calling to fight against greed and privilege."
That teaching was substantially deepened in the 1930s. In 1931, Pope Pius XI developed the teachings of Rerum Novarum into a new program for the very reconstruction of human society. In Quadragesimo Anno (literally, "in the fortieth year," i.e. 40 years after Rerum), the pope argued for a wage high enough for workers to live decently and for employment levels to be as wide as possible. This required some system of economic planning that would ensure the common good and the functioning of moral law. In the hands of Bishop Ryan, such statements translated into enthusiastic support for the cause of labor and a reorientation of the church hierarchy along similar lines.
Others in the church followed where those in the hierarchy led. As modeled by Dorothy Day, scores of Catholic Worker houses plunged into the struggle. Catholic Worker activists fed thousands of strikers and marched on picket lines on behalf of Michigan Auto workers, fishermen and textile workers in Massachusetts, New York brewery workers, marble cutters in Vermont, and dozens of other causes. They provided trenchant analyses of labor's prospects and hawked the Catholic Worker newspaper on street corners next to communists pushing the Daily Worker. They violated court injunctions against labor and went to jail quoting Rerum Novarum.
In Pittsburgh, the nerve center of the crusade to organize the steel industry, labor priests such as Carl Hensler and Charles Owen Riceùwho became known as the "chaplain of the CIO"ùexpanded the Catholic Worker agenda into a larger effort they called the Catholic Radical Alliance. Under its banner Rice boomed his fervent support for industrial unionism into the loudspeakers of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and informed Pittsburgh Catholics that membership in the union was a Christian duty.
But it wasn't only Catholics who took up labor's struggle for economic justice in the 1930s. In the deep South, a handful of courageous ministers embarked upon the dangerous task of cobbling together a biracial union on the framework of class commonalities. They were led by YMCA and then FOR staffer Howard Kester and a Presbyterian minister from Tennessee named Claude Williams, both of them white southerners whose Christian convictions had compelled a rejection of racism and a deep sympathy with the oppressed.
In the mid-1930s, they joined with African-American Baptist ministers E.B. McKinney and Owen Whitfield to try to pull sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta out from under the crushing system of debt peonage. Their vehicle, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (SFTU), faced the lynchings and terror of a Jim Crow justice system and met with only partial success. Yet it was sustained by a southern Christian ethos that held great promise as an organizing vision for the future. Six of the 14 members of the SFTU executive committee were preachers. SFTU meetings began and ended with prayer and were carried along with hymns and spirituals. In this manner the SFTU, as Paul had set forth in his letter to the Ephesians, broke down the dividing walls of caste and class and helped model God's reign in the midst of injustice.
IN THE WORLD WAR II years and the period following it, labor activism of all stripes temporarily ebbed. As the economy boomed and the Cold War deepened, unions moved to consolidate their gains and eradicate communists from their ranks. When a new era of reform took hold in the 1960s, the gains that working people might otherwise have achieved went astray because of Vietnam, and labor's estrangement from the anti-war student movement. The decade witnessed, however, two glittering moments of promise for working people to overcome the racial and class divisions imposed upon them, and to make further ground against the forces of privilege. Both of these moments were partly made possible by the ability of leaders to build from the religious convictions of their people.
In the mid-1960s, riots began a regular summertime explosion through the corridors of America's major cities and clearly racial and economic injustice had mounted to the point of national crisis. Accordingly Martin Luther King Jr. brought the civil rights movement north and increasingly began to link it with the struggle for economic justice. In December 1967, King asserted that "the dispossessed of this nationùthe poor, both white and negroùlive in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice...."
In other words, King set upon the same potentially revolutionary course that the SFTU had mapped out three decades earlier: He would attempt to overcome the vertical divisions of ethnic and racial hatred by stressing the horizontal solidarities of social class. It was a program that remained just as dangerous to those in power.
In the winter of 1967-68, the ministers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began planning a program, for summer 1968, of massive civil disobedience by an army of trained nonviolence activists in Washington, D.C. To be called the Poor Peoples' Campaign, it would continue until the country gave serious attention to the forces of economic and racial injustice. But King was drawn into a sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, where he soon met his death and the Poor People's campaign was effectively strangled in its cradle. The injustices it aimed to address continued unaltered.
The other great moment of labor's promise in the 1960s took place about the same time on the opposite coast, in the green, broad fields of California's Central Valley. Priests such as Thomas McCullough and Donald McDonnell helped CTsar Chßvez link his devout Catholicism to the techniques and practices of nonviolent protest. As California agribusiness would discover, this would be a potent combination.
In 1950, McCullough and McDonnell were assigned as "priests to the poor" in the 13-county diocese of San Francisco, where a shifting population of 100,000 migrant workers lay largely beyond the reach of the church. Undaunted, they plunged into the work, relentlessly traversing the district, ministering to farm workers in their ditch-bank and chicken-coop housing and laying the basis for labor organizing.
Not long afterward McDonnell met the young organizer Chßvez and opened new worlds for him. As Chßvez remembered later, "He told me about social justice, and the Church's stand on farm labor and reading from the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, in which he upheld labor unions. I would do anything to get the Father to tell more about labor history."
Out of this training, Chßvez fashioned a powerful farm workers movement with this activist Christianity at its very heart. Perhaps it is necessary to do no more than simply stand back and watch the scenes unfold: the crosses and the statues of the Virgin carried along the 1966 march of "Pilgrimage, Penitence, and Revolution" from Delano to Sacramento, with nightly rallies in the churches and blessings by priests; the "pray-in" across the gates of the gigantic DiGiorgia ranch, as striking farm workers knelt to pray for the strikebreakers; Chßvez' monthlong fast in February 1968, seeking to purge the growing violence among frustrated farm workers.
To these images one can add a whole host of others: battle-weary mine organizers quoting scripture; clerical collars in CIO picket lines in Youngstown and Chicago; white Presbyterian and black southern Baptist ministers incarnating Christ's words of hope to degraded sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. If nothing else, all these images speak to a powerful stream that has pulsed through much of U.S. history for the past century.
Certainly many Christians have continued to favor the economically comfortable rather than the distressed. Nonetheless, when and where people have gathered to press for justice, God's church has continually stood with them. When a mass movement once again stirs to push against the injustices of American society today, God's people will need to remember this heritage, and act accordingly.
PERRY BUSH is associate professor of history at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, and author of Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism and Modern America (John Hopkins University Press).