“Let some Christian answer this”: Heath Carter’s “Union Made”

I recently spent a weekend reading through Heath W. Carter’s recent book entitled Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (OUP, 2015). It is a wonderful book that traces a complicated history in a manner that brings it to life and works to give new life to important voices from the United States’s religious past. And these are voices that it is important for us to hear, as Carter notes as the book concludes, in a time when we are once more approximating the socio-economic dynamics of the Gilded Age, which is the focus of the book.

The story that Carter tells leaves itself open to multiple interpretations, but he frames the struggle of the late 19th c. labor movement in Chicago not as a struggle between moderate and middle-class Christianity on one side and radical socialist atheism on the other. Instead, he explains that “the battle was not between Christianity and secularism, but rather between competing interpretations of the Christian gospel” (p. 31). Eventually this social gospel from below articulated by the labor movement would work its way up the social chain, although it would not remain unchanged in doing so. By the time it was appropriated by the ecclesial establishments in the early 20th c. it was rather toothless – an attempt to ameliorate some of capitalism’s worst excesses rather than to call into question its very foundational principles.

As I said, one of the great things about Carter’s book is that he lets the activists from the labor movement speak for themselves to a great extent, so the reader gets to hear voices in the past whose relevance has hardly diminished. So I will leave you with one instance of this that I found particularly poignant. As always, italics is original and bold is mine.
Union Park’s ministers would hardly have been surprised to learn that, in the pages of the Workingman’s Advocate, Cameron—a known quantity by this point—deplored both the violence against workers during the late riots and the underhanded dealings of the railroad magnates that catalyzed them. Far more disconcerting was a letter published in the Daily News several weeks later, which suggested how precarious the Protestant foothold among the ordinary masses had become. The writer began, “I was at the Second Baptist Church prayer meeting last week, and one of the deacons rose and made the remark that he liked to see a young man come to church and drop a nickel in the box and pay for a seat upstairs. Such men were talented young men. Well, I am not a talented young man of that church, but would like to be.” He went on to explain, “I am trying to live the life of a Christian, but when I look at my bosses, who are members of the Christian denomination, I shudder and wonder how they can impose upon us poor miserable creatures throughout the week; and Sunday you will see them out with their coachman and fine span of horses, going to church, while thousands like myself are plodding along foot sore and hungry.” . . . “I have submitted my case to the proprietor personally, asking for a promotion or more wages,” he related; “the reply was, ‘if you do not want to work for what I am paying you, there are thousands who will.’” The letter closed, “Let some Christian answer this.”

And since there isn't much point in having a blog without engaging in some self-promotion, allow me to briefly note - gentle reader - that this word from the past resonates with some of my previous reflections: "The Blame Lies with the Christians: Helmut Gollwitzer's Engagement with Marxist Criticism of Religion"

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