The Gospel of the Working Class: Gellman/Roll Interview, Part II

By Heath Carter

HC: You discuss in one footnote how historians of the New Deal era have “focused on the conservative or reactionary religious thought of preachers like Father Charles Coughlin or Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith.” In what ways and to what extent does the recovery of your cast of characters - the Owen Whitfields and Claude Williams of the world – revise our stories about this period?

EG: The focus on the religious right during the 1930s and 1940s has given the false impression that people during this era who prioritized religion embraced reactionary politics and fascist ideas. Uncovering this cast of progressive characters who fought for the poor and for civil rights shows how faith did not just represent a distraction or diversion from the path of New Deal liberalism or the struggles of Popular Front activists to expand America’s democratic promise. Interestingly, however, the path blazed by Whitfield, Williams and their colleagues also provides a challenging critique to many of the false assumptions New Deal liberals had in terms of class, race, and gender. For example, when Williams dealt with the so-called migrant problem of white and black southerners to Detroit during the World War II era, he analyzed it from a very different angle; Williams saw these migrants much less as the problem than the solution because he believed they had more potential to embrace a radical social gospel than their liberal counterparts who sought primarily to quell riots and preserve the racial status quo.

JR: For me, one of the most important and surprising facets of this story is that Whitfield, Williams and the people who joined them in the People’s Institute of Applied Religion and other groups were part of an extremely volatile and creative intellectual world available to common people in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly, and perhaps paradoxically to some readers, in the South and among southern migrants across America. This intellectual world had progressive, conservative and other strains, often all mixed up, and usually at the radical edge of whatever direction they tended. We already know a lot about the radical and reactionary political movements that operated in this period, but I think those stories are usually delineated in terms of ideas coming in from the outside and from the top down. I think that this book, as well as our other books, Spirit of Rebellion and Death Blow to Jim Crow, shed new light on the ways that ordinary thinkers and activists at the grassroots generated powerful new ideas and put them into action—we both build on the work of Robin Kelley and Paul Harvey, in particular, in doing this.

Telling the story of Whitfield and Williams in the same narrative seemed like a great way to expand on this historiographical project: both came from poor families in the rural South, the kind of upbringing that most histories of the period equate with despondency, backwardness, and intellectual helplessness. Yet, they went on, with the benefit of a little southern schooling, to hone a religious interpretation of America’s plight in the Great Depression that earned them the attention of the White House, the FBI, and the heads of major international labor unions. Along the way they each imbibed and reformulated ideas from Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism, Christian fundamentalism, Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee model of education, the Social Gospel, communism, inter-racialism, socialism, the ecumenical movement, and Pentecostal and holiness revival, in addition to their own respective Presbyterian and Baptist backgrounds. Crucially, they first encountered each of these various ideas and movements in the context of the rural and small-town South, not in New York or Moscow. What we tried to draw out in this book is how these ideas circulated in relative abundance among ordinary people in cotton fields, backwoods settlements, mining camps, and one-horse towns across the South, among blacks and whites who interpreted and adapted these ideas to suit their needs whatever their religious identification might be. The cast of characters in this book was a remarkable group of what we might call, after Steven Feierman, organic intellectuals, but they were not unique among their peers. I hope that conclusion opens up a number of potential avenues for further inquiry, and encourages historians to reconsider their stock assumptions about southern working-class life, social and intellectual, in this period.

HC: Elaborate on the significance of the book’s title. In what sense was this strain of Protestantism – radical especially on matters of class and race – in fact “the gospel of the working class”? In your estimation, how extensive was its reach amongst ordinary Southerners during this period?

JR: We hoped that the title would pick up on several threads in the book—threads often in tension with one another. Part of the “gospel” is the faith Whitfield and Williams had in the faith of the working-class, as well as their belief that class issues were the fundamental truths that underlay southern and American problems. Whitfield and Williams were faith-driven idealists who believed that the religious devotion of laboring whites and blacks had the power to make the kingdom of heaven on earth—to overturn racism, poverty, and gender discrimination in the United States. They saw these problems, sins really, rooted first and foremost in the South and believed that the bedrock Christian faith of ordinary southerners provided a kind of natural antidote, honed in response to these base evils for generations. Of course they accused mainstream denominational churches of facilitating these evils, mainly because these churches were vested in the established order that thrived on southern iniquities. They wanted to put that grassroots faith into action, through unions, the government, churches, or the individual preachers and prophets who they trained in the PIAR. So, in one respect, their gospel was a faith in class-based politics leavened with what they considered a true Christian conviction. The title also plays on the way Whitfield and Williams preached this “gospel” to the working classes in an effort to get them to realize their moral power, even duty, in an immoral world. They wanted to convert people to their version of the good news. In both senses of the title, this is the “gospel of the working class” from the perspective of the two preachers, and it is not hard to imagine it led to all sorts of interesting twists and turns, innovations and errors, but always propelled by an idealistic faith. That both men risked their lives, their livelihoods, and the well being of their families during several decades of service to that faith gives some indication of the strength of their idealism.

That is not to say that the “gospel of the working class” was solely in the heads of Whitfield and Williams. Thousands of white and black southerners (and other Americans) shared their gospel in this period. Both preachers were from the working class themselves and came to this religious interpretation through many years of grueling spiritual searching for some way to reconcile what they considered to be God’s promise to the righteous with the brutal living and working conditions that crushed their neighbors, their families, and even themselves. That search took them into domestic mission work and a range of political alternatives, all aimed at making their faith powerful and consequential in their lives and the lives of others. I think this aspect of the story points to the importance of biography as a way of mapping this religious search. Christians across the South were on the same quest in these years, looking for grace and salvation in a range of places that included the various political groups that Whitfield and Williams found, as well as Pentecostal and holiness churches, before religiously committed working people joined groups like the Share Croppers’ Union, the STFU, or the CIO. Of course, some poor people found their answers in reactionary groups. For Whitfield and Williams this spiritual search led them to create the PIAR to work independently of all other organizations and to empower a roving band of prophets to attempt to channel the faith of working people into collective action--from cotton fields to cities like Memphis, Winston-Salem, Chicago, and, most famously, Detroit.

In terms of their reception, it is remarkable to me that Whitfield and Williams proved so popular for so long—neither ever had much money or much outside support, but neither of them ever failed to excite people wherever they went. People in the tens of thousands listened to them and acted based on what they said and this more than anything demonstrates for me the extent to which their preaching did tap into something real, whether you call it the gospel of the working class or not. Poor people heard the ring of truth in what these two preachers said, often going against their own upbringing, against the law, against the teaching of their regular church homes, against the secular leaders of their unions, and sometimes against plain good sense to follow Whitfield and Williams. Popular support sustained them, and worried the authorities, often the police, church leaders, or their own superiors in labor unions, all at the same time. They definitely had something that poor people wanted to hear.

EG: One surprise in conducting the research on this book for me was how deeply American workers in the era of the Depression and war felt their religious faith. Many union leaders in the narrative failed to appreciate this faith, but at the grassroots, workers often oriented themselves through their relationship to God. Beginning in the Great Depression, Williams, Whitfield and a host of other working-class preachers came to comprehend and spread a gospel of the working class defined by a focus on healing the earth, showing faith through productive work, and engaging in action when access to work and autonomy for their families disappeared. In so doing, they joined with other workers in a faith that crossed racial, geographic, and gender lines. But that does not imply this gospel was the only working-class one. The religious activists in this book sought to convert working-class people who believed in a faith that oriented them to other-worldly concerns or, in the case of many radical political and union leaders, a lack of faith because they saw it as a diversion from political activism. Second, these preachers came to distrust the institutional church and middle class religious figures that they saw as straying from the work of Jesus as he had lived on earth. Williams and Whitfield believed that working with the poor always came before your church’s financial standing or reputation. This explains why their message reached so many of the disinherited and poor people during the 1930s and 1940s, but also why they eventually had to start their own organization—the People’s Institute of Applied Religion--because the labor movement, political parties, and other civic and civil rights groups came in conflict with their tendency to prioritize a larger people’s religious movement over short term institutional objectives.

HC: Your protagonists talk about the institutional churches in the South as being aligned with “the owning class” and “the bosses.” To what extent did this rhetoric map on to reality in your period? If in fact the region’s religious institutions were in cahoots with capital, how did they manage to maintain such a strong foothold amongst the people?

EG: They came to believe that the institutional church, especially its mainstream denominations, had become morally bankrupt. There’s a great moment in the book where Williams goes to Harry Fosdick’s massive Riverside Church in New York City. Williams, as a young minister, had been profoundly influenced by Fosdick’s writings about how to make Christianity more accessible to modern life. But having been radicalized by his activism in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and other southern protests by the mid-1930s, Williams rebuked what he heard in Fosdick’s church. He condemned the sermon as a liberal pat on the back to parishioners rather than a call for action against the alarming spread of fascism, in the South as much as the rest of the world. As Whitfield comments as a result of his conversion, the true gospel does not send you home happy or content, it sends you home fighting mad.

That said, their readiness to reject the institutional church, especially after the mid-1930s, sometimes hindered their work. In Detroit, for example, one of their allies, Henry D. Jones, got upset at Williams’s radicalism, not for its content, but for his lack of political tact. Just when the PIAR was expanding in the Motor City on the basis of support and alliances with institutional churches and leading ministers, Williams condemned liberals in the church rather than attempting to foster these alliances and slowly bring them along to his more radical mission. Ultimately this anti-institutional stance led to a larger question: how can any group of people build and sustain a movement without building an organization? The leaders of the PIAR confronted this problem in the 1940s and I would say it’s one of the reasons they failed to spread their message farther than they did, or establish it with any permanence in the longer term. If you always privilege action over organizing for the future, you make your movement institutionally unstable. Beginning in the late 1940s, political attacks during the Red Scare period made the PIAR a quick casualty because its leaders had established few institutional resources to fight back. As an independent entity that wasn’t really much of an organized entity, it also proved too easy for allies to abandon when the political winds turned.

JR: In some ways the rhetoric mapped quite closely to the reality of the period. Williams first went to Detroit at the behest of the Presbyterian Church, which wanted him to reach out to southern migrants to the city before they fell under the sway of conservative, right-wing preachers like Gerald L. K. Smith and J. Frank Norris, who started what became the World Baptist Fellowship and was very influential on people like John Birch and Jerry Falwell. In Detroit Williams and the PIAR were battling head-to-head with arch ideological foes, all of them on both sides claiming to be the true Christians. More broadly, both Whitfield and Williams considered the institutional church to be too comfortable with worldly power, whether money, property or prestige. For them, the word of God itself was liberating and anything that stood in the way of the application of the word was obstructing the will of God. It did not matter if it was a preacher or a church polity, it had to be defied. That’s one reason they always gravitated toward Pentecostal, holiness and other breakaway churches. These rebellious groups also despised the power of institutional churches (even though some were busy building their own institutions) because they inhibited the ability of ordinary believers to connect directly with the divine. Whitfield and Williams both came of age alongside this great early twentieth century revolt in American Christianity and both were shaped by it intellectually. It was natural for them to turn to these sets of believers later in their career.