"The Highest Wage that Each Industry Can Afford": Remembering Labor Sunday

Janine Giordano Drake

One of my research seminar students stayed after class this week to ask me what seemed like a simple question: "When did big churches become so conservative on economic issues?" I smiled and said that there were quite a few scholars who have explored this question, and he could find answers in the eighteenth century, or the nineteenth century, or the twentieth century, or the twenty-first century. I began making him a list of books he could check out, but the student looked at me like I hadn't really answered the question. "Were Christians pro-capitalist in the early twentieth century?" he wanted to know, as he is also taking another class on the period. "Yes, they were," I said. "But they were also far more pro-labor than many might recognize today. Many still held onto the possibility of a moral capitalism, where all workers would be paid a living wage." As I said this, I remembered what a foreign idea this is to those of us who have only seen the last 20 or 30 years of American political and religious history. Many undergraduates today are too young to even have "FDR democrat" grandparents.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, this Sunday before Labor Day would have been celebrated as "Labor Sunday" in many denominational (proto-"mainline") parishes. That is, pastors would take time in their preaching to note their churches' support for workers struggling for better wages and working conditions. It was designated in 1907 as a kind of American Protestant feast day. Presbyterian Rev. Charles Stelzle, whose job at the time was to increase workers' participation in Presbyterian churches, designed the holiday in cooperation with the Chicago American Federation of Labor. He hoped the holiday would get pastors to research the specific struggles of workers within their locality and then verbally note Jesus' solidarity with their struggles. In this way, Stelzle dreamed, anti-capitalist workers might be more friendly with the churches and stop accusing them of supporting and perpetuating the reign of Mammon in America. The following year, Stelzle joined other "Social Gospel" pastors within the newly-formed Federal Council of Churches and promoted the holiday across all the affiliate denominations. The holiday exploded in visibility when it was grounded in a set of principles on the subject of labor which the FCC now endorsed.

As indicated in their widely distributed, Social Creed of the Churches, Federal Council clerics now officially agreed to certain principles concerning "industrial problems." They said that Churches "stood for" the rights of all to "self-maintenance," an economic safety net, workplace safety protection, reasonable work hours, a day off per week, equal justice for all, and not only a living wage, but "the highest wage that each industry can afford." Yes, they were in favor of capitalism and firmly anti-socialist. But, they also believed that maximizing dividends to shareholders was absolutely not the Christian way to go about business. Early twentieth century Christian, economic conservatism was so different from what we know of today. Our own Elesha Coffman has written an informative and thought-provoking blog post on the holiday here. But, as Elesha notes, few people have heard of it these days. Elesha says she only knows of it currently celebrated in United Church of Christ churches. I only know about Labor Sunday through my research on Charles Stelzle and the Federal Council of Churches. For those who haven't read Jennifer Burns' wonderful biography of Ayn Rand, myriad internet memes and late night comedians remind us that Ayn Rand did not believe in God. She believed in the principle of self-interest as insistently, and illogically, as others have believed that Jesus was God incarnate. Somehow, however, her ideas displaced those of the Christian economic conservatives who came before her. Stephen Colbert tells us that Paul Ryan, who calls himself a practicing Catholic, fully endorses Rand. How we went from one pro-capitalist Christianity to the other in the last 100 years fascinates me. As I tried to explain to my student this week, endorsing capitalism in the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries has meant something different. Christians used to meditate on the pernicious Seven Deadly Sins a whole lot more.


Mark T. Edwards at: September 2, 2012 at 11:08 AM said...

Wonderful, timely post, Janine! Do you think the "Southernization of America" theme has played any role in supplanting Labor Sunday? Certainly, Bethany Moreton and Darren Dochuk relate anti-"Big Labor" Southern evangelicals beginning to spread their message across the nation not long after the passage of Wagner.

Janine Giordano at: September 2, 2012 at 1:02 PM said...

That's a great and timely question! I have been thinking about that ever since reading Bethany and Darren's books, and had a conversation with Jarod Roll (also completing a book on the topic now) about it recently, too. Hopefully, my students this semester will help me answer it.

My short and gut answer right now, though, is no. I see Northern liberal/mainline Protestants becoming wealthier and more distant from the poor, and notice a distance between Social Gospel theology and the personal politics of many Northern churchgoers in the 1940s and 1950s and 60s. However, this is merely guesswork, as this is outside of the time period I'm currently examining. I have no doubt that by the 1960s, this Southernization thesis bears weight (and I do love love love Dochuk and Moreton's books for this reason). But, even by the 1920s, the Social Gospel was significantly receding as a unifying Protestant ethic, and my examination has turned up other reasons.

Mark T. Edwards at: September 2, 2012 at 1:54 PM said...

So, more along the lines of Gibson Winters's SUBURBAN CAPTIVITY OF THE CHURCHES, then? Etan Diamond's SOULS OF THE CITY on post-WWII Indianapolis might have some interesting insight here as well about where Northern/Midwestern churches were moving. Of course, as Elesha notes, "Labor Day," "World Brotherhood Day," and "Race Relations Sunday" (I think those were the FCC names) never quite made it into the liturgical calendar. Is a "socialized liturgy" (CC Morrison's term from the 1933 THE SOCIAL GOSPEL AND THE CHRISTIAN CULTUS) even possible or desirable today?

Curtis J Evans at: September 2, 2012 at 2:42 PM said...

I'd like to hear more about the "other reasons" for the receding of the SG as a "unifying Protestant ethic." I find it interesting that the FCC formed "Race Relations" Sunday in 1923 given how controversial the issue of race was. Of course, fear of race riots was undoubtedly one impetus for attempting to bring about more peaceful race relations, but even so, the FCC waded into highly controversial and divisive racial issues in the 1920s and 1930s, even supporting a federal anti-lynching bill. I realize that the FCC had no formal authority over local congregations and thus was only in some general and symbolic sense a unifying Protestant body. Nonetheless, the question about the "decline" of the SG takes me back to some of the older works (William G. McGlouglin, Paul Carter, etc.), which suggest that the SG was never a majority Protestant stance and that the prominence of leading thinkers in seminaries, significant and influential churches, etc. may exaggerate its actual influence. Of course, I need only note too that my very reference to "the" SG as a singular Protestant approach to theology and social reform has been questioned by some, though that is somewhat of a different issue than what is being addressed here. But I would really like to hear your reflections on the "other reasons" for the receding of the SG in the 1920s and thereafter. This is something I've been thinking about for quite some time since a colleague asked me a similar question and to which I gave an answer with which even I was not satisfied!

Mark T. Edwards at: September 2, 2012 at 3:42 PM said...

Great questions! Curtis: Are you finding the so-called "clergy-laity gap" in your studies? While the FCC/NCC/WCC, as well as certain denominational leadership and groups like the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen, were pushing interracialism and eventually, direct action, were the people in the pews enlisting with white flighters? That might go to Janine's point about the loss of interest among congregants themselves in prophetic politics.

Curtis J Evans at: September 3, 2012 at 10:57 AM said...

the short answer to your question is "yes," though I've not done much work on individual congregations. But when it came to issues of race, lynching, interracial church events, etc., there was a huge gap between clergy and laity. The problem was exacerbated in the South by issues of states' rights, comments and strong feelings that the FCC was an outsider organization, especially when it supported studies to get a more accurate assessment of the causes of a particular lynching, etc. James Findlay documents some of this with the work of the NCC in the 1950 and 1960s, though he suggests that for some people in the pews, particularly in the midwest, there was more sympathy for addressing racial issues so long as it was primarily regarded as a problem of Southern segregation and oppression. I am trying to flesh out the clergy/laity issue in more detail as I prepare for a talk on this topic at the AAR. I'm off to Philly to the archives in late September to reexamine some of these materials.

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