Evaluating the Social Gospel Movement

Janine Giordano Drake

Historians are currently debating an important question: To what extent was the Social Gospel movement empowering for working people? To what extent was it defeating? I expect the debate to run for a while.

First, Heath Carter's 2015 Union Made firmly argues that it was editors of working class newspapers, union leaders, and their rank-and-file colleagues who "made" the Social Gospel movement. That is, they advanced a version of Christian producerism and demanded that they were in fact deserving of a greater share of the blessings of economic productivity.  Carter locates this producerist tradition in the nineteenth century, so he identifies Anglo-Protestant artisans and working class intellectuals like Andrew Cameron as representative examples of this Gilded Age, working class Christian tradition.  Carter sees the roots of the Social Gospel in the conservative, Anglo-Protestant trade-union movement of the nineteenth century. He thus identifies the Social Gospel as a generative, empowering, working class movement in early twentieth century Chicago.

A second new book on the subject also explores Christian producerist protest within the Gilded Age. It, too, seeks to contextualize the protests and pleas of Christian artisans and workers as they became marginalized within a quickly-industrializing city. But, rather than illustrating the creation of the Social Gospel as a triumph for workers, the second is a story of the defeat of a working class social gospel. It shows how the Christian producerist movement in New York City got destroyed by big business, the Catholic Church, and political machines.

Perhaps it is significant that the second book is about New York, rather than Chicago. It focuses on Catholics, rather than Protestants, and it follows the Knights of Labor more closely than it follows the American Federation of Labor.

Nonetheless, Edward O'Donnell's Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality  illustrates the extent to which working class people were thwarted in their efforts to advance a very similar "social gospel" (which Carter describes).* Put another way, the social gospel advanced by Henry Geroge was destroyed by the 1890s. It did not advance the cause of American workers in the long run, and certainly did not neatly dovetail with the Social Gospel movement of clerics and reformers in the Progressive Era.

One key difference between the books is in the ways the two authors, looking at two different cities, view the "working class" differently. To Carter, highly-skilled, trades-union men in Chicago are (at least one key component of) the working classes. To O'Donnell, working class Christian producerism coheres much more closely around the Irish-American Knights of Labor and the tenant, frequently immigrant, classes. O'Donnell illustrates a Central Labor Union in New York profoundly aware of the differences in class among its members. Carter illustrates a trades union assembly in Chicago that rejects radicalism as an "ism" rather than a set of poorer, non-Protestant, and less empowered compatriots.  O'Donnell's working classes are seeking a remedy to the growing urban inequality between Gilded Age rich and poor. Carter's working classes feel disempowered economically and socially, but they are not really interested in broad social levelling. In fact, they are on their way toward substantive cooperation with the Anglo-Protestant elites of the city within the coming, Progressive Era.

Both scholars have good reasons for calling their subjects "working classes," for both sets of workers think of themselves as virtuous producers and in contrast to that growing class of the super-rich. Both see the growing number of expensive cathedrals as hypocritical. However, these two populations are really quite different.  Anglo-Protestant artisans get "heard" in Chicago in the Progressive Era in a much louder sense than Catholic workers get "heard" on the city streets of New York in the same decades. You might pinpoint those differences on religion (Anglo-Protestants, after all, see themselves as the world's supreme race in the 1900s, so they identify with one another across the class chasm more quickly). Or you might focus those differences on skill level. (The American Federation of Labor defends the virtues of skilled tradesmen in part by cutting proletarianized workers and the unemployed out of their bargaining units). The difference in city matters, too. To grossly oversimplifly, New York in receives a lot more Italians and Jews, and Chicago receives a lot more Poles, Scandinavians, and German radicals. Despite the differences in the ways the books are framed, both come to convincing conclusions based on their own evidence. Nonetheless, the two books, taken together, illustrate the fact that the Social Gospel movement dovetailed quite well with the goals of some laborers (especially, white, Anglo-Protestant men) while it crushed the goals of others (especially, radical and proletarianized Catholics).

Moreover, the books illustrate the glaring fact that working class Anglo-Protestants had a very different relationship with their local churches than working class Irish Catholics had with theirs. While working class Anglo-Protestants (at least in Chicago), built positive relationships with clerics and reformers, radical working class Catholics were frequently at war with the bishops and archbishosp of their diocese. Radical politics were not just rejected by many Catholic churches, but theologically condemned. Priests who professed solidarity with certain radical ideas were not just rejected but excommunicated. While Catholic and Protestant workers may have shared similar opportunities for social mobility within the space of the union hall in the Central Labor Union, their hope for reform through their respective churches could hardly be farther apart.

When we think about who "made" the Social Gospel movement and whom it benefited, we need to keep in mind the limits to a study on a single community and the fact that "working class" meant both everything and nothing during certain moments of the Gilded Age. That said, I find both of these books tremendously well-written and well-argued. I look forward to assigning both of them and engaging in this very important debate.

*Granted, the Union Labor Party did not have the same exact goals as the broadly-conceived social gospel movement in Chicago. They did have a lot in common.


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