Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight Hour Movement, 1886–1912 by William A. Mirola (review)
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Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight Hour Movement, 1886–1912. By William A. Mirola. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. Pp. 250. $49.50 cloth)

Redeeming Time examines the challenge of organized workers to gain legal and social sanction for the “eight hour day,” especially between 1840 and 1900. Approaching this history as a sociologist and not as an historian, Mirola performs only a modicum of original historical research and analysis. Rather, Mirola’s goal is to highlight for sociologists of social movements the value of religious rhetoric as a tool in changing consciousness. His chapters trace how, despite the labor movement’s success in passing legislation for an eight-hour day in Illinois in the 1860s, none of this legislation was enforced—it did not affect business practices—until the labor movement was able to secure allies within Chicago’s Protestant clergy in the 1890s and 1900s.

Mirola argues that the failure of the eight-hour movement in the 1860s was largely a result of insufficient allies. Clergy largely condemned working class use of their leisure time. In the 1870s, especially because of financial crises and the mass migrations of German and Eastern European socialists, clergy were even less friendly to organized labor and organized demonstrations of workers did little to change middle-class sentiments. To Mirola, this chasm between labor and elites began to close when the Knights of Labor foregrounded the Christian and moral goals of the labor movement, beginning in the 1880s. Knights brought attention to supportive clergy and invited them to their events. Meanwhile, some clergy themselves were drawn to socialist reforms of the capitalist system. In the 1880s and 1890s, Mirola argues, middle-class Progressive reformers finally began to echo the religious rhetoric of laborers and form a “consciousness” of regard for the problems of laborers. Mirola understands the Social Creed of the Churches, first developed in 1908, as evidence that the new clerical consciousness that workers helped develop had laid the foundation for a “new and specifically religious discourse,” which [End Page 110] clergy adopted in the Social Gospel movement (p. 195).

It seems reasonable to trust Mirola’s argument that there are few studies that examine the “processes of strategic religious framing” as a movement that struggled to garner allies among elites and other outsiders, and almost none that examine this in the “context of labor activism” (p. 16). To the extent Mirola illuminates the way religious framing helped the labor movement to gain sympathetic allies, he suggests that this pattern may serve as a lesson for labor and social movements today.

However, as a work of historical scholarship, the book oversimplifies the clerical class and the provocations for the rise of clerical support for the labor movement in Chicago. Mirola is aware of the broad spectrum of ministers and correct about when some ministers started supporting the labor movement, but his conclusion that ministers supported the labor movement because of the rhetoric of workers is unsubstantiated in his evidence. Recent scholarship reveals that some ministers supported the labor movement because they came from that class, while others were trained in sociology, economics, or “Applied Christianity.” Moreover, many ministers supported the “alleviation of poverty” without supporting the labor movement at all. Mirola understands ministerial support for the end of poverty as a victory for labor rhetoric, but this is an interpretive leap.

Moreover, Mirola misunderstands the Social Creed as anything more than a clerical statement of support for the poor. He quotes the creed’s support for “the gradual reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point” but fails to acknowledge that neither this statement nor the actions of the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 actually defended the eight-hour day (p. 186). Elite rhetorical support for the struggles of the poor may have been a boon for laborers at the level of “consciousness,” and we ought to take this seriously on its own. Yet, the Federal Council framed their rhetoric so vaguely as to obscure their unwillingness to defend unions themselves. We must treasure studies of rhetoric but take care to recognize their limitations. [End Page 111]


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