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chapter 6 Ministering in Communities of Struggle Having grown up as the child of “lintheads” in Easley, South Carolina, Wilt Browning recalled the tense months in the late 1940s when his father and mother, a loom fixer and a spinner at the Easley Mill, talked quietly over meals about the arrival of union organizers and “the pressure they felt to resist” their enticements. It was still a time when the majority of local disputes, even ones as minor as young men hitting a baseball onto another man’s porch, might be settled by the superintendent of the cotton mill. The arrival of the union was thus a considerable challenge to mill management. Browning, however, remembered it as a “boom time” for local evangelical churches, which received new pews for the sanctuaries , new pianos, or fresh coats of tar or gravel for the parking lot. On a Sunday shortly before a looming union representation election, the mill superintendent attended the services at the Easley Church of God, even though it was not his church, to accept the gratitude of the congregation on behalf of the mill owners who lived elsewhere. The sermon that day at Browning’s church began with the Book of Revelation, chapter 14, dealing with worshipping the beast and receiving his mark. The preacher concluded by reading the verses 19 and 20 of Revelation 19: And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. With those words, the preacher closed the Bible with a thump and claimed that the “mark of the beast would most certainly be conferred first upon union members , people who through greed sought more than their fair share from their employers.”1 Browning’s preacher resembles the iconic clergyman who appears in many histories of the southern working class. Happy with the largesse of the company, 148 chapter 6 mill-village ministers delivered sermons that counseled millworkers to be content with their wages and living standards and to avoid the temptations of union organizers who promised them earthly rewards that guided them away from a life of serving Christ. Whether in mainline denominations or in Pentecostal churches like the one Browning attended, the message of evangelical Protestantism condemned unions, particularly those godless, communistic groups attached to the CIO. Those preachers who frightened workers by claiming that the CIO was the “Mark of the Beast,” and that it stood for “Christ Is Out, Communism Is On,” are the ones that most historians of southern labor choose to feature.2 Some of this is inevitable; CIO activists themselves overstated the power that union-hating ministers wielded. David Burgess prepared the brief for the CIO’s complaints when he testified to Congress in 1950. He then repackaged those charges in everything he subsequently wrote about the CIO’s Southern Organizing Campaign.3 Burgess and those who followed in his wake made a compelling case, one that helps explain away the failures of the CIO to win the hearts and minds of southern workers, but it is not the entire story. The span of ministers’ attitudes and the factors that shaped their responses were far more complicated. As the previous two chapters demonstrated, the post–World War II years comprised a time of interreligious wars over the economic future of the country. Picture of the workers in the Easley Mill where millhands voted against the union. Wilt Browning’s mother is behind and to the left of the woman who is behind and to the left of the man seated at the table. Courtesy of Marlene Burke. Ministering in Communities of Struggle 149 The Depression had energized prophetic, collectivist voices within the religious community. Organizations ranging from the Federal Council of Churches to the Southern Baptist Convention appeared to suggest that God leaned in favor of government intervention in the economy and on the side of collective bargaining. In sharp contrast, the horrors of war and the frightening specter of totalitarian states, whether fascist or communist, convinced others that collectivist solutions and state power were misguided and dangerous. They implied conflict, privations, and a loss of freedom, which ultimately...


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