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Reviewed by:
  • The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class ed. by Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake
  • Janis Thiessen
Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds., The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2016)

The Pew and the Picket Line is a welcome contribution to the recent dialogue between religious history (or the history of lived religion) and the history of the working class. In the its foreword, Ken Fones-Wolf praises the book for evaluating the role of Christianity in the lives of the working class without reducing it to a question of Christianity’s ability to “assist or impede class formation.” (vii) The editors’ introduction argues that the faith of workers shaped both American Christianity and American capitalism. They provide an extremely useful overview of the historiography of labour and religion and their intersection, highlighting changes in these fields and innovations of the last decade, including the new history of capitalism and the history of lived religion.

The essays in this collection are grouped into two sections. The first, “Manufacturing Christianity,” includes five essays that discuss workers as part of the history of Christianity. The second, “Christianizing Capitalism,” contains four essays that address religious workers’ influence on capitalism.

In the first essay in Part One, Dan McKanan examines the literary works of George Lippard and Ignatius Donnelly, two 19th-century novelists who made use of “esoteric Christianity” to inspire the workers who were their target audience. Their writing demonstrates that lay people were interested in and working on theological issues related to labour long before Protestant clergy and theologians were doing so. McKanan argues that these authors’ understanding of social sin was also “more profound” than those [End Page 356] who later developed the Social Gospel. (24) They saw that sexual exploitation of women and religious leaders’ hypocrisy were connected to capitalism, for example, and were aware that “efforts to overcome oppression might reconstitute that oppression in a new form.” (33)

Evelyn Sterne discusses the role of the Catholic church in developing leadership skills in workers in Providence, Rhode Island, and the workers’ subsequent use of those skills both in building the labour movement and in critiquing the church itself. For these workers, she concludes, the church was “a vehicle that mobilized people who lacked other institutions through which to advance their interests.” (69)

The legacy of Charles Fox Parham, one of the founders of Pentecostalism, is re-examined by Jarod Roll. Roll counters the traditional views of the origins of Pentecostalism as either an escapist response by workers to the problems of industrial capitalism, or a way to resist capitalism through religious means. He demonstrates that revivalism was rather a function of worker belief in the “magic” of late Gilded Age capitalism. (77) The work lives of miners in Galena, Illinois were predicated on a belief that the hard work of their bodies might make them rich. “Their faith in individual economic miracles played a crucial role in the creation of Pentecostalism,” he concludes, “not the other way around.” (91)

The two final essays in this first section are by Matthew Pehl and Kerry Pimblott. Pehl discusses the work of the Detroit Industrial Mission, a group of Protestant middle-class pastors who took jobs in the auto industry in the 1950s in order to examine the connection between faith and work for the working class. The pastors’ class position prevented them from seeing aspects of religiosity in the lives of autoworkers that differed from their own. Pimblott counters the common view of the de-Christianizing of Black Power, exploring the use by this movement in Cairo, Illinois of the Biblical story of the nation-building Nehemiah.

The essays in Part Two of this edited volume skew more towards labour history than religious history, and so will be more familiar ground for many labour historians (and thus receive less detail in this review). In the first essay, Arlene Sánchez-Walsh examines the non-institutional Catholic beliefs of a female communist leader of a 1938 strike by Mexican pecan shellers in...


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pp. 356-358
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