- Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement, 1866–1912 by William A. Mirola
Chicago’s importance as a center of labor activity hardly needs repeating in this publication; however, such an extensively researched location is not necessarily an exhausted one, as this recent work by William A. Mirola proves. Redeeming Time focuses on a small but important sliver of that story: the largely ignored intersections and interactions between Protestant clergy and labor activists in the city of Chicago during its rise as an industrial metropolis. Mirola anchors his narrative around the eight-hour movement in order to give form and direction to his detailed analysis. In essence, this is a book about failure, the failure of Protestant clergy to influence employers to “humanize the work place,” as Robert Bruno details in the rear of the volume (235), and their failure to present an appealing Protestant vision to the largely Catholic immigrant workforce in Chicago.
If failure is the central theme of the book, it is worth stating at the outset that the book itself is no failure. Mirola has managed to construct a flowing text based on deep reading of some challenging sources. The seam of history he has chosen to explore, between religion and labor, is a rich one that has been sorely neglected. His focus on a single city was a smart move that keeps the story focused and allows him to zoom in on some interesting episodes. Some particularly useful details emerge in little-known and rare exceptions to the rule that Protestant clergy failed to reach out to the workforce. For example, the cases of Rev. C. H. Doolittle, Rev. George McNutt, and the clerical board of arbitration in the Swift and Company Packers strike of 1903. In the first case, Doolittle was a “pastor-machinist” at the Troy Laundry Machinery Company who saw workers threatening to strike, prayed at his workbench, and then told his workers to “act more conservatively” (166), forming a committee with other workers that won a decrease in work hours and a slight wage increase. As Mirola notes, “Doolittle’s lesson was to settle all strikes with prayer but … it was organizing [and] confronting and negotiating with employers that won these workers their nine-hour day.” In the second, McNutt experienced the realities of overwork and thereafter demanded change. And in the third case, a rare outbreak of ecumenism led clergy from the Congregational, Baptist, and Catholic denominations to form a board of arbitration. Rather predictably, it ended in disaster, displeasing employers and enraging workers with its decision (167–68).
The main argument of the work is that the eight-hour movement was not simply a secular protest in favor of improved living conditions but that it “embodied moral belief about the nature of work and leisure” (207). The book neatly traces the debates and circumstances that prompted and then limited clerical intervention in this issue. The Protestant denominations were largely dominated by the wealthier classes of American society. Although they offered some sanctimonious words in support of the eight-hour [End Page 122] movement, these were little more than words. Their self-awareness of this fact was an interesting revelation. In 1886 the Living Church wrote: “Our missions to the poor will fail as long as our missions to the rich are powerless” (115). Of course, Protestant criticism was half-hearted; they knew who buttered their bread. Other denominations with fewer wealthy adherents had other priorities; the Methodists were more focused on the temperance movement, and the Baptists “were more concerned with spiritual reform than industrial reform” (202). Various labor groups appealed to Protestant organizations in religious terms for support throughout the eight-hour movement. The author argues that Protestant clergy were slow to realize any disconnect between their Christian faith and industrial causes. In 1910 the Episcopal Diocese reported: “Can a Christian man as a member of a corporation profit by unchristian methods of...