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  • The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class ed. by Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake
  • Matthew Avery Sutton
The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class
Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016
272 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $28.00 (paper)

In 1844 Karl Marx famously dubbed religion "the opium of the people." Religion, he believed, distracted the proletariat from the true problems they confronted and encouraged them to remain in subjugation. In 1966, Herbert Gutman called on historians to take more seriously the religious beliefs of the working class. Now, in 2016, a group of mostly junior scholars is seeking to overturn Marx by answering Gutman's call. Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake have assembled nine essays that through various case studies seek to analyze how religion shaped and impacted the working class. In so doing, they are building on the pathbreaking work of Ken Fones-Wolf, who penned the foreword to this collection.

A primary goal of the collection, which Fones-Wolf identifies, is to "get under the surface of religious practices and sermons." He believes that "only then can we understand how working people interpreted the messages they heard and how those interpretations affected their actions" (viii). In the words of the editors, this collection seeks to get between the pew and the picket line. The editors believe that a new generation of work, represented by some of the contributors to this volume, has achieved what previous generations did not—a balanced approach to analyzing the labor-religion relationship. "Scholars," they explain in the introduction, "now attend to the complicated and often contradictory ways particular Christian communities, in specific times and places, drew upon the religious idioms available to them to engage, shape, critique, or even reinforce the industrial order. Alongside protest, scholars now consider the multifaceted consequences of even the most mundane religious practice; in place of delusion, scholars now trace the complexity, and sincerity, of working class belief" (11).

Curiously, none of the book's editors contributed essays, even though Cantwell has an excellent manuscript in progress, and Carter just published a great book on religion and labor. Three of the essays are particularly excellent. Jarod Roll focuses on the revivals of early Pentecostal leader Charles Parham in Galena, Kansas. As Roll insightfully explains, the story of this revival "reveals a much larger pattern of creative faith among the mining communities . . . whose inhabitants sought miracles in their dangerous effort to wrest individual wealth from the ground" (77). Miners took pieces of Parham's theology and mixed it with their own folk beliefs, dreams, and aspirations to produce a new theology that served their economic and spiritual interests. Roll provocatively concludes that when Parham arrived, local workers already had a popular faith in the possibility of miraculous transformation that was shaped and inspired by capitalism. It was this preexisting faith that gave birth to and drove the success of Pentecostalism among the working class, not the other way around. Kerry L. Pimblott's innovative essay highlights an under-studied dimension of the Black Power movement—the [End Page 107] role of traditional African American Christianity in helping to shape it. She argues that "whereas civil rights leaders expressed a firm belief in the redemptive power of Christian nonviolence and moral suasion to topple the walls of segregation," Black Power advocates looked to the Old Testament story of Nehemiah to craft a different theology. They wanted to rebuild "a wall of self-preservation and security as a metaphor for their own black nationalist politics of self-determination, armed self-defense, and community control" (116). In other words, the church and the Bible were as central to Black Power, at least in Cairo, Illinois, as they had been in the early civil rights movement. Alison Collis Greene's smart and well-written essay highlights the challenges of religious-secular interracial cooperation over issues of economic justice. Her essay traces the work of the Light of Tyrrell, a credit union in North Carolina, and the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen...


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