- Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago by Heath W. Carter, and: No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta by Alison Collis Greene
Heath W. Carter
New York: Oxford University Press, 2015
xi + 277 pp., $35.00 (cloth)
Alison Collis Greene
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
xvi + 317 pp., $34.95 (cloth)
How things change! I can still remember finishing my dissertation on Christianity and labor in Philadelphia in the mid-1980s and feeling exhilarated when a senior scholar in labor history asked to take a look. After a couple of weeks, he handed me a couple of single-spaced pages of comments and told me that he found many positives in the dissertation; he thought the research was strong and the points were well argued. And then he stopped me in my tracks. "Of course," he stated flatly, "I really don't believe it—that religion was all that important to most working people." He thanked me for letting him read it and wished me well in the future. Fast-forward thirty years, and I am delighted to say that the field of labor and working-class history has found God (at least as a research topic). In addition to the books under review here, there is a stack of volumes on my shelf from the past seven or eight years that examine the interplay of religious beliefs and working-class movements.
Heath W. Carter's book, Union Made, explores a well-trodden path—the rise of the Social Gospel movement—but discovers that for all the traffic, few travelers have wandered the side roads that reveal the essential contributions of working people to social Christianity. For Carter, there was a decisive break in the "long-harmonious relationship between the churches and labor" (36) in the rapidly expanding frontier metropolis of Chicago following the Civil War. Fretting about disruptive strikes, the dangers of mobs, and the growing potential of European-style communism after Paris in 1870, leading clergy and religious publications flocked to the side of law and order at the expense of the legitimate grievances of working-class congregants. Christian spokespersons increasingly interpreted the turmoil that came with labor actions and working-class political activity as evidence that the heavily immigrant workers in the city had imbibed socialism and atheism. The hope that Christians would form a united front for order and economic expansion, however, collided with the suspicions and animosities dividing Protestants and Catholics, making possible the rise of Carter Harrison's machine, which sought to carefully manage a temporary truce in class conflict.
Although the clergy decried the abandonment of churches by the working class, working people did not abandon Christian idioms for announcing their frustrations and aspirations. Carter is intent on narrating the intellectual history of the working class: how [End Page 110] they "hammered out social gospels in union meetings, socialist publications, and anarchist demonstrations" (5). They then took these lived theologies into the sanctuaries. As tensions escalated amid the transformation of workplace relations, working-class Christians expected the churches to acknowledge that the true teachings of Jesus demanded the denunciation of the money changers and exploiters of labor. Anarchists such as Dyer Lum turned the Bible against the poor examples of empathy made by clergy, who offered "no words that to our wants applied" but who instead warned that life was "a vale of tears, in which all badness is by the unchurched infidels supplied" (88). Of course, the drama of Haymarket and Pullman reinforced the prejudices of Chicago's Christians, who rationalized the use of violence against radicals by pointing to the rift between working people and religious institutions.
The 1890s marked yet another sharp turn for labor's gospel. Finding little solace in the attitudes of clergy, working people struck out on their own during the Depression years. They created their own labor church alternatives to established churches and...