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  • “Salvation through socialism”Conversion in the Work of Jack London and Upton Sinclair
  • Andrew J. Ball (bio)

The most common motif in early twentieth-century radical literature is the conversion narrative. Walter Rideout has observed that the conversion story is a central element in one-third of all the labor novels written in the first three decades of the twentieth century. A variation on the bildungsroman, these works feature techniques used by evangelical revivalists and depict conversions to socialism or to the labor movement that are modeled on religious experience. Here, a character’s salvation is achieved through the acquisition of class consciousness, which is described as a kind of rebirth, awakening, or recognition of revelation.1 The most widely read and emblematic radical authors to consistently employ this trope were Jack London and his protégé Upton Sinclair. Not only did London and Sinclair use the conversion story in their fiction and nonfiction time and again, but they also both described their own discovery of socialism as a religious conversion. In their work, both authors seek to conflate Christianity and socialism, to prove that the two are compatible, and that authentic conformity to Christian principles demands the endorsement of socialism. London and Sinclair use their writing as an instrument of evangelism that aims to convince their audience that socialism is a religious enterprise and a means to salvation.

Evangelists for the Church of the Revolution

Jack London’s fervent devotion to socialism is well known, but he is not typically remembered as a Christian socialist. However, in both his essays and his fiction, as Jay Williams [End Page 219] puts it, “socialism and Christianity” run “in the same stream bed.”2 Though London’s “deeply spiritual” interpretation of socialism is most overt in the work he produced from 1899 to 1906, “the religious element in London’s rhetoric is never lost” and remained “a constant for him throughout his life.”3 “Christian imagery and rhetoric abounds” in London’s early essays, where he first begins to present socialism as a religion that is synonymous with authentic Christianity.4 Biographer Carolyn Johnston argues that London not only believed he had found “salvation through socialism” but that it “could provide salvation” for all Americans as well.5

London’s identification of Christianity and socialism can be traced back to his early tutelage under Frederick Irons Bamford, a reference librarian at the Oakland public library and proponent of the Social Gospel who endorsed the Christian socialism of minister-activists George Herron and Walter Rauschenbusch. Bamford acted as a mentor to young London in the 1890s, guiding the reading that would ultimately lead London to champion socialism and to persistently interpret it through the lens of Christianity. Joan London writes that her father’s early acquaintance with Bamford “was destined to dictate the course of his life,” and Williams notes that while “London was too radical to be called a Social Gospeler, he did agree with its major tenets.”6 The sustained influence of this early study of the Social Gospel is evident in that in the years to come, after he had long outgrown Bamford and become increasingly versed in Marxist theory and scientific socialism, London, like his friend Upton Sinclair, continued to approach socialism as a moral imperative.

The period of London’s most fervid interest in socialism, 1899–1908, coincides with the time when he was engrossed in the study of Christianity and the figure of Jesus in particular. Throughout this period, he publicly represented the socialist cause as a religious endeavor and privately compiled notes and research for the grand “Christ novel” he planned to write. Johnston explains that London was both “a socialist minister” and an “evangelist for socialism” who engaged in a tireless “crusade” to spread the “revolutionary gospel,” effectively making him “the Charles Finney” or “the Billy Sunday of the socialist movement.”7 Prior to his famous 1905–6 lecture tour, London’s “preaching” was confined to print.8 In 1899, London entered Cosmopolitan editor John Brisbane Walker’s essay contest and won with his essay “What Communities Lose by the Competitive System.” Walker, a millionaire and would-be preacher “who wrote Christian sociological essays...


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pp. 219-232
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