Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Heath W. Carter's "Union Made"

Heath W. Carter is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University, where he teaches courses on modern United States history.

Carter applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
The same Tribune article…included also a summary of English labor leader Ben Tillet’s stern speech, which heaped ridicule upon “parsons [who] denounce the Prince of Wales for playing baccarat [while] they shut their eyes to the operations of the sweaters and heartless capitalists who rob the laborers of body and soul.” The news from New York and Newcastle-on-Tyne, Minneapolis and Milwaukee, and countless other places was much the same: “the laboring classes are drifting away from the church,” as one Methodist preacher at a conference in Omaha put it.
As it turns out, Union Made was made for the page 99 test. The book argues that working people keyed the rise of social Christianity, catalyzing a remarkable early-twentieth-century turnabout in which the churches, after decades of vehement opposition, finally embraced organized labor. This brief excerpt captures two of the fundamental dynamics driving the story. First comes the quote from Ben Tillet, which captures the essence of working people’s critique of the churches: namely, that they were preoccupied with minor matters such as card games and gambling, while they remained deafeningly silent – or, worse, outright hostile – to trade unions and their insistence that the gravest moral issue of the day was the plight of the worker. Indeed, lay believers like Tillet preached and practiced social gospels long before most middle-class ministers did.

Second was the clergy’s fear that “the laboring classes are drifting away.” It was this mounting anxiety, more than any other single factor, which prompted church leaders of nearly every denomination to reconsider their views on the labor movement. How did they come to see embracing trade unionism as the way forward? Because for a generation workers had been telling them it was. They began by warning that they would leave the churches if they did not support trade unions and before long they began to follow through. To much fanfare, labor founded a church of its own in 1894 Chicago – one which made no distinction between the mechanic and the millionaire. Later that same year, when the city’s clergy, almost to a person, criticized the Pullman Strike, they found themselves confronted by angry parishioners, some of whom voted with their feet and stormed right out of sanctuary doors. Experiences such as these prompted many a minister to see the answer to the nation’s industrial crisis and the church’s membership crisis as one and the same: champion the brand of conservative labor reform touted by the American Federation of Labor (as opposed to, say, the radical brand of the Industrial Workers of the World – or Wobblies – who got their start in Chicago in 1905). In other words, the middle-class Social Gospel you can read about in textbooks was, in its own surprising way, also union made.
Visit Heath W. Carter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue