For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Protestantism and the American Labor Movement: The Christian Spirit in the Gilded Age"

by Gutman, Herbert G (1966)


LABOR historians and others have puzzled over precisely how and why American workers, especially those critical of the new industrial order, re- acted to the profound changes in the nation's social and economic structure and in their own particular status between I850 and I900, but in seeking ex- planations they have studied almost exclusively working-class behavior and trade-union organization and have neatly catalogued the interminable wranglings between "business" unionists, "utopian" dreamers, and "so- cialist" radicals. Although their works have uncovered much of value, the "mind" of the worker-the modes of thought and perception through which he confronted the industrialization process and which helped shape his behavior-has received scant and inadequate attention. American work- ers, immigrant and native-born alike, brought more than their "labor" to the factory and did not view their changing circumstances in simple "economic" terms. So narrow an emphasis ignores the complexity of their lives and experiences and, in general, distorts human behavior. "Events, facts, data, happenings," J. L. Talmon reminds us, "assume their significance from the way in which they are experienced."' These pages examine one of several important but overlooked influences on the disaffected worker's thought: the way certain strands of pre-Gilded Age Protestantism affected him in a time of rapid industrialization and radical social change.

Key Passage

Prophetic Protestantism offered labor leaders and their followers a transhistoric framework to challenge the new industrialism and a common set of moral imperatives to measure their rage against and to order their dissatisfactions. The intensity of religious commitment varied among in- dividuals: it depended upon particular life experiences, and its sources drew from the many strands that made up the web of Protestant tradition. But the influence of the Christian perfectionism and postmillennialism identified with Charles G. Finney and other pre-Civil War and preindustrial evangelical revivalists seems predominant.32 Even this tradition, which em- phasized God's redemptive love and benevolence and insisted that "prog- ress, in all its forms, was divinely directed toward the perfection of the world," took many forms.33 A few examples suffice. In the i86o's, William Sylvis, that decade's most prominent trade-unionist, pitted the God of Chris- tian perfectionism against Malthusian doctrine and asked: "Is it not rea- sonable, is it not Christian, to suppose that the all-wise Being who placed us here, and whose attributes are benevolence and love, could find other means of controlling population than by war, famine, pestilence, and crime in all its forms? "134 More than thirty years later, George E. Ward hailed the coming of the American Railway Union by arguing that "God is infinite and eternal justice" so that "he who strives to promote and establish justice upon earth is a co-worker with God." It followed that union men were "the rapidly-evolving God-men-the genus homo vivified by the eternal truths and energizing principles of the gospel of Christ."35 Another per- fectionist strain, more "emotional," told of man's "sin," but was nevertheless distinctly postmillennial. Celebrating Thanksgiving, a midwestern worker assured the Chicago Knights of Labor:God has given the earth to the children of men; that a few have stolen it all and disinherited the masses, is no fault of God's, but the wickedness of man. . . . We could not know the wickedness of man, could we not see the goodness of God. ... It is perfectly safe to pray for His kingdom to come, and in that prayer you anathematize the present system as bitterly as words could do it.. (p.83)


Protestantism, Social Change, America Labor Movement, The Christian Spirit, Labor History, Utopianism, Disaffection, Knights Of Labor


Links to Reference



How to contribute.