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

Even the more "conservative" American Federationist found room for labor evangelism. A contributor to the American Federation of Labor's official journal asked for nothing less than "A living Christ moving, living, breathing and dominant in the hearts of a people, not a dead Christianity, dreaming of a dead Christ, but live Christians as live Christs, scattering the table of the money changers in the temples, . . . going down in the poverty- stricken alleys of the robbed industrial slaves, and raising up its victims." This Christianity he called "the real article!"38 Not surprisingly, the labor evangels found the most essential character- istics of the rapidly developing new industrial social order un-Christian and violative of God's will. As early as the i86o's "Uncle Sam" told readers of Fincher's Trades Review that "the present system of labor . . . is a system begotten by the evil one, hell-born" and that it "warred against the heaven- born creation, the system instituted by God for the good of man."39 And the Boston Daily Evening Voice justified a living wage and condemned the maldistribution of wealth by appealing to God: "It is because He has made of one blood all men-because all are brethren-that the differences insti- tuted by men-the chief of which is the money difference-are so morally disastrous as they are.... The elevation of a false god dethrones the real one." (p.84)


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


Links to Reference



How to contribute.