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

Self-protection and trade-unionism especially enjoyed the blessings of God. A Louisville cigar maker argued: "The toilers are coming out of dark- ness into light and ... have dared to organize, to come in closer touch with our Lord's will and the teachings of Jesus Christ." He prophesied: "The time is not far distant when the wage earners shall stand on the rock of in- dependence and sing, 'Nearer, My God, to Thee.' (p.85)


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


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