Heath W. Carter’s new book Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford University Press, 2015) offers a bold interpretation of the origins of the American Social Gospel by highlighting the role of labor in both articulating key ideas and activism. He begins in antebellum Chicago with its modest frontier churches in which different classes came together as equals. The prosperity of the post-Civil War era redefined the relationship between labor, capital and the churches bringing new class divisions. Opulent churches of the well-to-do and highly compensated clergy were increasingly compromised in their appeal to the captains of industry. Viewing poverty as a personal failing, while success a measure of divine approval, drew working class resentment. It was in this gilded age that labor activist, with no support from leading seminaries or pulpits, advocated for themselves with appeals to the bible and theological innovation. The battle was between competing interpretations of Christianity in which a radical Jesus stood with the poor. Trade unionists advocated for the eight-hour workday, Sunday rest, just wages, and the abolishing of church pew rentals. Labor criticism, strikes, and demonstrations, brought anxiety to church leadership who were losing the loyalty of wage earners they had long enjoyed. They attempted a strategy to divide the labor movement by denouncing socialist and communist and approving of “sensible” wage earners. Continued pressure from below instigated reluctant middle-class church leaders to address the labor question in what became known as the Social Gospel. Carter has provided a corrective to how we think about the origins of the Social Gospel away from a middle-class progressive initiative to labor as advocates of their own interest.
Heath W. Carter is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University.