My manuscript examines the contradictory ways that American Christianity shaped – and was reshaped by – the industrial crises of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. I explore how and why the Protestant and Catholic churches, which had been stunningly “democratized” in the antebellum period, came in the Gilded Age to march in lockstep with the nation’s economic elite. Yet in the process I also unearth layers of dissent, telling the stories of pastors and priests who forged partnerships with union leaders; of ordinary believers who rose up against “scab” ministers; and of disaffected laborers who nevertheless found in Christianity resources to critique both “Capital” and the churches that underwrote its rule.
I go on to show that, at the turn of the century, wage earners who had been hammering away at the religious foundations of anti-unionism for nearly a generation did so to startlingly new effect. With both the Protestant and Catholic churches suddenly embroiled in a constructed crisis of working-class attrition, religious leaders turned to respectable workingmen in search of answers. Authorized by this unique cultural moment, trade unionists and their scattered clerical allies exacted unprecedented concessions from the religious establishment. Building upon the success of local and national AFL leaders, who by 1904 had gathered nearly two million workers under their umbrella, they played a pivotal role in changing influential Protestant and Catholic minds on the “labor question.” In early twentieth century Chicago, then, the social gospel was quite literally ascendant – from below.
Ironically, this “union made” gospel had a decidedly middle-class bent, as Protestants and Catholics remained united in their unwavering opposition to anything that whiffed of radicalism. Respectable workingmen helped consolidate social Christianity’s accommodationist shape, I argue, for their cresting influence within the churches and the wider world depended in part upon a willful neglect of the potentially radical implications of their faith. Intent on consolidating their own middle-class status, skilled workingmen readily excluded women, radicals, African Americans, and new immigrants from full partnership alongside them in the defining industrial and religious battles of their day.
My story is set in Chicago, and yet is more than just a Chicago story. I use the geographies, personalities, and conflicts of this particular place to investigate broader questions about the interrelationship of religion and class in industrializing societies across the globe. The advantage of Chicago toward this end is that it was, arguably, the quintessential city of the period: it rose from the ashes of the 1871 fire to become, by the turn of the century, one of the world’s leading urban centers. It was an epicenter of working-class radicalism, of anxiety, experimentation, and sometimes violent confrontation vis-à-vis the “labor question”; but it was also a hub of religious innovation and activity, home to a breathtaking array of ethnically-inflected parishes, to many of the greatest revivalists and modernists of the age, and even in 1893 to the World’s Parliament of Religions. God and Mammon did not inhabit discrete worlds. In Chicago, as elsewhere, smokestacks and steeples raced up into the same sky in a competition to cast longer shadows over people’s lives.
Historiographically, my project is situated at the oft-neglected nexus of religious and working-class history. But even beyond these academic debates, it broaches questions of enduring political and ethical significance: about how the churches made their peace with an economic system within which the mighty were not cast down and the lowly were not exalted; as well as about how Americans more broadly came to accept the dramatic inequalities that shape our society still today.