Review — Union Made (Heath W. Carter)

Carter, Heath W. Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780199385959. Hardcover, e-book. 296 pages.

The social gospel is often (and understandably) linked to the work of liberal theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, or prominent activists such as Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. To be fair, their respective efforts were influential on the progressive movement in general, and they should not be discredited, however the rise of what became known as “social Christianity” owes far more debt to the localized efforts of working people and sympathetic clergymen within the Chicago area. In his lucid and extensively documented work Union Made, historian Heath W. Carter offers a counter-history to prevailing notions of the social gospel as a top-down movement for radical change.

Carter begins by detailing the preexisting conditions in Chicago which, unfortunately, created economic and existential disparity between the clergy and their mostly working-poor congregants. As Chicago experienced high levels of industrial development in the mid-to-late 1800’s, the working class began to experience the overbearing brunt of the wealthy elite and their predilections for unfettered capitalism. Progressive efforts to reform the workplace were discouraged and at times outright rejected—seen in resistance to eight-hour workdays, union organization, higher pay, and better treatment for women—from both management and the press (who were often shills for some of the business magnates in Chicago). Ironically, the income of many clergymen rose as well, financed in large part by the wealthy elite who paid for preferential treatment, such as reserved seating or new, ostentatious places of worship, in stark contrast to the decrepit working and living conditions of their fellow congregants. This particular element of Carter’s research is the most disheartening, but it perfectly captures the tragic irony at work: despite the overwhelming majority of working-class congregants sitting in their pews, many clergy were willfully ignorant of their plight for the sake of material adornment.

While institutional Christianity remained relatively ambivalent or oppositional toward the aims of working-class reform, the working-class at large in turn remained unified in their insistence for change. The power of the press comes out clearly in Carter’s work. Circulars across the city continued to arise from differing streams within the working class (e.g. differing denominations, political ideologies, etc.) and helped spread progressive ideas while illuminating the disparity at work between the clergy and the working class. Because progressive reforms remained fundamentally class-oriented, they were able to transcend ideological or cultural differences within the city to embrace a wide swath of the population. These differences were certainly not erased, but they were unified by common struggle against the wealthy elite.

Moreover, Carter goes on to document the tension between the working class in Chicago and the wealthy elite, detailing how repeated strikes and protests galvanized support for reform and helped swing institutionalized Christianity in favor with at least some of the aforementioned progressive reforms. Carter also details the common thread between radical individuals within the progressive movement in how they understood the contextual application of scripture and the role of Christ, in contrast to their clergy. While the oppositional clergy remained fixated on Christ as a strictly spiritual figure interested only in personal salvation separate from the material conditions of society, these radical reformers understood Christ to be a materially liberating figure, a champion of the working poor. The amalgamation of progressive economic theory and theology gave rise to what became known as social Christianity, or the social gospel. Because the clergy became the most prominent detractors of the working class, those advocating for reform were able to subvert traditional Christianity and offer a substantive critique of the clergy while remaining distinctly theological in their activism. While the debate often centered on the ills of capitalism or socialism in strictly political terminology, the working class movement led a distinctly theological campaign for reform. Thus, for the working poor, activism was thoroughly Christlike, sustaining the impetus for continued resistance to the efforts of the wealthy elite.

As years passed, clergy were forced to confront the reality that their ignorance had cost them far more than a decline in church attendance, but a growing distrust of institutional Christianity for its allegiance to unfettered capitalism, even as this same resistance drew life from a radical interpretation of Christian theology. Although the majority of institutional Christianity remained ambivalent at best toward the efforts of progressive reform—and only settling for a rather conservative union presence in the final years documented within the book—there are many examples of clergy giving clear public support for the working poor. These efforts are a welcome contrast to the aforementioned resistant clergy.

Union Made is a wonderful resource for those interested in the progressive movement and the social gospel. Readers will find the extensive research to be clear and well-written. Yet this book’s greatest achievement is not merely its expansive exposé of social Christianity in Chicago, but how closely it mirrors current movements for economic justice. Will institutional Christianity once again learn the bitter lesson of what happens when it sides with the wealthy elite against the working class? Readers will receive a healthy dose of history, yes, but also encouragement for continued efforts to limit the expanse of unfettered capitalism for the sake of the working poor. This struggle for justice is nothing new, but it is indeed a struggle worthy of the “Christian” descriptor.

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