Union Made

Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago

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Heath W. Carter
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2015.
     296 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199385959.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Set in the Windy City, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago recounts the developing relationship between working-class labor movements and Christianity in nineteenth century America. As author Heath Carter explains, Union Made “recasts the history of social Christianity.” Rather than analyzing the development of the Social Gospel through the lens of middle-class reformers and clergy, Carter positions working-class individuals at the center of this theological moment in the late nineteenth century. In so doing, the book provides a more textured understanding of the way in which class functioned in the development of social Christianity.

While the work does not venture much outside the confines of the city of Chicago, it traces the history of the city’s relationship to Christianity from the early nineteenth century to the dawn of the twentieth. In the midst of Chicago’s growth throughout this period, ministerial compensation rose as congregations became more and more affluent. The differentiation between ministerial compensation and working-class compensation set the stage for conflict between Christianity and the working class.

As conflict grew between working-class individuals and clergy, advocates like Andrew Cameron, editor of the Workingman’s Advocate, criticized Christian ministers for failing to hold employers accountable to Christ’s teachings. Many ministers, however, were financially beholden to the wealthy elite within their congregations. The failed 1867 general strike received harsh criticism from ministers who characterized the strike as lawless and mob-like.

Lacking the support of churches, many working-class men withdrew, causing ministers to worry about declining attendance. As workers took more radical stances and the threat of socialism began to take hold, ministers were caught between supporting and evangelizing the city’s work force while also seeking to resist the more radical tactics of the working class. According to Carter, the creation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) helped to soften the radical edge of the growing labor movement, making ministers more amendable to the prospect of lending their support. The AFL’s emphasis on incremental change helped to draw in the middle-class support that would come to populate the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Thus, according to Carter, it was not the middle-class Social Gospel advocates that created social Christianity; rather, working-class individuals who fought for union and worker rights crafted and relied upon an understanding of Christianity that would later be accepted among the middle classes.

Carter’s work offers a helpful intervention within the historiography of American religion by emphasizing the role of working-class individuals in the creation of social Christianity during this era. Such an intervention shifts perceptions away from the more paternalistic elements of the middle-class Social Gospel towards the more liberative theological claims created by working-class individuals.

Though a helpful perspective, Union Made raises a couple of questions that merit further investigation. The centrality of Chicago in this narrative raises questions as to how social Christianity may have developed in other cities. While the data and history of Chicago might make the location exemplary for a study of this nature, it may also limit the applicability of Carter’s argument. Such a positive reading of a ground-up working-class movement may not hold for other American cities. Carter’s work also raises questions regarding the relationship between what he describes as middle-class social Christianity with the more working-class theological construction of his study. He suggests that Walter Rauschenbusch serves as a figurehead of the more middle-class movement, but Rauschenbusch formed his understanding of social Christianity living amongst working-class German immigrants in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. While Union Made seems to suggest a dichotomy between these two types of social Christianity, there may be a closer relationship than the work lets on. Lastly, while Carter addresses issues of immigration and race tangentially, the work seems to focus more upon a predominately white cast of historical actors. There remained a lingering question as to how race factored into this particular construction of social Christianity.

These questions merit further investigation, but they do not detract from the many helpful insights contained within this solid historical work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Gardner is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Heath W. Carter is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University, where he teaches a variety of courses on the history of the modern United States. He is a co-editor of two forthcoming volumes on religion in American history.

Keywords: 

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