The Labour Church

Religion and Politics in Britain 1890-1914

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Jacqueline Turner
International Library of Political Studies
  • London, UK: 
    I. B. Tauris
    , May
     2018.
     304 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781784539436.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In 1891, the Unitarian minister John Trevor founded a “Labour Church” in Manchester, the British mecca of cotton production. Everyone called it a “church” and in The Labour Church: Religion and Politics in Britain, 1890-1914, Jacqueline Turner maintains that it fits this category. Members attended weekly discussions, sang songs, and listened to speakers. As a Unitarian, Trevor shepherded his congregation to see that God was inherent in human beings, and that the labor movement was a religious movement. He supported the church through his publishing company and his magazine, The Labour Prophet, but did not ask members to adopt any particular Christian creed. The church sprang from the tradition of “nonconformist Baptists, Methodists and Unitarians—self-made men, entrepreneurs and aspirational, self-educated workers—who recognized injustice and demanded more than knowing their place and waiting for their rewards in heaven” (6). Trevor himself rejected the divinity of Christ, and the doctrine of the atonement, but strongly believed that the labor movement had a religion. At its height in the late 19th century, Trevor’s Labour Church became an international movement of workers who demanded that capitalism was an exploitative, unethical, and unchristian economic system. In England alone, there were more than 100 churches, with congregations between 200 and 500 members each.  What does this national, even international, network of Labour Churches tell us about religion in the late 19th century? What should we take from the observation that the leadership of the labour church movement shifted in the early 20th century into the hands of the Independent Labour Party? In this work, Turner sets out to answer these questions.

Turner suggests that the movement was fundamentally spiritual given that it functioned as a spiritual safe-haven for people who bristled at the ownership of Christian principles by wealthy aristocrats. Yet, as Turner explains, the Labour Church “left theological questions to private individual conviction but sought the realization of universal wellbeing through the establishment of ethical socialist principles founded in ‘justice and love’” (67). In her reading, the Labour Churches were founded with the intention of exploding the definition of modern religion by sacralizing the political implications of human brotherhood. They invited everyone in, asked them to pursue personal ethics and spirituality, but demanded no commitments to any dogma. At their peak, labour churches nurtured communities of radical socialist women, and Socialist Sunday Schools for children and adults. They fostered both class consciousness and spiritual brotherhood.

In the final chapter, we learn of the ways the growing Independent Labour Party abetted the rapid decline of the labor church movement. Once they eclipsed labor churches as the main socialist vehicle reaching the working classes, they took over the churches. Trevor resisted this change. He even created a new Labour Church Ministry that would send an army of missionaries around the world, preaching the value of spiritual socialism. However, he had nearly no support from the new Labour Church Union, which now federated various congregations, and ran it hierarchically. Once the Labour Party established its own, secular means of political organizing and deputized the Labour Church Union as its handmaiden, they used Labour Churches to disseminate secular party information and build what they saw as modern political party, distancing itself from both spirituality and religion.

The Labour Church is important work for scholars of religion in the late 19th  and early 20th  centuries in a myriad of ways. It articulates some of the working-class origins of the British Social Gospel movement, as well as some of the European origins of what is sometimes called the “Christian Socialist” movement in the United States. The United States, after all, had a number of Labor Churches and Socialist Sunday Schools, all inspired by Trevor’s project.  Moreover, true to Trevor’s vision, many of these American Labor Churches (or People’s Churches) were full of immigrants, and adapted to the cultural and political aims of their particular congregations. In the United States as well, Labor Churches had an intimate, albeit complicated, relationship with the Socialist Party. This book opens up many potential conversations on the comparative history of religion and socialism in the United States and Britain during the same years.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, however, is the terminology that Turner uses to describe this Labour Church religiosity. Turner uses the term “ethical Socialism,” rather than “Christian Socialism,” to describe Trevor and his church. Turner argues that Trevor’s socialism was not a neo-Marxist idea, nor was it a rehashing of 19th century Christian Socialists Frederick Dennison Maurice or Charles Kingsley, for Trevor welcomed freethinkers and agnostics, and intentionally jettisoned any common creeds. Scholars writing about this same group of people in the United States have used a number of different terms to describe the same types of congregations. In his 2011 Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Beacon Press), Dan McKanan describes the labor church and People’s Church tradition as a particular strain of “prophetic Christianity.” Meanwhile, in his 2013 Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus (Oxford University Press), Dave Burns uses the term “infidels,” for he emphasizes their intentional distance from orthodox Christianities. Turner, Burns, and McKanan emphasize different ways that late 19th century workers combined a commitment to social ethics with a criticism of orthodox Christianities. Would we be better off if we shared common terms?

Turner’s work reminds us that working-class religiosities of the late 19th century situated themselves within an international debate with orthodox, Catholics and Protestants. Moreover, the labor movement that developed in the 20th century owes its organizing to many religious presses. Turner suggests that something fundamental about social ethics was lost when the labor movement secularized. Did the American labor movement lose its commitment to personal, social ethics as it secularized over the same period? Turner opens many important doors to further research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janine Giordano Drake is Clinical Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University.

Date of Review: 
March 17, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacqui Turner is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Reading. She holds a PhD from University of Reading.

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