The Pew and the Picket Line

Christianity and the American Working Class

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Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, Janine Giordano Drake
Working Class in American History
  • Champaign, IL : 
    University of Illinois Press
    , March
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Former First Lady Michelle Obama encourages us not to “underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.” Such courage and hope is highlighted in the lives of working people who leveraged their religious faith to bring about cultural change. Their stories are told with rich detail in The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class, edited by Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake. As part of The Working Class in American History series, the book demonstrates that it is ordinary working people inspired by religious faith who are often the true protagonists of history.

Echoing theologian H. Richard Nieburhr, these essays reveal a central insight “that ordinary people have deeply shaped the larger history of Christianity [through] the rise of new sects to champion the uncompromising ethics of Jesus and ‘to preach the gospel to the poor’” (7). These accounts are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, vocations, and geographies, as well as a variety of Christian dogmas, in the shaping of American labor history. Whether by a connection between auto workers on assembly lines in Detroit, who were able to find meaning in the monotony of their labors, or miners in Western Missouri, who were able to find strength to continue their dangerous work inspired by Pentecostal preaching, the text unpacks how influence is a bottom up affair rather than a top down initiative.

This collection also addresses a host of social justice issues shaped by working class individuals who felt compelled to act by their faith in Christ. For example, author Alison Collis Greene in “Radical Christianity and Cooperative Economics in the Postwar South,” recalls the powerful rhetoric that challenged the status quo of economic inequality; revealing the challenging grandiloquenceof one Fellowship of Southern Churches activist, “will the churches of the South, whose denominational roots are revolutionary and whose Holy Book is not a stick of candy but a stick of dynamite, do as much to bring to the farm and factory worker a good wage, a decent house, a free assembly, a brotherhood enfolding all races?” (178).

The challenges presented in The Pew and the Picket Line do not merely recall instances where religion served as a call to action, but also effectively showcases how apathy associated with religion also served to placate workers. The compilation explores how working people shaped and bent their religious beliefs to accommodate their work and make sense of their lives, and how the leveraging of religion by power structures—to keep workers productive on the job—ended up having unintended negative cultural consequences.

In one essay, Matthew Pehl cites a 1961 study conducted by the Detroit Industrial Mission which offers ample evidence that it was the conflating of religion with work that inoculated the assembly line worker from the madness of a monotonous task and served to deflate the spirit of contributing to anything larger than work itself. As Pehl observes, “the religion with which [many workers] are deeply imbued and from which they have fled but not escaped is the religion of merit, of holiness in moralistic terms, of earned righteousness, of do’s and don’ts, mostly the latter … The workingman faces the same thing in the work and the religion available to him. God and the factory are one and the same. The man is dominated by them and coerced by them, but he hates them both, because they have refused him his manhood” (102).

Unintended indifference aside, the collection validates Nieburhr’s thesis, demonstrating how religious working people informed by their faith take actions which impact history. Essays highlight the actions of The United Front, an alliance of black theological and business leaders in Cairo, Illinois, who find inspiration in the work of Old Testament leader Nehemiah; or the metal miners of Galina, Kansas and Joplin, Missouri, who upon hearing the expressive Pentecostal exhortations of Charles F. Parham, found what they perceived to be a supernatural endorsement of their dangerous entrepreneurial gambles, while at the same time illustrating how their religious practices admonished them not to forget the poor working man should their speculations prove successful. These revivals and religious gatherings promoted this ethos, “According to the survey of Joplin’s religious life, ‘Men worth hundreds of thousands are every Sunday seen to grasp the calloused hand of a mine-laborer and say, ‘God bless you brother’” (82).

The editors of The Pew and The Picket Line go to great lengths to illuminate the contributions of marginalized, overlooked, and forgotten laborers—even including contributions of mundane tasks, such as “a small group of Pentecostal women who worked as pecan shellers” (145). Though their words and actions were absorbed by big movements in history, they—along with other laborers displayed in the collection—produced a legacy of benefaction through the decolonized words and restored voices of those who, in the words of contributor Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, “created their own space of activist popular religion despite the opposition of religious institutions and their gatekeepers” (146).

The Pew and The Picket Line illuminates the need to avoid easy assumptions when it comes to religion and workers. People often act and think in unpredictable ways leading to strange turns in human history. By giving readers a glimpse into the documented ways in which people organize—not just around labor concerns, but around what they consider to be eternal concerns—this collection illustrates how ordinary people, when motivated by faith, are capable of extraordinary contributions. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scot Loyd is Assistant Professor of Communications at Oklahoma Baptist Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher D. Cantwell is an assistant professor of public history and religious studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. 

Heath W. Carter is an assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University. 

Janine Giordano Drake is an assistant professor of history at the University of Great Falls.


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