Washington Gladden and the 19th Century Labor Question: A Social Gospel Response

Rev. Norm Erlendson, Middletown, CT

The old adage, "the more things change, the more they remain the same" is certainly true of the plight of the working poor and their struggle for a living wage in the present day, as well as in the Gilded Age. Then, as now, the call by workers for increased wages and benefits did not usually receive a sympathetic hearing by employers or the general public. Then as now, the power of labor was weak in comparison to the power of capital. In the 1870s and '80s the American Labor Movement began to gain momentum on a national scale around a list of demands to improve the lives of the millions of wage earning men and women across all trades and industries. Unionization was a response to cutthroat business practices which kept wages at rock bottom levels. They required long hours of repetitive, strenuous tasks, in factories where working conditions were unsafe and unsanitary. Workers had absolutely no bargaining power because businesses pitted their employees against a steady stream of unemployed immigrants who flooded into American cities by the millions eager to find work. In fact, working men, women and children were caught in a perfect storm of social facts and forces that held them in the firm grip of subsistence level living in which their wealth was literally reckoned in nickels and dimes, and their tenement dwellings were squalid. Their plight was made worse by severe fluctuations in the business cycle that threw millions out of work for months or years at a time, and downturns were seized upon by employers as opportunities to reduce the hours and wages of the laborers they continued to employ. To make their situation worse, local and federal governments did not recognize the right of workers to organize or strike, so police and local militias were used as a first line of defense against strikers, and businesses also retained private agencies to provide them with an ample supply of armed guards to protect strikebreakers.

While workers were banned from forming unions to consolidate their bargaining power, businesses were rapidly consolidating theirs by forming monopolistic corporations to corner their markets and strangle competition. Their profits increased exponentially. The profits of Carnegie Steel Corporation soared from $4 million to $40 million between 1892 and 1900, and Sears Roebuck mail-order profits jumped from $68,000 in 1895 to $2.7 million in 1905. In contrast, the average annual wages of railroad employees increased from $550 to $580 during the same period. Unprecedented amounts of wealth flowed into the hands of a few so that already by 1890 the richest 1% owned approximately 50% of the national wealth. This growing economic disparity between millions of laborers and the captains of industry is but one storyline among many during the Gilded Age that contributed to the "Present Crisis" which Walter Rauschenbusch described in chapter 5 of his 1907 landmark book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. Chief among these contributing factors was the growing income inequality between the monied and working classes which, according to Rauschenbusch, was subversive to democracy. Any shift in economic equilibrium from one class to another, he said,

"is sure to be followed by a shifting of the political equilibrium. If a class arrives at economic wealth, it will gain political influence and some form of representation. If therefore we have a class that owns a large part of the national wealth, … it is idle to suppose that this class will not see to it that the vast power exerted by the machinery of government serves its interests. And, if we have a class which is economically dependent and helpless, it is idle to suppose that it will be allowed an equal voice in swaying political power. The words of Lincoln find a new application here, that the republic cannot be half slave and half free." (Christianity and the Social Crisis, WJKP, Louisville, (reprint with new introduction, 1991), pp.253-54.)

Because the working classes felt increasingly exploited and powerless, the Knights of Labor was founded in 1869 to give them a united and more powerful voice. A general assembly was convened by the Knights in 1878 which adopted a vision statement calling for uniting working people regardless of trade, race or gender into one national labor union, and the creation of a just society in which moral worth, not wealth was the measure of greatness, and where labor and capital cooperated for a common national good that served the interests of all.

Added to this proclamation was a list of fifteen short term goals to improve the lot of all laborers and society at large, which included the following:

  1. To secure to the toilers a proper share of the wealth that they create; [and] all those rights and privileges necessary to make them capable of enjoying, appreciating, defending and perpetuating the blessings of good government.
  2. To arrive at the true condition of the producing masses … by demanding from the various governments the establishment of Bureaus of Labor Statistics.
  3. The reserving of public lands — the heritage of the people — for the actual settler, not another acre for railroads or speculators.
  4. The abrogation of all laws that do not bear equally upon capital and labor.
  5. The enactment of laws to compel chartered corporations to pay their employees weekly, in full, for labor performed during the preceding week.
  6. The prohibition of the employment of children on workshops, mines, and factories before attaining their fourteenth year.
  7. To secure for both sexes equal pay for equal work.
  8. The reduction of the hours of labor to eight per day.

(cited in: Janette Thomas Greenwood, The Gilded Age: A History in Documents, Oxford Press, 2000, pp. 52-53.)

As reasonable as these reform measures sound today, they were largely regarded as radically contrary to the traditional American values of self reliance and unregulated free enterprise. Other cultural headwinds that blew back against the demands of organized labor were the rising influence of Social Darwinian theory and the Horatio Alger dime novels that created a "rags to riches" mythology in which a young man by sheer determination and personal pluck, with a little providence thrown in for good measure, could achieve the American Dream. These wildly popular, moralistic melodramas personalized, and seemed to validate, the theory of Social Darwinism which applied the principles of fierce competition and survival of the fittest that ruled the natural world, "red in tooth and claw", to the realm of human society. Consequently, the titans of capital were lionized and celebrated as the fittest and noblest specimens of humanity, while those who remained in poverty had only themselves to blame.

Rauschenbusch and a few other clergymen saw this clash of social classes as one battle in a larger war of competing social values in which the Church had a large stake. They realized that the Labor Question was one of its main battlefields.

"The demoralization of society which we have tried to bring before us in the last chapter ought to appeal most powerfully to the Church, for the Church is to be the incarnation of the Christ-spirit on earth, the organized conscience of Christendom. It should be the swiftest to awaken to every undeserved suffering, bravest to speak against every wrong, and the strongest to rally the moral forces of the community against everything that threatens the better life among men," (Rauschenbusch, p. 287).

However, most clergy remained silent on the "Labor Problem" or were critical of the Labor Movement when they did speak. A few prophetic voices like Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden defended the right of workers to form unions as one essential component in a larger Christian vision of Social Salvation based on the principles of brotherly love and cooperation, not competition. Gladden also worried out loud that the Christian clergy might lack the conviction and courage to stand against the prevailing winds of the political and economic status quo.

"There is imminent danger that our churches, instead of shaping society, will be shaped by society; that the laws of nature, working themselves out in the world of finance and exchanges, will domineer the Christian law; that the fissure now running through the social world, and threatening to become a great gulf fixed between the employing and laboring classes, will divide the religious world as well," (Working People and their Employers, Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1894, pp.187-88).

Between 1870 and 1915 Gladden pastored churches in New England and Ohio. He was a popular speaker, a politically active citizen and a prolific writer who frequently addressed most of the controversial, social issues of his day. Due to his even tempered demeanor, his genuinely pious spirit, and his well reasoned conversational style, Gladden gained a large audience and subsequently many have conferred on him the honorific title "Father of the Social Gospel".

There is no topic that Gladden addressed more often or more extensively than the intractable, contentious "Labor Question". The issue of labor unrest was thrust upon Gladden early in his career when we was pastor of North Congregational Church of Springfield, Massachusetts. At the time the city had a population of about 30,000. As he tells this story in his memoirs he quickly became convinced that the Christian church had a legitimate role in finding a solution to the Labor problem.

"When my work began in Springfield, in the Spring of 1875, the industries of the country had not yet recovered from the collapse of 1873. It was a season of industrial depression; large numbers of men were out of work, and the outlook for a multitude of industrious and capable men was gloomy. It was about this time that I began a series of lectures to "Working Men and their Employers", which were published, in 1876, in a volume with that title. The field was one into which the pulpit had not often ventured, and my work had to be largely that of a pioneer. But it was becoming increasingly evident that a great social problem was thus forcing itself upon the thought of the world — a problem in the solution of which the Christian church must have a large concern … Against this assumption strenuous objection was raised in those days, and the protest is still heard … It was urged that if men are only "saved" all questions of this nature will solve themselves; that right relations will necessarily be established between social classes. In dealing with this objection, it was only too apparent that the facts did not support it. Many of them were practicing injustice and cruelty, without any sense of the evil of their conduct … If a man was converted and joined the church, it did not occur to him that the fact had any relation to the management of his mill or his factory. (Gladden, Recollections, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1909, p. 248-52.)

Not only did Washington Gladden come to the defense of the Labor Union Movement against the prevailing political and public sentiments of the time, but he took issue with the dominant perspective of the Christian church as well. The most famous and celebrated voice of Christianity at the time, Henry Ward Beecher, who drew thousands to his Sunday services in Brooklyn every week, addressed the labor problem in a sermon during a railroad strike in the summer of 1877. Beecher's message was summarized by a reporter in attendance and published the next day in the New York Times, Monday, July 23, 1877.

"He proceeded to eulogize the working classes, and dwelt particularly on the industry, sobriety, and heroism of the railroad employees, and pointed out the necessity for harmonious working together of the laborer and the capitalist. He explained at great length the elementary principles of political economy, and dwelt particularly on the causes which gave rise to the long depression of trade in this country … He then said: what right had the working men … to say to any one, You shall not work for wages we refuse. They had a perfect right to say to the employers, We shall not work for you, but they had no right to tyrannize over their fellow men … The necessities of the great railroad companies demanded that there should be a reduction of wages. There must be continual shrinkage until things come back to the gold standard … It was true that $1 per day was not enough to support a man and five children, if a man would insist on smoking and drinking beer. Was not a dollar a day enough to buy bread? Water costs nothing. [Laughter.] Man cannot live by bread, it is true, but the man who cannot live on bread and water is not fit to live [Laughter.] A family may live on good bread and water in the morning, water and bread at midday, and good water and bread at night. [Continued laughter.] Such may be called the bread of affliction, but it is fit that man should eat of the bread of affliction. Thousands would be glad of a dollar a day." (cited in: John A. DeNovo, ed, The Gilded Age and After, Scribners, New York, 1972, p. 68-69.)

The Labor Question was made more problematic because strikes frequently precipitated mob violence that was used to discredit the entire labor cause. One of the most notorious incidents was the Chicago Haymarket Labor Riot in May, 1886 in which a policeman was killed by an anarchist bomb thrower. Seven rioters were arrested and the Labor Movement was dealt a costly blow in terms of public support. Sensational reports of the violence and the trial that followed appeared in the popular press that confirmed existing fears against labor unions in the public mind. The following excerpt from an article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in the wake of the Haymarket Riot is a typical example of the popular notion that it was not exploitation by their employers, but their own moral failings that were the cause of all the miseries of the working class.

"The most urgent want of labor to-day is self-control. In this free country no man endowed with average abilities need remain all his life poor. If he has thrift, self-restraint, perseverance, he will pass from the ranks of labor to the ranks of capital. It is the saving man who becomes the capitalist — the man who has force to deny himself indulgences. What a lesson lies in the drink-bill of the American working man, for instance! … At present the working man can hardly make both ends meet. Is it not because he insists on creating capitalists out of the saloon keepers … There may be no bread at home, but there is always beer and whiskey at the bar, and the men who consider themselves the victims of circumstances or the "thralls" of capital squander their earnings, spend their savings in these dens. Can there be a serious labor question while this state of things continues? Can workingmen talk gravely of their wrongs while it is plain to all the world that if they saved the capital they earn they would be comfortable?" (cited in: Janette Thomas Greenwood, The Gilded Age: A History in Documents, Oxford Press, New York, 2000, p. 54.)

Washington Gladden spent his entire career battling against the mindset that blamed the victims of poverty for their own plight. Eventually the force of the argument from personal failings was countered when reports began to be published that indicated more workers were unemployed due to on the job injuries than to drink or indolence. Realizations such as this brought the unique insights of Gladden and other like-minded social reformers into play in the discussions of the sources of social problems in the Gilded Age and Progressive eras. Until then the concepts of systemic sin and institutional injustice were largely unrecognized factors in the creation of social problems. This explained how millions of good Christian men, both capitalists and workers, could be implicated in the creation and perpetuation of national social problems that extended far beyond themselves and their individual actions. Society itself, not merely individuals stand in need of salvation. Proponents of the Social Gospel Movement added a new level of sophistication and insight to the debate over how social justice can be achieved. Their answer was that the makings of a just society are more than the sum of its individual members acting lawfully in their own self interests.

Both Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch died in 1918, and during the next two decades the Social Gospel Movement went into eclipse, but it left an impressive legacy of lasting social reform, and it planted the seeds of reforms yet to come. Four amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified between 1913 and 1920, all of which were progressive causes supported by proponents of the Social Gospel cause. Many other political reforms such as the initiative and referendum, were adopted in many states. In 1935 the National Labor Relations Act, affirming the right of employees to organize into trade unions and to bargain collectively with their employers was passed by Congress, thus fulfilling one of Gladden's most cherished causes.

If Washington Gladden were with us today there is good reason to believe that he would be pleased that many of his causes for a more just and compassionate society are now incorporated into the fabric of American society. However, he might be surprised and disappointed to learn that much of it was done without the Church's leadership. His vision for America as a Christian society in which the Golden Rule holds sway over the activities of Wall street and Main street due to the pervasive influence of the Christian church has not come to pass as he had hoped. One of his fears was that the Church would fail the test of his times by not rising to the challenges it faced. In his later years, with the outcome of his struggles still in doubt, he expressed his fears about the relevance of the Church in the future as a force for social good.

"There is reason for the belief that in these very questions respecting the regulation of our industries, the Christian church is facing today its crucial test. If it can meet these questions frankly and bravely, if it can solve them successfully, its future is secure: it will have won its right to the moral leadership of society. If it fails in this — if this tremendous problem is worked out without its aid, — the world is likely to have very little use for it in the generations to come." (Recollections, pp. 253-54.)

Many of the issues with which Gladden grappled linger with us today, and the relevance of the Church to their solution remains an open question.

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