Sabrina Reyes-Peters

Union Made

I finished reading Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago by Heath Carter a couple weeks ago.

I do not read proper historical works very often, for the reasons of forgetting names and dates, but I do love having more understanding of certain historical contexts. Union Made certainly helped me gain an understanding of the historical context surrounding the advent of Social Christianity and Social Gospel in the mid 19th century to the early 20th century in Chicago. Before reading this, I only knew of the Social Gospel that was connected to middle-class folks, since it has been held by some (according to Carter), that the social gospel originated with them.

Here’s what I learned: in short, there is nothing new under the sun. Wealth is not easily resisted, and never will be. Wealthy people have, for the most part, routinely exploited the working-class (or poor), and reading Union Made was only a reminder of that. What is even more painful is the reminder that Christians have participated and continue to participate in that exploitation.

Churches in Chicago start as very humble buildings, and ministers are paid low wages, just like the working class. But when the economy picks up near the mid 19th century and the population increases, along with the population of affluent folks, nicer churches are built, and ministers are able to increase their salary. Some ministers even start renting out church pews to keep up with the maintenance of the new church buildings. (This was unfathomable to me. It singles out the working class who can’t afford them, and they stop going to those churches.)

Not many ministers take up the cause of the working-class in the earlier days. In fact, they mostly side with the affluent. Why? The rich own the churches. Ministers speak out against the labor movements, preaching a works-oriented, individualistic, capitalist gospel: a man must pick himself up by his own bootstraps; regulations are unnecessary. Many religious leaders have similar things to say about strikes and demonstrations as people do today: unseemingly, at the least, and totally wrong at the most. Meanwhile, people who become leaders in the labor movements start to make connections between the struggles of the working-class, and the gospel. Mainly, Christianity should be on the side of the poor, so ministers should support their struggles.

The movement doesn’t stop, even though D.L. Moody comes into town and starts tent revivals for the working-class (in order to get them back into church, so they would stop with the organizing), even through different factions of the labor movements: anarchists and Marxists, strikes, and demonstrations ending in violence (at least once due to police intervention). It picks up more support from clergy along the way, but eventually the leaders of the various groups decide to compromise with the middle-class: create unions, but do not get more radical than that. And so the social gospel was wrongly remembered: as a middle class phenomenon.

Even though I am not good at keeping track of names and dates (and there are MANY names in this book I cannot remember), I enjoyed the narrative that was presented in Union Made with concise, compelling language (the book is under 200 pages without the bibliography, which is around 100 pages). I also appreciated that it was thoroughly documented, because not all history books list so many sources. Since my only complaint is that I wanted the narrative in this book to keep going, my next step is to refer to the bibliography and endnotes for more.

If you are at all curious about this era (roughly, the Gilded Age) as it relates to the church and labor organizing, I recommend this work. If you are concerned about the role the church has played in perpetuating the status-quo, I recommend this work. If you like reading historical works in general, I recommend this work. If you like books, I recommend this work. Go forth and read.

If you have any recommendations for similar books, I’d like to know about them. I already have Guaranteed Pure on my list; are there any others?