America’s tremendous diversities of faith, region, and ethnicity complicate efforts to generalize relationships between religious groups and the labor movement. Americans’ historic and widely shared commitment to Christianity masks deep divisions: between white Christians and black Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between northern Protestants and southern Protestants, and between “modernist” Protestants (who view the Bible in metaphorical terms as a source of ethical guidance and emphasize social justice) and “fundamentalist” Protestants (who view the Bible literally and eschew social activism in favor of individual evangelizing). Work, class, and the role of the labor movement add extra dimensions to these complexities, which are multiplied when considering non-Christian traditions such as Judaism or the other world religious communities that have grown in the United States since the immigration reforms of 1965.
Nevertheless, scholars accept a general narrative that delineates key periods, themes, and players over the course of the twentieth century. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1930s, the relationship between religion and labor was shaped by the centrality of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the labor movement, the development of a “social gospel” among northern mainline Protestants, and the massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought millions of Catholic and Jewish workers into the United States before it largely ended in the 1920s. These developments were sometimes in tension. The AFL favored craft unionism and placed a premium on organizing skilled male workers; it therefore left out many of the unskilled new arrivals (as well as African Americans and most women). Consequently, the shape of “religion and labor” formed primarily around the dynamic between the AFL and Protestant social reformers, without much regard to the large masses of unorganized Catholic, Jewish, and African American workers.
These dynamics shifted in the Great Depression. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), begun as a committee within the AFL in 1934, sought the organization of entire industries—skilled and unskilled alike, and ethnic Catholics and Jews became unionized in large numbers. Even traditional racial barriers in the labor movement began crumbling in some industries. And, the labor movement expanded its geographical ambition, pushing aggressively into the South. In turn, the religious voices associated with the labor movement broadened and deepened. Labor’s new alliances with Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and southern evangelicals helped to push the ranks of organized workers to historic highs in the 1950s.
This coalition has faced divisive, even disastrous headwinds since the 1960s. The strength of anticommunism, especially within religious groups, caused some religious workers to retreat from the reformist ambitions of the labor movement and sparked a conservative religious movement deeply opposed to labor and liberalism. Race became an ever-hotter flashpoint. Although religiously affiliated civil rights reformers often forged alliances with unions, the backlash and resistance to civil rights among portions of the white working class undermined the efficacy of labor unions as sources of social cohesion. Perhaps most profoundly, the economy as a whole transformed from an urban-industrial to a post-urban service model. Organized labor has floundered in the wake of these changes, and the concomitant resurgence of a traditionalist, individualistic, and therapeutic religious culture has offered the remains of the labor movement little to partner with.
Janine Giordano Drake
The term “Social Gospel” was coined by ministers and other well-meaning American Protestants with the intention of encouraging the urban and rural poor to understand that Christ cared about them and saw their struggles. The second half of the 19th century saw a rise of both domestic and international missionary fervor. Church and civic leaders feared a future in which freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, and other skeptics dominated spiritual life and well-educated ministers were marginal to American culture. They grew concerned with the rising number of independent and Pentecostal churches without extensive theological training or denominational authority. American Protestants especially feared that immigrant religious and cultural traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, were not quintessentially American. Most of all, they worried that those belief systems could not promote what they saw as the traditional American values and mores central to the nation.
However, at least on the surface, the Social Gospel did not dwell on extinguishing ideas or traditions. Rather, as was typical of the Progressive Era, it forwarded a wide-ranging set of visions that emphasized scientific and professional expertise, guided by Christian ethics, to solve social and political problems. It fostered an energetic culture of conferences, magazines, and paperback books dedicated to reforming the nation. Books and articles unpacked social surveys that sorted through possible solutions to urban and rural poverty and reported on productive relationships between churches and municipal governments. Pastoral conferences often focused on planning revivals in urban auditoriums, churches, stadiums, or the open air, where participants not only were confronted with old-fashioned gospel messages but with lectures on what Christians could do to improve their communities.
The Social Gospel’s theological turn stressed the need for both individual redemption from sinful behavior, and the redemption of whole societies from damaged community relationships. Revivalists not only entreated listeners to reject personal habits like drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, gambling, theater-going, and extramarital sex. They also encouraged listeners to replace the gathering space of the saloon with churches, schools, and public parks. Leaders usually saw themselves redeeming the “social sin” that produced impoverished neighborhoods, low-wage jobs, preventable diseases, and chronic unemployment and offering alternatives that kept businesses intact. In the Social Creed of the Churches (1908), ministers across the denominations proposed industrial reforms limiting work hours and improving working conditions, as well as government regulations setting a living wage and providing protection for the injured, sick, and elderly. Sometimes, Social Gospel leaders defended collective bargaining and built alliances with labor leaders. At other times, they proposed palliative solutions that would instill Christian “brotherhood” on the shop floor and render unions unnecessary. This wavering on principles produced complicated and sometimes tense relationships among union leaders, workers, and Social Gospel leaders.
Elements of the Social Gospel movement have carried even into the 21st century, leading some historians to challenge the idea that the movement died with the close of the Great War. The American Civil Liberties Union and Fellowship of Reconciliation, for example, did not lose any time in keeping alive the Social Gospel’s commitments to protecting the poor and defenseless. However, the rise of “premillennial dispensationalist” theology and the general disillusionment produced by the war’s massive casualties marked a major turning point, if not an endpoint, to the Social Gospel’s influence as a well-funded, Protestant evangelical force. The brutality of the war undermined American optimism—much of it fueled by Social Gospel thinking—about creating a more just, prosperous, and peaceful world. Meanwhile, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s campaign against alleged anarchists and Bolsheviks immediately after the war—America’s first “Red Scare”—targeted a large number of labor and religious organizations with the accusation that socialist ideas were undemocratic and un-American. By the 1920s, many Social Gospel leaders had distanced themselves from the organized working classes. They either accepted new arrangements for harmonizing the interests of labor and capital or took their left-leaning political ideals underground.
Joan R. Gundersen
Episcopalians have built, reimagined, and rebuilt their church at least three different times over the course of 400 years in America. From scattered colonial beginnings, where laity both took major roles in running Church of England parishes and practiced a faith that was focused on worship, pastoral care, and good works, Anglicans created a church that blended hierarchy, democracy, and autonomy. It took time after the disruptions of the American Revolution for Episcopalians to find their place among the many competing denominations of the new nation. In the process women found new roles for themselves. Episcopalians continued to have a large impact on American society even as other denominations outpaced them in membership. As individuals they shaped American culture and became prominent advocates for the social gospel. Distracted at times as they tried to balance catholic and Protestant in their thought and worship, they built a church that included both religious orders and revival gatherings. Although perceived as a church of the elite, its members included African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and union members. Episcopalians struggled with issues of race, class, and gender throughout their history. After World War II, their understandings of the teachings of Jesus pulled a majority of Episcopalians toward more liberal social positions and created a traditionalist revolt eventually resulting in a schism that required new rebuilding efforts in parts of America.
Catherine A. Brekus
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.
It is virtually impossible to understand the history of the American experience without Protestantism. The theological and religious descendants of the Protestant Reformation arrived in the United States in the early 17th century, shaped American culture in the 18th century, grew dramatically in the 19th century, and continued to be the guardians of American religious life in the 20th century. Protestantism, of course, is not monolithic. In fact, the very idea at the heart of Protestantism—the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages so it can be read and interpreted by all men and women—has resulted in thousands of different denominations, all claiming to be true to the teachings of scripture.
Protestantism, with its emphasis on the belief that human beings can access God as individuals, flourished in a nation that celebrated democracy and freedom. During the period of British colonization, especially following the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, Protestantism went hand in hand with British concepts of political liberty. As the British people celebrated their rights-oriented philosophy of government and compared their freedoms with the tyranny of France and other absolute monarchies in Europe, they also extolled the religious freedom that they had to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Following the American Revolution, this historic connection between political liberty and Protestant liberty proved to be compatible with the kind of democratic individualism that emerged in the decades preceding the Civil War and, in many respects, continues to define American political culture.
Protestantism, of course, is first and foremost a religious movement. The proliferation of Protestant denominations provides the best support for G. K. Chesterton’s quip that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” Spiritual individualism, a commitment to the authority of an inspired Bible, and the idea that faith in the Christian gospel is all that is needed to be saved from eternal punishment, has transformed the lives of millions and millions of ordinary Americans over the course of the last four hundred years.
Over the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) devoted himself to solving the most controversial social and political problems of his day: corruption in municipal politics, abuse of industrial workers, women’s second-class citizenship, nativism and racism, and global war. He considered his activities an effort to define “Americanism” and apply its principles toward humanity’s improvement. On the one hand, Wise joined a long tradition of American Christian liberals committed to seeing their fellow citizens as their equals and to grounding this egalitarianism in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, he was in the vanguard of the Jewish Reform, or what he referred to as the Liberal Judaism movement, with its commitment to apply Jewish moral teachings to improve the world. His life’s work demonstrated that the two—liberal democracy and Liberal Judaism—went hand in hand. And while concerned with equality and justice, Wise’s Americanism had a democratic elitist character. His advocacy to engage the public on the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state relied on his own Jewish, male, and economically privileged perspective as well as those of an elite circle of political and business leaders, intellectual trendsetters, social scientists, philanthropists, labor leaders, and university faculty. In doing so, Wise drew upon on Jewish liberal teachings, transformed America’s liberal tradition, and helped to remake American’s national understanding of itself.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries.
Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century.
With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
Christopher D. Cantwell
Home to more than half the U.S. population by 1920, cities played an important role in the development of American religion throughout the 20th century. At the same time, the beliefs and practices of religious communities also shaped the contours of America’s urban landscape. Much as in the preceding three centuries, the economic development of America’s cities and the social diversity of urban populations animated this interplay. But the explosive, unregulated expansion that defined urban growth after the Civil War was met with an equally dramatic disinvestment from urban spaces throughout the second half of the 20th century. The domestic and European migrations that previously fueled urban growth also changed throughout the century, shifting from Europe and the rural Midwest to the deep South, Africa, Asia, and Latin America after World War II. These newcomers not only brought new faiths to America’s cities but also contributed to the innovation of several new, distinctly urban religious movements. Urban development and diversity on one level promoted toleration and cooperation as religious leaders forged numerous ecumenical and, eventually, interfaith bonds to combat urban problems. But it also led to tension and conflict as religious communities busied themselves with carving out spaces of their own through tight-knit urban enclaves or new suburban locales. Contemporary American cities are some of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Historians continue to uncover how religious communities not only have lived in but also have shaped the modern city.
Adam R. Shaprio
The 1925 Scopes trial was a widely followed court case in Dayton, Tennessee, that attracted the attention of the nation. A prosecution against a schoolteacher charged with violating Tennessee’s new law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution, the trial became a great public spectacle that saw debates over the meaning and truth of the Bible, and the relationship between science and religion. The trial is most famous for the involvement of the lawyers William Jennings Bryan (for the prosecution) and Clarence Darrow (for the defense).
Despite being a legally insignificant case, the trial has remained important in American history because it is seen as symbolizing some of the country’s great social issues in the early 20th century: fundamentalist responses to modernity, the autonomy and clout of the “New South,” and the eternal clash between religion and science.
The Puritans were a group of people loosely defined through their shared adherence to the reformed theological tradition, largely following the work of John Calvin. Beginning in the 16th century, the Puritan movement took root in specific regional locales throughout Germany, Scotland, the Low Countries, and England. Following Queen Elizabeth’s settlement of 1559, which mandated conformity with the Church of England, the church’s authority splintered further as Protestants clashed with the episcopal polity, or church hierarchy. Religious conflict intensified from the 1580s through the end of James I’s reign, through repeated appeals to antiquity and patristics (writings from early Christian fathers) as pleas for further reform. Religious tension and persecution under the repressive regime of Archbishop Laud caused Puritans to leave England in search of new lands and communities.
When the Pilgrims and Puritans migrated to North America in 1620 and 1630, respectively, they did so with the intention of contesting the power of the crown to mandate religious uniformity. They believed in a Calvinist-based religion that espoused a separation of church and state, but that also privileged the spiritual authority of the individual to such a degree as to leave no clear signposts about how the disparate individuals practicing these faiths should form communities. Puritan congregations in New England allowed laymen as well as women new forms of spiritual self-discovery as they orally translated the evidence of grace recorded upon their souls into communal knowledge and a corporate identity that fashioned itself as a spiritual beacon to the world. Missionary encounters soon redefined Puritan faith, theology, and pious practices. Puritan identity in 17th century North America reconstituted itself through a particular confluence of interaction with foreign landscapes, native tribes, Africans, and new models of community and social interaction.