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Introducing New Recruits to “Labor’s Catechism”

Religious concepts and metaphors suffused the words and ideas of many late nineteenth-century American workers. The New and Old Testaments provided not only personal succor to many working people but also a set of allusions and parables they applied directly to their lives and struggles in industrial America. Working-class ideas and writing often were cast in stark millenarian terms, with prophesies of imminent doom predicted for capitalists who worshipped at Mammon’s temple and imminent redemption for hard-working, long-suffering, and God-fearing laboring men and women. Christ was uniformly depicted in workers' writing as a poor workingman put on Earth to teach the simple principles of brotherhood and unionism. The power loom weavers of Rhode Island were the intended audience of this “catechism” written by labor activists “Bobba Chuttle” and “Betty Reedhook” (pseudonymns evocative of the tools of the textile worker’s trade) in 1887. Drawing on church traditions, the pair patterned their educational effort, published in The People, along the lines of a call-and-response format.

Q. What did thy masters promise for thee?

A. They did promise and vow many things in my name: First:—That I should renounce the comforts of life through working for less wages than the weavers in other towns, and starve my wife and hunger my children for the same cause. Second:—That I must not in any way try to better my condition, but be content to work at any price which they think proper to give; neither must I join the Knights of Labor as that is contrary to their by-laws. Third:—That I must bear patiently the insults of all that are put in authority over me, and a host of other things too numerous to mention.

Q. Dost thou not believe that thou art bound to do as they have promised for thee?

A. No, verily; for I have come to the determination to free myself, and to strive to get as much for my work as the weavers in other places for the same kind and quality, and that is the Knights of Labor’s duty.

Q. Rehearse the articles of they belief.

A. I believe in the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—and in Honesty, his only son, who was conceived by our Common Right, born of the Virgin Truth, suffered under Cotton Treason, was crucified, dead, and buried in Rhode Island, for many years, but is now risen again, and sitteth on the right hand of Justice and Liberty.

Q. What dost thou chiefly learn from these articles of thy belief?

A. I learn to believe that the time has now arrived when I must make a firm stand for a fair share of the profits of my industry, which is nothing less than the Union List, have nine hours‘ work, seven hours’ play, eight hours' sleep, and fair wages every day.

Source: "Labor’s Catechism," The People (Providence, R.I.), 17 December 1887. Reprinted in Paul Buhle, “The Knights of Labor in Rhode Island,” Radical History Review (Spring 1978): 39.

See Also:"The Brotherhood of Man": A Unionist Uses the Bible
"In the Sight of God": Woes of a Miner's Wife
Was Christ a Union Man?
"Pumpkin Smasher" Predicts the Ultimate Redemption of Coal Miners