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. Trade unionist William D. Mahon chastised organized religion for ignoring its “true mission” to “establish the brotherhood of man” in this 1899 speech espousing a strong church role in helping the labor movement.
I am not one who condemns the church as a useless institution that has never did any good for humanity. . . . Nor do I deny but that the church is helping to develop purity, filial and marital love, honesty, patriotism and temperance, but you have asked me what confronts labor and to what extent the church should go to assist it. . . . You have neglected the true mission of the church. You have not followed out the example laid down by your founder, Jesus Christ. For it is absurd to think or suppose that Jesus was put to death for going about healing sick people and appealing to the individual to be saved. He was crucified for disturbing the national order of things. Crucified as a national menace because he aimed at the wrongs in the heart of the nation. His avowed purpose was to make the Jewish nation the redemptive nation of the world; when he was rejected it was governmental as well as ecclesiastical rejection. His death was brought about by the politicians who belonged to the priestly party. The chief actors in the drama of crucifixion were such as we call the conservative goody good people, whose plans Jesus spoilt. We have only to read the gospels with a little historical sense to see that the career of Jesus was as certainly political as was the career of Wendell Phillips or Lloyd Garrison. Among the first public acts of his ministry was to go up to Jerusalem and clean out the capitol. . . . He did what we would do if we would start on an expedition to clean out the political corruption that exists in our government and go to Washington and suddenly drive from the senate chambers the corporation lobbyists who represent the money changers, the railroad syndicates, sugar trusts and meat combines. . . .
My friends, “if the teachings of Jesus Christ are dangerous and destructive,” if he spake impracticable things which he did not understand, if his words are the cries of an over-wrought enthusiast, then let us quit worshipping him and put an end to this colossal thing we call Christianity. If Jesus is the Son of God and the Redeemer of Man, if He is the true teacher of practical things, then, while it is yet day, before the judgment comes on, let the church begin to practice and preach what he taught. . . .
I know that your next question will be: “Why don’t you set the example?” My friends, I belong to the organizations that are fighting for the very principles laid down by Jesus Christ. You may not look upon us as Christians and it is true that we do not pay much attention to churchianity, but we are fighting for the brotherhood of man, educating and teaching the people to free themselves from the thraldom of wage slavery, teaching the principles that every man is created free and equal, and has the rights to the products of his brain and brawn. Yes, we are seeking to make such a society that one man cannot rob another of the products which he produces. We are seeking to kill competition and to establish the brotherhood of man, not upon the golden streets of an unknown future, but here in this present life. . . .
Source: William D. Mahon, “What are the Relations of Capital to Labor and to What Extent and in What Manner Should the Church Occupy Itself with this Problem?” The Motorman and Conductor 5 (January 1899): 1–3.
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