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What Two Gilded Age Christian Socialists Would Say to Evangelicals Today

August 1st, 2022 | 5 min read

By Gillis Harp

The rehabilitation of socialism’s reputation among Millennials and Gen Z has grabbed the attention of political analysts in recent years: “Socialism as Popular as Capitalism Among Young Adults in U.S.” (Gallup). “Majority of Gen Z Americans Hold Negative Views of Capitalism” (Newsweek). “Young Americans Increasingly Prefer Socialism” (Heritage). It’s surprising. Wasn’t the long debate between free markets and socialism resolved in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall? Wasn’t Karl Marx relegated once and for all to history’s dustbin?

What does this mean for American Christians? Few religious traditions have been as wedded to capitalist principles as American Protestants in the twentieth century. Evangelical thought and practice often mirror free enterprise’s elevation of the self-reliant individual and its fear of intrusive government. Just mentioning socialism or social justice leads to heated debates and threatens to split churches along generational lines.

There was a time when conversations about socialism weren’t as controversial among orthodox Christians. Before American Protestantism was polarized into liberal and conservative, there was a period of ferment during the Gilded Age (1865–1900) when economic, social, and political positions hadn’t yet hardened. Inspired by an earlier, mid-century English movement of Anglican clerics, and by recent labor unrest, a small circle of American Protestants began to explore the affinity between Christian and socialist ideas.

The energetic Episcopal priest, W. D. P. Bliss organized the short-lived Society of Christian Socialists in 1889, and some American Protestants even spoke at gatherings where speakers argued fervently for building a cooperative commonwealth on biblical principles. These Christians’ case for an egalitarian communitarianism invoked Moses and Jesus, rather than Karl Marx, and their arguments are worth revisiting. Indeed, their arguments anticipated C.S. Lewis’s overlooked observation in Mere Christianity (1952) that the New Testament’s social ideal looked “very socialistic.”

In a day when there’s a socialist revival among young people, understanding the perspectives of these Christian socialists from history is more than an antiquarian curiosity.

Edward H. Rogers

One Christian socialist addressed the ecumenical Evangelical Alliance at its Washington, D.C. meeting in 1887. Edward H. Rogers was a Methodist layman, shipyard worker, and Boston labor organizer. He’d led efforts to organize the Christian Labor Union that met in Boston’s famous Park Street Church.

As Rogers stepped to the podium for a session titled “Relation of the Church to the Capital and Labor Question,” he began not with tales of oppression or economic commentary but with a message about Christology from John 1. Most Protestants focused on Christ as a personal Savior and emphasized his identity as Prophet, Priest, and King, but John stressed that “all things were made by him” (John 1:3). Rogers emphasized that as the incarnate agent of Creation, Jesus is “the Master Workman of the laboring classes.” He also pointed out how the Gospels disparaged workers being reduced to “hirelings,” dependent wage earners with little personal investment in their work.

Having laid this theological foundation for Christian socialism, Rogers turned to analyze the current economic crisis and its social costs. Subsistence wages paid to industrial workers confirmed for Rogers the error of treating human labor as an abstract commodity. Wage competition led employers to not adjust wages for marital status or number of dependents. The result was the “break down of the family.” The new social sciences helped Rogers see these broader consequences of worsening inequality, and he believed that they appeared, in fact, to “confirm the doctrine of the Bible.”

In developing this argument, Rogers drew heavily from Old Testament scholar Enoch Cobb Wines’ (1806-1879) massive Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews (1853), which repudiated efforts to dismiss the civil law of Moses as obsolete and irrelevant. Rogers argued that Wines’ work established the thoroughly “sociological character of the [Mosaic] law.” But Rogers also took care to connect Old Testament teaching with that of the New. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus strengthened the claims of the law and implied that it wasn’t “limited to the individual conscience.” Jesus pronounced woes over the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matt 11:20–24), indicating that evil functioned “in institutions as well as in private character.” For Rogers, socialism was not a foreign secular theory but a Bible-based repudiation of the contemporary socio-economic order.

Richard T. Ely

At the Alliance’s next gathering in Boston in 1889, the theme was “National Needs and Remedies,” and the second speaker at the gathering openly embraced as a young scholar a brand of Christian socialism. Richard T. Ely pursued graduate studies in Germany in the new field of historical economics. His dissatisfaction with the dour Calvinism of his Congregationalist roots and his exposure to socially conscious Anglican clergy in England had led him to join the Protestant Episcopal Church. After completing his doctorate, he taught political economy at Johns Hopkins University. For Ely, political economy was a prescriptive, inherently ethical discipline.

Ely’s address, “The Needs of the City,” discussed the challenges brought by a growing, ethnically diverse, and impoverished urban working class. After the Civil War, industrialization transformed much of the country, creating a vast army of dependent wage earners. For Ely, the two most pressing needs of America’s mushrooming cities were religious revival and more interventionist municipal governments. No doubt, Ely’s call for “a great religious awakening” pleased his evangelical audience. But Ely envisaged a revival that addressed not only the individual’s spiritual needs but also alleviated the physical hardships of the teeming poor.

Ely advocated for more active, reform-oriented local governments. “Government,” he explained, “is the God-given agency through which we must work.” To reassure his skeptical audience, Ely praised Lord Shaftesbury as an exemplary model. The Tory reformer had championed several parliamentary factory acts earlier in the century to improve the conditions of the English working classes. Shaftesbury’s deep evangelical piety was familiar to American Protestants. Citing him implied that Ely’s goals were essentially conservative. Anticipating the nervousness of his listeners, Ely asked: “But is this not Christian socialism?” He answered immediately in the affirmative: “Christian socialism— if you take it in my conservative sense— is what I think we need.”

To conclude his address, Ely launched into a detailed catalog of specific policies that could improve the lives of urban lower classes: college scholarships, playgrounds and gyms, universal military service, improved public housing, government inspection of slaughterhouses, temperance, restrictions on liquor traffic, the creation of municipal savings banks, and the public ownership of municipal utilities.

Their Words for Us

Both Rogers and Ely saw their era’s “labor question” as the result of an unjust and profoundly unchristian system. They understood the predicament of the working poor as the product of a hyper-individualistic system that contradicted the altruistic and communitarian ethos of the Bible. Some of their approach may well strike one as quaint, idealistic, and impractical. But their version of socialism featured support for organized labor and a grassroots egalitarianism, not the rigid, top-down statism later associated with socialism. Their tactics were gradualist, democratic, education-focused, and consistently non-violent. Both Rogers and Ely believed that a deep religious faith could make even radical change “safe.”

What would these late-nineteenth-century Christian socialists say to today’s political Left? These Christian elements in their thinking could address challenges faced by today’s Progressives. No doubt Rogers and Ely would be puzzled by the Left’s fixation on identity politics. Both men accentuated a common, shared human dignity rather than the different constructed identities that divide us today. They’d be more palatable to pro-life Democrats. Today’s secularized Left has become alienated from blue collar America, but a religiously rooted socialism might expand its appeal beyond the coastal cosmopolitan elites.

Rogers and Ely would also challenge American Christians to develop a more consistent economic ethic. They’d offer a different approach to the economic order, eschewing the modern tendency to divorce ethics from market forces and privatize/compartmentalize.

These Gilded Age Christians would challenge us to examine the roots of our dearly held individualism critically. Rogers and Ely stressed a fraternity and equality based in their Christian anthropology — an understanding of humanity’s deep solidarity as divine image bearers. Given how many Christians around the world routinely vote for various social democratic parties, the politics of American evangelicals may be rooted today more in their Americanness than in their theology.