Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America

By Jacob H. Dorn | Go to book overview

2

"An Active and Unceasing Campaign of Social Education": J. Stitt Wilson and Herronite Socialist Christianity

Douglas Firth Anderson

J. Stitt Wilson confidently proclaimed, both in bold oratory and capitalized print, that "THE CHRIST COMETH THROUGH THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION." He melded an evolutionary, idealist Christianity with the socialist cooperative commonwealth: "The present Socialist movement, being the organized and militant expression of the Social Revolution, is the good Samaritan of all human history." Indeed, he asserted, socialism "is the demonstration that man--the Spirit--is master of his environment, and not victim."1

Above all, Wilson was an orator, or more precisely, an evangelist. He was also, for longer or shorter periods of his life, a Methodist pastor, a journalist, a graduate student, a founding member of the Christian Socialist Fellowship, and one of the few Socialist Party of America (SPA) candidates to win elected office in the party's heyday before World War I. It was his oral missionizing on behalf of his religio- social vision, though, that was the constant that tied together the various facets of his public life. His single most important written work, How I Became a Socialist and Other Papers, is a collection of his most popular socialist speeches. The texts are studded with lines of capitalized sentences, visually suggesting the calculated modulations of intensity that marked his oratory. At the height of his work for the SPA, he regularly attracted and moved crowds, in Britain as well as the United States. One socialist colleague recalled that Wilson"would have been a great actor. He had dramatic power. He was the best campaigner for the Party that I ever knew. . . . In a way he was trained for the work. He was a minister. He could sway people and also raise money from them. [ Norman Thomas] was a good debater. A little like Stitt Wilson, too. But he could not close a sale like Stitt Wilson could."2

Wilson's historical significance, though, goes beyond his effectiveness as a socialist orator. First, he was one of the most important disciples of the Reverend George D. Herron, a Congregationalist pastor, college professor, and orator who stirred the waters of American Protestantism and partisan socialism between 1893 and 1901 by his explicit linkage of Christ, the postmillennial Kingdom of God, and

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