Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America

By Jacob H. Dorn | Go to book overview
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"A Spiritual and Moral Socialism": Franklin Spencer Spalding and Christian Socialism, 1901-1914

John R. Sillito

At the time of his death in 1914, Franklin Spencer Spalding held a central place in the Christian socialist movement. Though little known today, as "the one outspoken and unqualified Socialist" bishop of the Episcopal Church and a member of the Church Socialist League, he was one of the most prominent socialist advocates of the day. 1 For more than a decade, Spalding saw his role as twofold: helping socialists appreciate the significance of a religious-based component of the coalition seeking a cooperative commonwealth, while simultaneously helping religious socialists, and the Christian community generally, realize the need for a movement for social change within the church. 2

Spalding's support for socialism was part of a broader agenda. Like many of his generation, he advocated prohibition, peace, and progressive reforms in health, education, politics, and municipal government. Unlike some of his Christian socialist contemporaries, however, including his protégé, Paul Jones, who would succeed him as bishop, Spalding never joined the Socialist Party. At heart Spalding was a reformer, not a radical: one who believed that unless the gap between have and have-not was reduced, the fabric of American society would weaken, tensions between classes would worsen, and individuals would never achieve their full, God- given potential.

While he bristled at what he considered extremes in the socialist movement, Spalding believed that achieving, in the words of a colleague, a "spiritual and moral socialism" would bring about a better future. At the same time, his support for socialism often put him at odds with many in his own denomination, both clergy and laity. At one point Spalding "created a commotion" when he told a group of ministers in Los Angeles that he did not think it proper for ministers to "court wealth," urging them to remember that the "rich and powerful could take care of themselves" and to strive for a Christian community where the "poor were to be nourished and the helpless cared for." 3 On another occasion he recalled that a devout Episcopalian had attacked him for preaching socialism instead of biblical


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