Piety and Poverty: Working-Class Religion in Berlin, London, and New York, 1870-1914

By Hugh McLeod | Go to book overview
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THE LATER NINETEENTH and early twentieth centuries were regarded in many Western countries as a time of religious crisis. The crisis was generally believed to be most acute in the cities and especially among the working class. This book focuses on working-class religion in three of the world's greatest cities in this period of crisis.

My first objective is to get behind the generalizations and the rhetoric that prevail in most accounts in order to provide a more precise and nuanced description of the part played by religion and irreligion in the daily life of working-class people. I shall show how, for instance, belief and unbelief related to their experience of poverty and social exclusion, to the ways in which they celebrated or survived the turning points and crises of life, to the relationships between women and men, and to political organizations. By focusing on the part played by religion, and sometimes by secularism, in the everyday life of working-class communities, I hope to demonstrate the importance of a dimension that is far too often ignored, dismissed or mentioned only in passing. 1 The salience of sectarian differences in such major industrial regions as Lancashire and the Ruhrgebiet is so obvious that most historians are forced to take the issue seriously. 2 However, the task of defining the nature and meaning of working-class religion in more religiously homogeneous cities and regions has proved more difficult, and many historians have solved it by resorting to clichés, such as the concept of 'apathy', or by reducing working-class religiosity to the search for material assistance. 3 Historians of religion in Britain have for some years been keenly interested in the question of the relationship between the churches and the working class, though as yet no consensus has been reached. Because of the nature of the most widely used sources, these scholars have often been more successful at seeing the question through the eyes of the clergy than through those of working-class people. 4 In Germany, on the other hand, very little research has been done on working-class religion in regions other than the Ruhrgebiet. 5 In the United States the theme has been studied mainly in terms of immigration history. 6 This study will break new ground in two ways. First, by exploiting a wide range of hitherto underused sources, most notably various oral history surveys, it will attempt to go further than any previous history of urban working-class religion towards seeing the subject through the eyes of the people themselves. Second, it is the first study of working-class religion that has attempted to solve the problems of interpretation by using a comparative framework. I shall return later to discuss the rationale for this approach.

My second objective is to define the nature, extent and causes of the secularization of the working class during this period, and to explain why these varied so considerably as between different parts of Western Europe and North America. The question of the extent and causes of the secularization of Western societies has been hotly debated by sociologists, especially over the last thirty years; and


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Piety and Poverty: Working-Class Religion in Berlin, London, and New York, 1870-1914


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