Magazine article The Christian Century

Baptized with the Soil: Christian Agrarians and the Crusade for Rural America

Magazine article The Christian Century

Baptized with the Soil: Christian Agrarians and the Crusade for Rural America

Article excerpt

Baptized with the Soil: Christian Agrarians and the Crusade for Rural America

By Kevin M. Lowe

Oxford University Press, 264 pp., $74.00

This book could be categorized as a paean to the rural life movement in U.S. Protestantism during the first half of the 20th century. Alternatively, it might be seen as a powerful precursor of Christian ecotheology and other contemporary trends. Both are accurate.

Kevin Lowe presents a new history of agrarianism, which opposed the industrialization of agriculture primarily because of its negative impact on rural communities. Participants in the movement believed that community is more important than the individual, solidarity is more important than profit, and one should put one's neighbor and the Earth before oneself. These tenets are both currently relevant and blatantly nostalgic.

What is most striking in this history is the degree to which agrarian thinkers of the early 20th century believed that they should and could influence national policy. These Christian leaders boldly claimed that they were building the kingdom of God and that God was present in their work. They called on legislators, presidents, and other citizens to support their vision. And they succeeded. Theodore Roosevelt created the Commission on Country Life, intended to promote rural development, and FDR helped create farm subsidy legislation. What emerges from this story is how many current programs and organizations have antecedents in that movement.

The word agrarianism referred to a belief in social leveling through the equal distribution of land. Although land is not the basis of the current push for a livable wage, the Fight for Fifteen movement--calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour--certainly champions a greater degree of equality. Today agrarianism also refers to the importance of place, stability, work, and the health of the land. It seems anachronistic in its opposition to industrialization and modernization, but the goals of this conservative movement have a fascination for those who identify themselves with the goals of the Social Gospel.

Each of the early chapters of the book is devoted to a central tenet of the Christian agrarian crusade: commitment to the viability of the family farm; devotion to rebuilding the Christian church as the center of the community; construction of the kingdom of God, including material improvement of the lives of rural people; and development of a theology of environmental stewardship as faithful Christian treatment of the land. …

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