Socialism and Christianity in Early 20th Century America

By Jacob H. Dorn | Go to book overview

6
"Not a Substitute for Religion,
but a Means of Fulfilling It":
The Sacramental Socialism of
Irwin St. John Tucker

Jacob H. Dorn

Irwin St. John Tucker was an Episcopal priest who joined the Socialist Party within days of his ordination as deacon in 1911 and devoted himself to the furtherance of the socialist cause for almost a dozen years thereafter. He did so both within party organizations and within the Episcopal Church. It was not always easy to be a priest functioning within the Socialist Party or a socialist functioning within the church, but Tucker believed the roles were complementary, not adversarial. He found the justification he needed for combining them in the Christian faith itself: in the biblical emphasis on social and economic justice in the here-and-now; in compassion for the weak and victimized; and in a distinctively Anglican-Episcopal incarnational theology that sacralized all of life.

Tucker's commitment was to the concrete program of the Socialist Party, not to an amorphous humanitarianism. He supported not only the party's "immediate" demands, reforms for which non-socialist progressives also worked, but in addition its "ultimate" demand for the collective, democratic ownership of the means of production, transportation, and distribution. In this respect, he went significantly beyond the pervasive and trans-denominational movement for a Social Gospel, as well as beyond the Anglican-Episcopal social tradition in which he had grown up.

The Anglican response to the upheavals of urbanization and industrialization had begun with the Christian Socialism of F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and J. M. Ludlow in the 1840s. Several organizations subsequently emerged to sustain this social witness: the Guild of St. Matthew ( England, 1877), the Church Association for the Advancement of the Interests of Labor ( United States, 1887), the Christian Social Union ( England, 1889; United States, 1891), and the Society of Christian Socialists ( United States, 1889). All these organizations proclaimed that Christian principles must govern all areas of human life, and some invoked socialism as an ideal, in contrast to economic individualism. None, however, explicitly and consistently endorsed a socialist party, as Tucker and a vocal minority would do in the early 1900s. 1

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