Labor Is Noble and Holy
In June of 1886, the American Congress of Churches gathered in Cleveland. The Congress was one of many Gilded Age forums where clergy debated reasons for working-class distrust of organized religion, and brainstormed strategies for overcoming it. Opinions of causes and suggestions for improvement differed, but most agreed that male workers were deserting churches in droves.
As the Congress met, across town the Knights of Labor were gathered in a special assembly called to address the Order's rapid growth. As a courtesy, the Congress asked Terence Powderly to address its assembled clerics. If workers were not interested in churches, they were quite interested in what Powderly had to say. Powderly declined the invitation, however, when it proved impossible to secure a hall large enough to accommodate the masses who wished to hear his remarks. Instead, several KOL representatives visited, mincing few words in telling God's ministers that workers had good reason for mistrusting them and their institutions.1
In retrospect, it is remarkable to think that clerics needed conferences to discuss the obvious: workers distrusted Gilded Age churches because most of them represented the interests of the middle class and business elites, not the concerns of wage earners. Although sincere clerics took up the cause of labor, most who bothered did so only because the issue was trendy. The efforts of early Social Gospel advocates aside, Gilded Age religious hierarchy's commitment to social change vacillated -- for the most part -- between shallow and hostile. In Detroit, the KOL's Joseph Labadie blasted clerical hypocrisy with such vigor that the Rev. Charles Henderson wrote to the Labor Leaf to plead that not all ministers were "tools of the capitalist class."2____________________