Christianity and Labour: Obstacles and Contributions in the Early Stages
Christianity and Labour: Obstacles and Contributions in the Early Stages

Christianity and Labour: Obstacles and Contributions in the Early Stages

March 1 st 2003

First in a series addressing the roots, current state, and future prospects of the Christian labour movement.

In November 9, 1891, Abraham Kuyper, pastor and political reformer in the Netherlands, stood before the first Christian Social Congress in that country and declared, "At the late date of this Congress, we find ourselves fighting a rearguard action. The socialists themselves, and not only our Christian leaders, expose our failure to act. . . . We should feel humiliated that, in the face of so crying a need, we have not long since been acting in the name of Jesus."

While a critique from within their own ranks was probably easier for the attendees to swallow, the aftertaste was no doubt bitter. Indeed, this organized conference came late. For the past century, Europe had been wrestling with the social question, brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As technology in manufacturing advanced and commerce expanded, the masses of workers grew, and there was no structure in place to address the problem of poverty that came with the urban explosion. Daily conditions for the workers included low wages, unsafe workplaces, constant hunger, and persistent disease as well as over-crowded, unsanitary housing. There was no relief for members of this new class, at work or at home, unless radical changes took place.

The socialists offered the working class a solution involving class warfare, revolution, and the absolution of private property, but such a perspective was obviously not welcome to the established order; nor was it welcomed by the church, which suddenly found it necessary to mobilize on behalf of the workers.

The following will be concerned with the initial approach of the church to the social question, what obstacles impeded progress toward a solution, and what principles emerged as a result of initial efforts.

To establish a context for my critique, I'll begin with a brief description of the major events in Western European countries as they pertain to the development of the relationship between Christianity and labour.

The earliest organized movement took place in England under the guidance of Charles Kingsley and Frederick Denison Maurice. In response to the failed, but potentially violent Chartist rebellion of April 10, 1848, a small group formed the Christian Socialists. Over the next 50 years, they would raise the status of the working class through producers' co-ops and raise the priority of the working class on the list of concerns for the Church of England. In 1898, the Anglican church finally came out with an official statement in favour of social action on the part of the laity.

Germany was the next country to develop significant organizations with the simultaneous emergence in the 1870s of the Centre Party, which was primarily Catholic and receptive to social legislation, and inter-confessional Christian Social Unions, which grew out of many smaller movements. In a triumphant ironic twist, it was actually the suppression of the churches by the then current monarchy that inspired leaders such as Bishop Ketteler and Adolph Stocker to take action, beginning in the 1850s. Ketteler used his position of influence to support such policies as worker organization, higher wages, weekly rest days, and profit-sharing while Stocker eventually helped form the Christian Social Party and the Evangelical Workers' Movement.

To the south, in Switzerland, the religious socialists led the way for Christian workers until the early twentieth century when small groups of Protestants broke away to form a mutual aid fund that would allow them not to depend on socialist funds. Here, as in other countries around the world, workers were tiring of the "class war, anti-national, and anti-religious attitude" of the socialists and taking action to support more constructive perspectives, according to Michael Fogarty in his history of Christian Democracy in Western Europe. The mutual aid fund was eventually expanded in 1919 to become the influential Swiss Independent Trade Union (SVEA) supported by an inter-church committee.

Another country that bears mentioning individually is the Netherlands. The roots of a powerful movement in a small country can be traced back to Klaas Kater, a bricklayer who founded the first of the great modern Protestant workers' organizations called Patrimonium in 1876. But because of the significant percentage of members who were employers rather than workers, Patrimonium took on the diffuse character as an organization of broad social concern, rather than the clearly delineated character of a labour union.

It was not until 1890 that Patrimonium's first trade association was established. Then, under the leadership of Aritius Talma, it articulated and solidified its commitment to independent Christian labour unions, and the first national Christian labour union—one of cigar-makers and tobacco processors—was formed in 1899. Ten years later, the Christian National Labour Union (CNV) was established with 10 Christian labour unions and proceeded to grow steadily under indigenous leadership.

As all of these countries exemplify, the Christian community of Western Europe, until the late nineteenth century, was "planting the seeds of an independent Christian working-class movement" which "grew, consolidated, and took permanent shape" by and large before the First World War (Fogarty). The last decade of the nineteenth century saw the first Christian Social Congress in the Netherlands, Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum encyclical on the condition of labour, and the development (into the twentieth century) of national Christian trade unions in most Western European countries. From this point until the formation of the Christian Trade Union International (IFCTU) in 1920, the movement spread across the globe to include Canada, Africa, the United States, Latin America, and Vietnam, where organizations recruited Muslims and Buddhists as well.

While the movement has grown since then "by building up patiently and steadily on the lines laid down by the early twenties" (Fogarty), growth could have occurred earlier had it not been for several obstacles to progress. The first of these obstacles involved political distractions. For Belgium, the distraction involved how to maintain Catholic identity under the rule of Protestant Holland. But overall, the distraction in Western Europe was comprised of the Kulturkampf, or Battle of Ideologies, addressing the appropriate relationship between the church and the state. In Italy, it was a power struggle between the state and the Pope over ultimate sovereignty, which lasted until the formation of the Vatican state in 1929. France was occupied with a similar struggle between local and papal authority.

Both the church and the state were paralyzed in the mid-nineteenth century in the area of workers' rights because they were so necessarily consumed with working out the relationship between their own overarching institutions. For this reason, Christian workers' movements tended to be weak and suppressed, legitimate solutions were ignored, and socialism thrived as the answer for the workers. "The socialists had then one overwhelming advantage," writes Fogarty. "They were an independent working-class movement, and no one could mistake them for anything else."

This strength of the socialists also applies to the second obstacle to the church leading the way in regards to labour and that is the issue of internal church structure. Aside from solidifying a relationship with the state, the church could not work out satisfactory relationships between confessions or, in the case of the Catholic church, among the various levels of hierarchy. The vague relationship of confessions to one another crippled the unity of the broader church in the matter of labour organizations. There existed those who were staunchly inter-confessional on one side and those who just as adamantly desired to keep the confessions separate on the other.

In addition, there were conflicts within the Catholic and Protestant churches individually. While the Catholic church could and did draw immediate attention to an issue through papal encyclicals, the matter of doing something about that issue was a bureaucratic nightmare. Father Daens of Aalst, Belgium exemplified this difficulty through his inability to serve the church and the workers because of the greed, special interests, and ignorance of his superiors, both in politics and in the church. Seeking the church's support, Daens was faced with statements such as that of his bishop: "If there is inequality on earth, it is because God wants it." The priest, who was perceived as a friend of the people, was powerless to inspire and enact change unless he left the priesthood.

Workers finally received an official bow from the Catholic church in 1891 with the release of Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical. However, while Rerum Novarum is hailed as a revolutionary document, Fogarty's opinion is that it "marked a turning point, it did not create one. . . . Rerum Novarum represented the turn of the screw which brought one part of the picture into focus." And, indeed, Rerum Novarum served to establish a common purpose and sum up an approach that had been in discussion for so many years that some sort of comment on the condition of labour was at last necessary.

If the Catholic church had a difficult time mobilizing because of its hierarchical structure, the Protestant churches suffered from the opposite problem, encountering difficulty in their lack of a central source of power and inspiration. This resulted in Catholics being generally ahead of Protestants in developing working class solutions, but the Protestant confession fostered a more appropriate environment for the work of individual leaders. When a leader rose up in Holland in the person of Abraham Kuyper, there was little church bureaucracy to block the vision of an individual. Kuyper, along with Groen van Prinsterer, Aritius Talma, Dr. Schaepman, and others in largely Protestant Holland, found it possible to apply their beliefs practically in the social and political worlds without the restrictiveness of church hierarchy.

Out of all of these obstacles came what Kuyper claimed Christians ought to be "ashamed" and "humiliated" about: their failure to lead in matters of justice pertaining to the working class. Fogarty writes, no doubt tongue-in-cheek, that "liberalism rendered Christianity a major service . . . along with socialism, by teaching Christians a great many things about the management of modern communities which they should have been able to read out of their own principles for themselves." The socialists, according to Kuyper, had done a better job of invoking the name of Christ than Christians had in the fight against injustice, and when the Church finally decided to pay attention, it was on the defensive against powerful organized movements.

Christians made strong and lasting contributions overall in the area of worker justice, and their movements have continued to develop, but they never led the way. Rather, they were provoked to respond, and much time was spent catching up with secular movements. The church was generally reactive rather than proactive, symbolized by the letter of James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore on "The Question of the Knights of Labor." Cardinal Gibbons signed his letter four years before Rerum Novarum and sent it as an appeal to Rome that the Catholic church not condemn the secular Knights of Labor organization in the United States. What supposedly marked the beginning of the Catholic church's reputation as "a friend of the people" was actually an appeal to Rome that was more concerned with the potential for damaged reputation and lost membership than the plight of the worker.

The failure of the church to lead is no doubt still harsh medicine for us to accept today, but we can learn from failures as well as successes. And, in fact, the early fits and starts of the Christian labour movement provided vital practical learning experiences out of which emerged the lasting principles on which successful organizations have been and are being built.

The first principle that was established on a broader scale than previously was the application of faith to all aspects of life, including politics and social issues. Mark Noll, a history professor at Wheaton College, writes, "Kuyper and Leo [XIII] shared an eagerness to treat subjects like labor, class, poverty, wealth, and the nature of the state as first-order theological issues." While the various confessions were often divided on the appropriate forms of action, they could all agree that "being a Christian implies a duty to accept a political and social engagement, to search for solutions to political and social problems" (Fogarty).

Maurice stated this principle in the first publication of the Christian Socialists: "Politics for the people cannot be separate from religion. They must either start from Atheism, or from the acknowledgement that a living and righteous God is ruling human society." Indeed, according to Kuyper, religion "must not stand as a foreign factor in our life, but it must be the passion that breathes throughout our whole existence," and it must lead to action.

The second guiding principle involves the responsibility of government to ensure full personal development. Above all, the fully developed person is able to engage in a vocation for which he or she is suited and can perform to the service of the community while making a sufficient living that allows for spiritual development, leisure, and the appreciation of beauty. Kuyper, speaking of the current state of things in his 1891 speech, stated, "God has not willed that one should drudge hard and yet have no bread for himself and his family. Still less has God willed that any man with hands to work and a will to work should perish from hunger or be reduced to the beggar's staff just because there is no work." If the structure of society does not allow for this basic element of God's will for man, that structure is in error.

The guiding principle offered for human beings living in community with one another is that of sphere sovereignty. "Every social unit or group has a sphere of work which it can do efficiently in the interests not only of its members but of society as a whole, and this sphere must be defined and reserved for it," writes Fogarty. The sphere of the state is to legally enforce the individual responsibility of the spheres, preventing one from trespassing on another's territory.

This principle carries over directly into the area of worker justice by setting the stage for a Christian affirmation of labour organization. The worker and the employer have separate responsibilities but should not be antagonistic toward one another. According to Rerum Novarum, the worker should "carry out honestly and well all equitable agreements freely made." As for the employer, "his great and principal obligation is to give to every one that which is just." This being God's will for the employer-worker relationship "to consent to any treatment which is calculated to defeat the end purpose of his [the worker's] being is beyond his right; he cannot give up his soul to servitude; for it is not a man's own rights which are here in question, but the rights of God, most sacred and inviolable."

What is revolutionary about Rerum Novarum is not that it draws attention to a new problem, but that it permits—indeed mandates in unjust conditions—that the workers organize to save their souls. In more mild Protestant terms, labour should be allowed to organize because "the continuing welfare of people and nation, including labor, lies only in powerful individual initiative," as opposed to handouts, which "undermine the position of the laboring class and destroy their natural resilience," writes Kuyper.

"Leo's defense of workingmen's associations sparked a flurry of such institutions around the world [while] throughout the twentieth century doughty bands of Kuyperians have persisted in the quixotic—looking effort to form labour unions," states Noll. Essentially, through independent organization, labourers ensure the welfare and accountability of all members, sometimes against but mostly in relationship with employers.

The final principle, which guides the introduction of all other principles into the structure of society, is the necessity of reform as opposed to revolution. Charles Kingsley writes in the poetic moral to one of his social fables,

Things might be better, babies know—but then things might be worse. Reforms are God's own blessings—Revolutions oft his curse.

He sums up in a whimsical way what Kuyper, Maurice, and indeed the entire Christian social movement of nineteenth century Europe learned about social change, that most productive change takes place within the law and over time. To illustrate this point, Kuyper likened the structure of society to a building. While some would prefer to tear the whole building down and start over, the Christian way would be to selectively evaluate first which sections are in need of restoration, repair, or demolition and then carry out changes appropriately. This method acknowledges the ubiquitous hand of God in fashioning the structure and the need to rebuild only what man has distorted.

So how far have we Christians come in remodelling the structure of society to meet the needs of diverse populations since the early years of Christian labour? Has the movement gained momentum in the past century? Is the Christian organization of labour today contributing on a global scale to alleviating poverty? History has shown us that while the church failed to lead in the early years of labour organization, Christians did establish an influential movement that has been growing steadily, both in numbers and in geography.

Given the unique labour issues that have developed since the Industrial Revolution, what does Christian labour look like today? The proposed answers to these questions will be the subject of the next article in the series.

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma
Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma is the editor of catapult magazine, a bi-weekly online publication affiliated with the organization *culture is not optional (*cino). She and her husband Rob are the co-founders of a non-profit, volunteer-run fair trade store called World Fare in Three Rivers, Michigan, where *cino purchased a historic school in 2009 for future college and community development programs. Their *cino internship program offers them the opportunity to live in community with young adults exploring themes of small town dynamics, home economics, imagination, rootedness, and practical theology.


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