When a Leading Evangelist Held a Revival to Thwart Labor

Historians in the News
tags: religion, Chicago, labor history, evangelicalism, Haymarket Strike, Cyrus McCormick, Dwight Moody

“Dynamite or Gospel” was the choice that some Christian evangelists felt they were facing in 1885. According to The Record of Christian Work, a journal that chronicled the stories of U.S. evangelists like Dwight L. Moody and Charles Spurgeon throughout the late 1800s, evangelists believed they had to intervene in the lower classes, or else these classes could be persuaded to join the ranks of socialists and anarchists, therefore throwing off the stability of major U.S. cities like Chicago. These evangelists were right to worry.

Just a year later, in 1886, one of the most important moments of U.S. labor history took place on May 4 in Chicago: The Haymarket affair. The Haymarket affair started as a rally for an 8-hour workday in the midst of a general strike but it all went sideways when a still unknown person threw a bomb into the crowds, leading to an eruption of violence from both police and protestors.

Historian Timothy E.W. Gloege explains in his book Guaranteed Pure that before the events of Haymarket, Christian evangelist Dwight L. Moody conspired with local capitalists such as Cyrus McCormick Jr., one of the managing partners of International Harvester Company, to thwart the 1886 strike altogether. Within the story of the Haymarket affair, we can find a number of political tensions that are still within Christianity today. One major tension still animating Christian discourse is this: What happens when Christians side with the wealthy instead of the poor and working class?

Chicago, in the 1880s, was the eye of the storm for the struggle between business elites and workers in the United States. The radical energy from the destroyed Paris Commune (a short lived radical working class movement that seized power in Paris) nearly 10 years earlier had carried across the Atlantic and emboldened the rapidly organizing working class in the U.S. In 1884, just two years before the Haymarket affair, Chicago’s working class gave the city’s capitalists an ultimatum: Give workers an 8-hour workday by 1886 or face a general strike.

It is important to understand that the workers’ demand was a direct response to the antagonistic actions of Chicago’s capitalist class — specifically, long work hours and gutted wages. Cyrus McCormick Jr. cut the wages of his workers and reinvested those funds into the mechanization of labor, simplifying the skill of the workers he required, and subsequently widening his labor pool. As a result, he drove wages down and made major profits off the backs of disgruntled and exploited workers.

As the deadline of the general strike grew closer and worker organizing became more militant, the message of evangelizers like Moody began to resonate with Chicago’s capitalist class. Much of Moody’s evangelistic career focused on developing a strategy of preaching the gospel to the unreached and rapidly radicalizing working class communities.

Moody developed a strategy for training “Christian workers” to reach the working class in ways that mainline Protestant churches weren’t doing. At the time, mainline Protestant churches insisted that evangelism was best left to trained professionals with seminary educations. So to have Moody, a layperson, create a program that trained working-class people to evangelize others within their own socioeconomic class didn’t sit well with professional clergy. This approach, Moody believed, would assuage the threat of impending socialist and anarchist uprisings. Gloege suggests that the increasing militancy of radical working class movements created panic among evangelical elites and led to Moody doubling down on his strategy of engaging the working class; Moody decided to expand to the East Coast.

Read entire article at Sojourners