Monday, May 12, 2014

Revisiting Herbert Gutman's "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement"

Herb Gutman
I have not read Herbert Gutman since graduate school, but after reading Janine Giordano Drake's recent post at Religion in American History I want to go back and look at Gutman's 1966 American Historical Review essay, "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement."  Drake wants us to think more deeply about the religious mind of workers in the so-called Gilded Age.  As she reminds us, Gutman argued that most of these workers were Protestants.  

Drake uses the post to pitch the new issue of Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas in which she joins Heath Carter, Ed Blum, and Jared Roll in the exploration of religion and labor in American history.  Here is a taste of her post:

I've tried to imagine what life was like in 1966 when Herbert Gutman's landmark AHR article, "Protestantism and the American Labor Movement" arrived in historians' mailboxes. I imagine that evangelical college groups using terms like "Followers of Jesus" and "Non-Denominational Christians" advertised all over campus, and historians stared at their posters with sincere puzzlement.

At the time, I imagine, most historians were less concerned with the questions we're asking now [were these folks going to turn into Democrats or Republicans?] and were much more concerned with questions that animated their life cycles. Namely, what happened to the religious denominations?! Who are their religious authorities? Who is bankrolling this? And, what ethnic groups are driving this trend? If the historians showed up for the meetings (and I imagine the groups had fliers everywhere), I bet they'd remain puzzled. I can imagine slender male professors in bell bottom pants asking these young evangelicals, "Are your parents Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics? Are you WASPs, Irish or---no, you look German. Is that a German last name?" When the long haired young evangelicals responded with comments about how we're all God's children and none of that really mattered, I imagine the social historians--especially those who had been studying ethnic and racial segmentation--found that evasion encouraging, fascinating, and yet also terribly naive.

This is the world I imagine that Herbert Gutman had before him when he penned that famous article which he subtitled, "The Christian Spirit in the Gilded Age." In it, Gutman argued that many of the newly urbanized working classes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Protestants, even though they derived from a great variety of cultures. Many were, in fact, white Anglo Saxons who migrated from rural tenant farming and small landholding regions of the midwest and South, and brought with them small-town and socialist ethics of cooperation. Some were immigrants with Protestant and socialist ethics brought over from the "old world." These folks, perhaps like some of Gutman's college students, carried on a revivalistic faith that was not the same as that of their ministers. Like Gutman's college students, Gilded Age workers were largely not confined by denominations. Some of Gutman's subjects came from Holiness and Pentecostal revival traditions which had worked alongside and outside of denominations. Many brought with them a history of revivalism around Christian ethics-- a set of Christian traditions that had been centered in guilds and barns, but not entirely in churches.