William A. Mirola. Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago's Eight-Hour Movement, 1866-1912. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 240 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-03883-9.
Reviewed by Wesley Bishop (Purdue University)
Published on H-SHGAPE (October, 2015)
Commissioned by K. Stephen Prince
Redeeming Religion in the Labor Movement
In Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago’s Eight-Hour Movement, 1866-1912, William A. Mirola examines the way in which religion and labor intersected in Chicago during the campaign for an eight-hour day. Mirola argues that this relationship was anything but simple. Labor was often frustrated that religious organizations did not take militant and radical positions on working-class issues, and that the pulpit was not fully utilized for labor’s causes. Religious organizations were often angered that they were used as pawns between labor and capital, and denounced labor’s use of violence, both in fighting employers and scabs. The position of religion between labor and capital was often tenuous. Social unrest forced middle-class Protestant clergy to decide both between competing ethical norms and whether to speak against rich parishioners, and to find a way to remain culturally relevant in the changing industrial landscape.
Protestant clergy’s fear of declining relevance, Mirola argues, was attributable to the rising influence of market ideology in the industrial United States. This new ethics saw private property, the accumulation of capital, and the hierarchical relationship between employer and employee as normative claims for social organization. Naturally these ideas conflicted with older notions of Christian ethics in terms of community and charity. Likewise, as the working class organized and offered a competing rhetoric to capital, these normative claims were challenged. “To Chicago’s wage earners,” Mirola writes, “the eight-hour day was more than simply an economic issue; it was a moral issue, rooted in working-class religious culture, encompassing beliefs about work, industrial justice, leisure, education, civic duty, and health. It was a means to ‘redeem time’ for workers” (p. 2). This seeming agreement between Protestant leaders and labor organizers would lead one to naturally assume that the alliance between religion and labor was unavoidable. However, Mirola demonstrates that this was not the case. Labor and religion required specific events in order to ally in criticizing capital.
The eight-hour movement provided an opportunity to build the alliance between church and labor. Mirola argues that the eight-hour movement provided a way for Protestant clergy to stake a clear position on improving working conditions, which they were more likely to support than larger, radical critiques of capitalism. However, this alliance was limited. As both government and religion failed to achieve labor’s goals, labor reformers turned away from Protestant clergy and embraced “the language of collaborating with employers to boost profits and productivity as the ideological justification for reforms such as the eight-hour day” (p. xii). First came the failure of legislation to produce an enforceable eight-hour day for the working class. This was followed by labor’s frustration with Chicago Protestant clergy meaningfully intervening in the eight-hour question specifically, and the labor question generally. Little substantive action was provided by these clergymen and therefore labor was forced to rely on direct actions. Strikes in 1886 and 1890 were successful, and were so because of labor’s strength in unifying workers. These actions from the working class led to a slow realization among liberal businesses that there were economic benefits to be had from shorter work hours. Finally, the public debates increased sympathy in society for labor’s right to organize and petition employers. “Together,” Mirola explains, “these events shifted the perceptions of eight-hour reformers. Why look to religion as an effective tool for change when the organized strength of unions, pressure from the courts, and employers’ willingness to accept some degree of reform were getting the movement closer to achieving the eight-hour day?” (p. 201).
Mirola from the outset focuses his study of religion and labor on Protestant clergy. He justifies this focus by arguing that the Catholic Church was not a large force in 1870s and 80s America. Instead, it was the Protestant churches that had the best chance to construct a powerful hegemonic force needed by labor to reach mass appeal. However, the public voice of Protestant clergy was often offset by employers' competing sense of morality, which championed cultural attitudes in favor of capitalism. Mirola’s other major objective is to examine this intersection of Protestantism and labor through a tight local lens. He argues that previous scholarship on the Social Gospel, religion, and labor have favored national narratives that miss the way these interactions were forged through municipal and community actions. Scholars, Mirola writes, too often situate clergy in large national currents instead of local industrial relations. “Clergy,” Mirola explains, “responded to what was happening immediately around them and, as community leaders, were drawn into local industrial conflicts. Their responses to these conflicts, whether opposition to or support for labor, emerged from their relationships with both business elites and wage earners in their own communities” (p. 11).
Mirola offers a clearly argued and well-researched piece of scholarship in this volume. Showcasing extensive research into the works of various Chicago Protestant clergy and supporters of the eight-hour day, the book also engages a large historiography on labor and religion. His focus on Protestant clergy, combined with his argument that labor historians need to place these actions within the context of local municipal relationships, provides scholars with a distinct narrative that is valuable for understanding turn-of-the-century Chicago.
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Wesley Bishop. Review of Mirola, William A., Redeeming Time: Protestantism and Chicago's Eight-Hour Movement, 1866-1912.
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