The California Christian Socialist Who Thought Socialism Was “Christianity in Overalls”

In the early 20th century heyday of US socialism, J. Stitt Wilson was elected mayor of Berkeley, California. He was a Christian socialist who held up Jesus the Carpenter and the Bible as radical injunctions to create a society of cooperation and democracy.

Mayor J. Stitt Wilson and the Berkeley City Council, 1912. (BHS via Berkeley Historical Plaque Project)

On Easter Sunday, 1911, San Francisco’s Central Theater was packed with more than a thousand people gathered to listen to Berkeley mayor-elect J. Stitt Wilson give his weekly socialist sermon, this one on the theme of resurrection. They heard Wilson contrast the values of love and sacrifice espoused by Jesus with the mercilessness of capitalism, and applauded as he concluded with a call for people to give themselves new life by working together in the socialist movement to bring about a social resurrection, a civilization based on their common humanity.

For Wilson, socialism was “applied Christianity,” “practical Christianity,” or as he told a conference of Methodist ministers, “Christianity in overalls.” An economy organized as a “cooperative commonwealth” would support, rather than undermine, Jesus’s message to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He criticized the churches for treating people as children of God on Sunday but keeping silence when they were treated as commodities during the working week. He called for social as well as individual salvation.

Many Socialist Party activists were ministers or, like Wilson, former ministers. A few months after Wilson’s election as mayor of Berkeley, Louis Duncan, a Unitarian minister, was elected mayor of Butte, Montana, and George Lunn, a Presbyterian minister, won office as mayor of Schenectady, New York. But Wilson was one of the first to move beyond a vaguely progressive “social gospel” and make “The Bible Argument for Socialism,” as he entitled one of his pamphlets.

A Young Christian Socialist

Wilson was born in 1868 in a small town in midwestern Canada, where his father labored as the local shoemaker. Moving to the United States, he worked his way through seminary and Northwestern University, just outside of Chicago, as pastor to various Methodist churches. He was serving at a working-class church in Chicago when the depression of 1894–1897 hit his congregation. He quickly saw that the usual remedies promoted by the church — thrift, sobriety, willingness to work hard, charity for the deserving poor — were completely inadequate. He searched for broader remedies and for a theology that would buttress them.

At a time when most Protestant churches were hostile to strikes, and some ministers even called for strikers to be shot down in the streets, Wilson spoke out on behalf of striking workers. At a rally supporting garment workers, he asked: “What if the clothing in this room could tell its history? What a story of tears, misery, starvation, low wages, long hours, and abject slavery we would hear.”

Wilson admired the leadership that Eugene Debs provided railroad workers in the 1894 Pullman strike and, once Debs was released from prison, invited the labor organizer to speak at his church. The church hierarchy repeatedly admonished Wilson and finally threatened him with dismissal, which would have forced him to leave school just short of getting his degree. He quieted down long enough to graduate, then publicly resigned not only from his ministry but from the church. Half of his congregation left when he did.

With the full support of his wife, and despite now having three children to support, Wilson took a new and precarious path. He would put his life behind Christ’s message of sacrifice for love of humanity and evangelize for the cooperative commonwealth, hoping to build a movement through mass conversions. His “Social Crusade” held meetings on street corners, in rented halls, and in a few sympathetic churches. From 1897 to 1901, his talks were attended by tens of thousands of people throughout the Midwest, and he recruited several other ministers to join him. The problem was that once someone was converted to socialism and subscribed to the Social Crusader magazine, it was not clear what they should do next.

J. Stitt Wilson, 1910. (The Christian Socialist / Wikimedia Commons)

That particular problem was solved in 1901. While Wilson was touring the Western states, drawing large crowds in Colorado and California, his fellow “social crusaders” met in Indianapolis along with many other socialists and formed the Socialist Party of America.

Wilson and his family settled in Berkeley, California, and for the next several years he toured the Western states recruiting new members. He was, labor historian Grace Stimson writes, “the outstanding organizer for the Socialist Party of California.” His speech on the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, “Capitalism: The Nation’s Perpetual Disaster,” gives us a sample of his clear and forceful style:

We were appalled by the sudden death by earthquake of 500 to 1,000 people in our sister city. Are we appalled when . . . ten times as many men were unnecessarily killed in the steel and coal industries of the Pittsburg district last year? . . . We call a natural calamity a terrible disaster, but the poverty and want of 10 million people, caused by social injustice, we call even such names as prosperity and national well-being.

From California to Britain and Back

By 1906 there were enough socialist ministers in the United States to form the Christian Socialist Fellowship, whose magazine, the Christian Socialist, emblazoned on its masthead: “The Golden Rule Against the Rule of Gold.” The 1907 conference issue featured Wilson’s article “Individual and Social Salvation,” but by the time it came out he had moved to Great Britain.

The Socialist Party was split between “revolutionary” socialists and “evolutionary” or “constructive” socialists. The revolutionaries criticized Wilson for being unscientific and failing to sufficiently focus on the proletariat as the main agent of social revolution. Once they gained control in California, Wilson was no longer welcomed as a party representative.

Wilson had, over the previous several years, made friends in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a socialist organization that allied with major unions to form the British Labour Party. Christian socialism was a major current within Labour, and his friends were eager to launch a British version of the social crusade. In 1907, he and his family moved near Bradford, a small industrial city in England’s North, where ILP city councilors had won public ownership of utilities and free social and medical services — what became known as “municipal socialism.”

In Bradford and surrounding towns, Wilson led an organizing campaign for the ILP, canvassing working-class neighborhoods, holding evening meetings in local halls and schools, and holding large Sunday meetings with himself and other well-known socialist clergy as the speakers. He also toured in Scotland and Wales, speaking to audiences that often numbered in the thousands on The Kingdom of God and Socialism, Moses: The Greatest of Labour Leaders, and The Impending Social Revolution.

A reporter for the Halifax Labour News explained Wilson’s appeal to British workers:

He claimed for them the Bible as their property, with its great store of hope and record of the world’s struggle for humanity towards a higher life. He linked up their present effort with those of Moses, of Isaiah, of Amos, of Christ. . . . He had borne to them the Message from the heart of God to his people.

In 1909 control of the California Socialist Party changed hands, and Wilson and his family moved back to Berkeley. The new party leadership was heavily involved in a campaign to unionize Los Angeles, fighting a Merchants and Manufacturers Association that was equally determined to keep Los Angeles nonunion and use lower wages as a competitive advantage over heavily unionized San Francisco.

Job Harriman, leader of the Socialist Party in Los Angeles; Fred Wheeler, head of the Los Angeles Central Labor Council; and other like-minded Socialists hoped Wilson could help make the Socialist Party in California the party of labor and replicate the success of the British Labour Party. This meant building stronger ties with the state labor federations, which were dominated by unions in San Francisco and winning enough political power in Los Angeles to prevent the use of police to break up strikes and union organizing efforts. (Unfortunately, it also meant going along with the labor unions’ racist opposition to Asian immigration.)

In 1910, Wilson received 12 percent of the vote for governor, the best showing the Socialist Party would ever enjoy in a statewide race. The next year he successfully ran for mayor of Berkeley, gaining the support of enough progressive Republicans to win a majority against an incumbent Democrat. With his support, two other Socialists were elected to the School Board and one to the City Council.

J. Stitt Wilson campaigning. (Snapman photo log via Berkeley Historical Plaque Project)

Over the following two years Wilson worked himself to exhaustion. He promoted local tax measures that allowed the city to improve its sewer system, pave its streets, build parks, and begin to take public ownership of utilities. He helped fend off a recall aimed at the Socialists on the School Board and City Council. He campaigned throughout the San Francisco Bay Area for a state constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, which passed, and in support of Socialist candidates in other cities, most of whom came up short.

He visited Los Angeles to support Harriman’s campaign for mayor in 1911, which was narrowly defeated. He helped organize a statewide initiative campaign to allow local governments to implement land value taxation (also unsuccessful). And he ran for Congress, receiving 40 percent of the vote.

Wilson felt he had demonstrated that the Socialist Party was capable of becoming a major party. He believed that newly enfranchised women would support Socialist candidates because, as potential mothers, they embodied the ethic of care essential to the cooperative commonwealth. A coalition of labor and women would, he hoped, transform California politics. Instead of running for reelection as mayor in 1913, he returned to statewide speaking on the Socialist Party’s behalf. Membership in the Socialist Party tripled from 1909 to March 1914.

But the wave of enthusiasm did not last.

Women voters didn’t flock to the Socialist banner, and the labor leadership abandoned their flirtation with the Socialists when Governor Hiram Johnson helped pass a number of modest prolabor reforms, including workers’ compensation and an eight-hour day for women. With the failure of the Los Angeles union drive, labor had only regional political power and could not hope to sustain a statewide workers party. In 1914 the California Socialists went into rapid decline, and by the end of 1915, they reported fewer members than in 1909.

A burned-out Wilson left the Socialist Party, convinced that party-building had failed and “the abolition of capitalism cannot be achieved without a great and overwhelming Spiritual Awakening.” A “new approach” was needed. But he had no idea what that might be.

“Christian Democracy”

In 1917, Wilson again ran for mayor of Berkeley, this time as an independent, and forced the conservative incumbent, a wealthy businessman, into a runoff. The day before the first round of the election, the United States entered World War I. Over the next three weeks until the runoff, Wilson was redbaited by the leader of a Berkeley-based “citizen secret service” organization sponsored by US Army intelligence. He lost the election by just 124 votes.

Moving on from this disappointment, Wilson thought that wartime patriotism might provide the basis for the national moral renewal he sought. Seizing on President Woodrow Wilson’s claims that the United States was fighting to “make the world safe for democracy,” Stitt Wilson retooled his equation of Christianity and socialism into an argument that Christianity meant democracy, including democracy in industry, denouncing “Kaiserism” abroad and workplace tyranny at home.

Eugene Debs pictured in 1912. (Redpath Chautauqua Collection, University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections Department via Wikimedia Commons)

His hopes for wartime and postwar democracy proved naive, however, as Debs and other former Socialist Party comrades were imprisoned for their opposition to the war and a deeper reactionary turn post-armistice reversed the gains that labor unions had briefly made. World War I exacted a deep personal toll, too: Wilson’s son died in pilot training shortly before the end of the war.

Hoping to inspire a new generation of social-justice activists, Wilson went to work for the collegiate division of the YMCA, a stronghold of the social gospel in the conservative 1920s. He spoke on “Christian Democracy” at colleges around the United States, arguing for industrial democracy and adding material such as a lecture contending that evolution showed cooperation rather than competition allowed species to thrive.

Wilson twice returned to Great Britain and, in 1929, had the pleasure of participating in the campaign that produced a Labour government (although one dependent on support from the Liberal Party). Returning to a United States stricken by the Great Depression, Wilson proposed that the nation should bring the values of Jesus to the economy through national economic planning and spoke in many churches where the ministers and congregations were now more receptive to alternatives to capitalism. Urged on by the Young Socialists at the University of California, Berkeley, he rejoined the Socialist Party and was elected to chair the state central committee.

Part of his work was helping organize a Socialist-sponsored union among farmworkers, and there he met the American version of fascism. Rural county sheriffs worked hand in hand with agribusiness and deputized vigilantes to break up union meetings and picket lines. Wilson began speaking out about the threat of fascism in the United States, believing that the Socialist Party did not take the threat seriously enough. The national party made “grandiloquent threats” that they would “crush” the “reckless forces of reaction,” something far beyond the resources of a group that had attracted only twenty thousand members nationwide after several years of the Great Depression.

In 1934, Wilson again resigned from the Socialist Party and registered as a Democrat to support Upton Sinclair’s leftist EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign. He campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, holding that Americans faced a choice between Roosevelt and fascism. Health issues limited his activities in subsequent years, but his last talk before his death in 1942 was to a local humanist group, calling for victory against fascism, and a social reconstruction based on the ethics of Jesus.

Wilson and the Christian Socialist Tradition

J. Stitt Wilson never claimed to know the best path forward to the cooperative society, saying that socialists were “groping in the dark” and needed to be open to “receive whatever light is available.” Throughout his life he adopted different strategies and tactics to advance the socialist movement, alternating between evangelism (making the Christian case for socialism) and practical politics (building organizations and competing in elections), while doing his best to follow the teachings of Jesus.

Wilson was part of a widespread working-class tradition of social Christianity that revered Jesus the Carpenter and rejected official church versions of Christianity that excused treating working people as commodities. The Socialist Party of America was inclusive in its ideological approach, and Debs was a master at bringing together the many strands of insurgent workers’ culture. He often invoked in the same speech the ideal of democratic citizenship, the Declaration of Independence, Karl Marx, and Christ on the Cross. Debs’s successor as party leader, Norman Thomas, was a Presbyterian minister.

The Christian socialist tradition stretched into the latter half of the twentieth century, most notably through the figure of Martin Luther King Jr. While studying for the ministry as a young man, King brought together the black religious tradition of Christianity as the promise of liberation and the Christian socialist theology of the younger Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Rauschenbusch, who admired Wilson’s work. Although he kept the term out of his public writings and speeches, King came to espouse a Christian democratic socialism that insisted on social and economic transformation.

Wilson had the same commitments. Faced with the suffering caused by capitalism’s extremes of wealth and poverty, he devoted his life to ministering on behalf of a society that would embody Jesus’s message of love and sacrifice for one another — a socialist society of caring, cooperation, and democracy.