Celebrate Christmas With the Gilded Age’s Forgotten Christian Socialists

Christmas wasn’t always an apolitical holiday. During the Gilded Age, working-class Americans organized around a radical vision of Christ — until the Protestant establishment co-opted their energy.

Factory workers gather around a Christmas tree in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1900s. (Chicago Sun-Times / Chicago History Museum / Getty Images)

Christmas came bitterly in 1894, amid the gloom of an exceptionally harsh winter and the nation’s worst-ever economic depression. That year, crops froze across the South, President Grover Cleveland suppressed the Pullman Strike, and, as unemployment rose to nearly 20 percent, an Ohio man named Jacob Coxey led the jobless in a massive march on Washington. A Harper’s Weekly cartoon channeled the nation’s discontent, depicting Andrew Carnegie storming the capitol with his own version of Coxey’s Army: a crowd of Gilded Age industrialists demanding bailouts.

In an article for Ladies’ Home Journal, the left-wing writer Edward Bellamy imagined that a time traveler from the year 2000 would be aghast to see the America of 1894 celebrating Christmas at all. Bellamy’s visitor wakes on Christmas day to the familiar sounds of pealing bells and jubilant crowds. Yet when he ventures outside, he is perplexed to find “on every hand the contrast of pomp and poverty, the full and the hungry, the clothed and the naked — the picture that broke Christ’s heart.” If nineteenth-century Americans were to recognize Christmas as the people’s “great emancipation day,” he concludes, it would lead “to the instantaneous overthrow of the whole order of things, and the breaking into fragments of every human yoke.”

Consider, for a moment, the opposite scenario: Bellamy transported to Christmas Day, 2023. He’d likely be horrified to arrive in what many have termed a “Second Gilded Age,” with figures like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk standing in for the Carnegies and the Rockefellers. He’d see Americans celebrating an apolitical Christmas, rooted in a set of traditions popularized by nineteenth-century advertisers. He might even be eager to return to his own time, where — as the historian Janine Giordano Drake shows in her new book, The Gospel of Church — far more people shared his revolutionary vision for the holiday.

Come All Ye Faithful

Only 46 percent of Americans belonged to a church in 2022, and the numbers have been in decline for decades. The Right often identifies that drop as a malignant trend — but if dwindling church attendance represents a crisis of faith, this crisis was far more acute over a century ago. In 1890, a Congressional census revealed that just 22.5 percent of Americans were registered with a Christian church, and that a plurality of churchgoers were Catholics. “Few appreciate how we have become a non-churchgoing-people,” lamented the Protestant clergyman Josiah Strong.

Today, rich Americans are the least likely to attend church. During the Gilded Age, Drake points out, the opposite was true. The old Protestant denominations were the icy, exclusive domains of upper- and middle-class WASPs; they had scant contact with the working class aside from charitable giving, which Andrew Carnegie’s popular “Gospel of Wealth” cast as the divine justification for the existence of the rich. When those born outside the traditional elite gained entry into these churches, it was a mark of social advancement. Drake quotes a Southern adage: “A Methodist is a Baptist who wears shoes; a Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college; an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian who lives off his investments.”

Yet the non-churchgoing working class was anything but secular. The nineteenth century had reshaped the country’s geography, and many poor Americans found themselves living on the frontier and in the slums of industrial cities — places where there were few established churches to join. In these vacuums of religious authority, an alternative faith flourished. This faith found one vessel in revivalist sects such as the Pentecostals, whose itinerant preachers empowered working-class Christians to channel the divine by healing each other, making prophecies, and speaking in tongues. It found another, Drake argues, in a subversive understanding of Jesus, one that reimagined him as “a poor carpenter, a labor organizer, and advocate of anti-imperial working class revolution.”

The only church for this Jesus was the socialist movement. Political groups like the Knights of Labor and left-wing periodicals like Appeal to Reason already invoked a working-class Christ, quoting his Sermon on the Mount as a condemnation of greed and a cry of solidarity. Protestant ministers such as W. D. P. Bliss and Herbert Casson sympathized, and in the 1890s they began establishing “Labor churches” across the country. These were not ordinary churches: Bliss’s Boston congregation lived together, studied scripture together, ran a business together, and marched for workers together. Their goal was to model a new society, a shining Christian commonwealth — and to universalize that society through socialist politics.

This was an implicitly millenarian project, gazing past the charitable acts of “Churchianity” and toward the grand arrival of God’s kingdom. Yet crucially, it was a postmillennial one, in that it enjoined the faithful to build a just world as a precondition for Christ’s return. Radical Christians were to engage in politics, not withdraw from it. “It is utter nonsense to preach the gospel of individual conversation without adding the gospel of social regeneration,” as Casson wrote.

Drake documents the many ways America’s religious and political radicals collaborated during the 1890s and the 1900s. Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party relied on groups like the Christian Socialist Fellowship, hiring hundreds of ministers as organizers; by 1908, the Fellowship had moved its offices to the Party’s headquarters, where it published a paper that reached 500,000 readers. One of Debs’s evangelists, the former Catholic priest Thomas Hagerty, went on to cofound the Industrial Workers of the World. “IWW locals,” Drake writes, carried forward the mission of the labor churches, serving “as yet another set of cultural centers for discussion and debate on the principles of Christian justice.”

The partnership wasn’t completely beatific. Religious radicals sometimes clashed with orthodox Marxists in the unions and the Socialist Party, whose national officials endorsed an absolute separation of church and state in 1912. Nevertheless, Drake argues, Christian socialists proved themselves by expanding the groups’ rank and file, particularly among black workers in the South and Mexican immigrants in the West. Around the turn of the century, their influence was unmissable: Debs won hundreds of thousands of votes for president while calling his party a “holy alliance.”

The Social Gospel as the Grinch

Mainline Protestant churches couldn’t afford to ignore the working class any longer. “Socialism has become to thousands of men a substitute for the Church,” wrote the Presbyterian minister Charles Stelzle in 1907. Socialists were entering city halls and state legislatures across the country, and support for the party had risen sevenfold in just a few years. Given eight more years to rally voters, Stelzle predicted, “the Socialists will elect a President of the United States.”

Yet Drake shows that the old Protestant denominations didn’t just see Christian socialists as a threat — their most progressive clergymen realized that the radicals’ success was also a blueprint. An immigrant and former union machinist, Stelzle sensed more clearly than most that blending religion and politics could help repair Mainline Protestants’ relations with the working class. “Imagine,” he said, what would happen if “three hundred Christian men pledged to get up every Sunday morning at five o’clock … for the purpose of putting Christian literature into the Sunday morning newspaper or under the doorstep of working people,” as he had seen socialists do in the German American neighborhoods where he preached.

In 1908, Stelzle partnered with Josiah Strong to form the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), which aimed to unite thirty-three Protestant denominations around the mission of “social service.” The FCC ministers soon began to refer to their vision of social service as the “Social Gospel” — a term, Drake points out, they borrowed from Christian socialists. At first glance, the FCC seemed to have also adopted many of the Christian socialists’ priorities, from strengthening unions to combating racism and eliminating poverty. “Unstated,” however, “was their goal to create a mirage of American, Christian authority to counteract the growing public authority of socialists and Roman Catholics.”

The Social Gospel as counterrevolution: this is the contentious interpretation with which Drake makes her intervention. These days, most people think of the Social Gospel as a voice of conscience, the credo of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. For two historians writing in 1971, the movement “speaks of a social consciousness and mission that is being renewed in every succeeding generation.” For the religious scholar Heath W. Carter, it was “union made,” more a creation of labor than of high-ranking clergymen like Strong and Stelzle. Drake does not dispute that workers and unions advanced the Social Gospel. Instead, she asks: Which unions, and which workers?

Two years before the FCC got started, Stelzle was tapped to represent the ministry on the American Federation of Labor (AFL) Executive council. The AFL, headed by the conservative Samuel Gompers, mainly represented skilled, white, native-born craft workers; it was a fervent opponent of the IWW, whose strongest base was among the groups the AFL excluded.

The FCC’s first major project was an AFL-funded effort to dispatch missionaries to hundreds of the country’s workplaces. At lunchtime, on the shop floor, the group’s representatives would sing hymns, hand out trade union pamphlets, and encourage church membership. The message, as Drake summarizes it, reproduced the premise of Christian socialism but denied the conclusion: “Jesus was a humble carpenter who very well knew that socialism would never work.” Stelzle also copied the institution of the labor church, again with a subtle twist. He called it the New York Labor Temple, and he opened it in 1910 on the Lower East Side, in one of the nation’s most radical neighborhoods.

To Stelzle’s credit, the Labor Temple hosted famous socialists and welcomed an ideologically, ethnically, and religiously diverse community of working-class New Yorkers. Yet when radicals like Emma Goldman arrived to speak, the heavily moderated discussions always seemed to conclude that Christians should reject what the FCC’s first president, Frank Mason North, called the “class gospel.” And when the IWW organized the unemployed to take shelter in churches during the winter of 1914–1915, Stelzle accused them of “disregarding all … courtesy and decency” and “defiling” the sanctuary. In 1920, the Labor Temple’s fed-up Presbyterian landlords reorganized it to operate more like a normal church.

While the Labor Temple declined, the FCC consolidated its national standing, gradually reshaping the Social Gospel into a theology of welfare capitalism. Drake identifies the election of President Woodrow Wilson in 1912 as an important turning point. With a Presbyterian reformer in the White House, the FCC leaders gained the ear of the government and the donations of ultrarich Americans like John D. Rockefeller.

During World War I, their pulpits thundered with patriotic rhetoric and fell silent when the government began arresting IWW activists for sedition; after the war, the group even distanced itself from the AFL, supporting US Steel’s anti-labor “open shop” policy as the union tried to organize it. “The Church,” FCC minister Worth Tippy finally declared in 1919, should “use its vast educational force . . . uncompromisingly against the class struggle.”

A Fallen Kingdom

Though Drake’s narrative can sometimes make it feel like the FCC was always sinister and the Christian socialists always noble, she is careful to muddle the binary at key moments. No, promoting theocracy would not have benefited the Socialist Party in the long run, even if religious appeals bolstered its popularity in the late nineteenth century. And yes, the Social Gospel ministers genuinely wanted to help the poor, at least at first. The Protestant establishment wasn’t what ultimately beat back the advancing Left in the early twentieth century; that was the state crackdowns of World War I and the First Red Scare, which sent thousands of labor organizers and socialists to jail under criminal syndicalism, espionage, and sedition statutes.

Where Christian socialists once filled a vacuum of organized religion with politics, Social Gospel ministers inserted their creed into the space once occupied by the militant left. Church attendance was up sixfold by 1916, and “Social Gospel ministers represented themselves as the nation’s prophets of public service,” Drake writes. Their star turn would be brief, for right-wing Christian fundamentalists were already waiting in the wings.

Yet their ascendence nevertheless marked the defeat of the dream of the Christian commonwealth, which was but a particularly compelling instantiation of a broader ideal: that the people can morally reorganize society from top to bottom, ensuring that no one is deprived in service of another’s profit. Partly because the Social Gospel ministers replaced this vision with a “heroic narrative of Christian social services” administered by churches and charities, Drake argues, “most of our nation’s essential services to the poor remain privatized.”

We can appreciate this contrast through a final Christmas story. In December 1919, when the AFL was on strike against US Steel, an FCC-affiliated organization staged a massive Christmas pageant at Madison Square Garden, hiring 1,500 actors, 1,000 singers, and 75 musicians. Like Bellamy’s story, the play centered on time travel. Its protagonist was “the Wayfarer” — a downtrodden industrial worker, tempted by socialism, who is transported to the age of Christ. The playbill reads:

Revolution has shaken the industrial and social fabric to its very foundation. . . . Not a few question the ability of the Church to solve the problems of this new era. The Wayfarer represents this discouraged element. He is guided from despair to faith and service by Understanding, who interprets the presence of the living Christ in every age, triumphant over doubt and adversity.

“It was a Christmas pageant with a union-busting message,” Drake writes. Stranger still, it was a play about a transformative event that seemed to argue against the possibility of future transformation. Gone was Bellamy’s vision of “the instantaneous overthrow of the whole order of things.” Along with many early twentieth-century Americans, the Wayfarer learned not to remake his era in accordance with his personal understanding of Christ’s words; visiting with Jesus only taught him to trust in the wisdom of the Church.