Capitalism is historically American. Independence, individualism, and entrepreneurship are deeply held American beliefs. These qualities are not wrong, but they aren’t necessarily based on Christian teachings like we may think. I talk a little bit about my feelings about Christianity and capitalism HERE. I also explain a little about the Protestant work ethic HERE. These are great primers to this article.
America was in Reconstruction after the Civil War. As the country changed, so did technology. The rise of the Second Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age saw rapid expansion of textile and other factory industries. This led to exploitation of workers and incredible wealth transfers to the owners. Monopolies, government corruption, urbanization, and poverty was rampant. Christians in America had to look out for these new marginalized people.
New Ways To Work
What we think of work is a fairly new invention. Most of human history found themselves working for themselves – farmers, blacksmiths, hospitality, etc. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that the idea of large scale employees found a foothold. Factory work focused around the machines, and these machines needed many people to operate. At the turn of the 20th century, workers had no protection from their employers.
As these large companies grew, they started to eliminate competition by buying up or temporarily undercutting prices. This created monopolies and corruption, leaving desperate people without any alternatives. With the lack of protections, poor families were forced to send their children into the factories to make money. There were no weekends, holidays, or days off.
Uncovering the Powers
This progressive era of America lasted from the the 1890’s until the 1920’s and saw major reforms. Child labor laws and minimum wage were introduced. Labor unions fought for working hours and what know now as the weekend. A new genre of journalism – mudraking – was born. The injustice that workers were experiencing needed to be exposed.
However, what we see in the American Church might surprise you. The Church was, by large, in favor of social reform and unionizing. Christian leaders were not in favor of the large business owners, but rather worked for the poor and oppressed.
Theologian Shailer Mathews saw the injustice in the labor force and saw Jesus. More importantly, Shailer saw the lack of Jesus in the factories. He published an essay in 1897 titled “The Social Teaching of Jesus: An Essay in Christian Sociology” in which he wanted to show how Jesus might look at the society of the day. Shailer does not swing Right or Left – rather, forces the reader to make a hard decision about what they should do with wealth.
“Wealth is a public trust – a principle that is made no less true from the fact that its application to the various problems of any age must be left to the age itself. As in the teaching of Jesus in regard to the state, the first point to be settled is as to whether an existing economic institution or custom or effort tends to the establishment of fraternity. If it does not, the face of Christ is against it, and the only escape for his woe is to abolish whatever keeps its possessor from using it or producing it to the advantage of society.”
There are some pretty significant similarities between the gilded age and 2023. We see some of the same levels of wealth accumulation and large corporations holding too much power over our country and our daily lives. How do we ensure that the wealth from this nation is used as a public trust? How do we make choices in our lives in order to create a tight fraternity with our neighbors?